IF I HAD TO narrow down the day that I both singlehandedly treasure and regret the most, it would be the day that I officially met Jasper Reynolds.
Before he became a constant variable in my otherwise primitive life, I was flat lining cataclysmically toward a direction that led absolutely nowhere. I still have days when I can feel myself facing that direction, but the feeling isn’t ever as prominent when I’m around the ridiculous mess of a dirty blond-haired, green-eyed boy with the freckle under his left eye and birthmark shaped like a whale on his right forearm.
Truthfully, I was at a dark place in life during those days, especially for a small eighth grade girl who was expected to live her life to the fullest and attend those cheesy middle school dances that played those God-awful songs on the pop top 100 charts. Not to mention the plethora of prepubescent drama that managed to finagle its way into some unfortunate souls’ lives each time.
Even back then, I feared drama and ran away from it like I would run away from an axe murderer.
My only real friend came in the form of Meredith Billingsley, notorious mahogany-haired daredevil, known for talking back and just plain talking in general. We had hit it off in sixth grade when she and I unintentionally wore the same striped Aeropostale shirts on the same day, back when that was the cool place to shop, and apparently in Meredith’s mind, that made us soul mates. And thus, a friendship was born.
Meredith was a good friend, I’ll give her that. She was always dragging me out of the house, calling me up with the latest scoop at school, or inviting me to sleep over at her house so we could stay up until three in the morning watching rom coms and eating popcorn and having dance offs on her Wii. I guess you could call her my best friend, although she was friends with everybody. She still is, to be honest.
All was going well. But then she met an at-the-time freshman named River Fitzgerald, and things started progressing differently.
Everything was River this, River that, and slowly our friendship became undone at the seams, slowly and steadily loosening the thread that once bonded us together. There wasn’t any kind of official falling out, and to this day we still smile and say hi every time we see each other, promising to catch up sometime in the near future.
That never happens, of course, but it’s the thought that counts, I suppose.
Anyway, once they officially became an item near the end of eighth grade, suddenly River was everywhere. Trips to the movies now involved the three of us, me on the end, Meredith in the middle, and River on the other end, arm loosely strung around her shoulders. Sleepovers consisted of Meredith inviting me to sneak out with her late after her parents had gone to bed to meet up with River, to which I always declined and insisted that they have their alone time as a couple. That was partially due to the fact that I was unwilling to intrude and be the third wheel, and partially because I was terrified of getting caught and facing the repercussions of what I back then considered to be such reckless behavior.
One day, Meredith had insisted that I come along to the kickoff of the annual summer-long Abilene carnival with her, River, and a friend of River’s who happened to be in our grade. I asked who this mysterious friend was, but she had refused to tell me and insisted that I would have a lot of fun regardless. I wasn’t thrilled, but our friendship was fading right before my eyes and I was willing to cling on to what few things she did invite me to anymore those days, so I obliged, albeit slightly reluctant.
I still remember that day. It was late May, just before school let out for the summer, and it was on the hazy and humid side. The clouds hung thickly in the air and the heat promised to have you dripping with sweat streaks within the hour. I wore a pair of denim shorts and a T-shirt with a pair of cheap Old Navy flip flops, my medium-length hair tied out of my face in a ponytail. When my aunt, Colleen, dropped me off and the familiar sight of the old Ferris wheel was finally bursting with life once again, I had expected the day to consist of me third wheeling as I did a lot lately with Meredith, River, and this time whatever friend River was dragging along.
I hadn’t expected to see my next door neighbor, whom I had never once before conversed with, but knew of him quite easily. Everyone knew him.
His name was Jasper and he stuck out like a sore thumb everywhere he went. But the funny thing is that even though he was different, everyone knew his name and everyone liked him. He was an easygoing guy from what I had gathered, and though I had never personally been to any of his games, I heard he had a real knack for playing soccer. I guess you could safely refer to him as popular, though he was popular in a different way than the other kids at school.
For starters, he has a service dog that stays glued to his side wherever he goes; a cute female Border Collie named Champ. Champ has been practically joined to his hip ever since seventh grade when his parents got her. You see, Jasper has type 1 diabetes, meaning his pancreas can’t produce the insulin his body needs on its own. Because of this, he wears an insulin pump almost full time and his days consist of pricking the side of his finger at least three times daily to ensure that his blood sugar level is okay.
The problem is that Jasper can be forgetful and can’t always tell when his blood sugar is too high or too low, resulting in something called hypoglycemia unawareness. For this reason, he has Champ at his side most of the time because she’s been specially trained to smell the chemical changes that take place in his body when his blood sugar level begins to plummet dangerously low and signal him about the issue by nudging him with her nose.
So anyway, I was waiting near the entrance at the carnival when I saw Meredith and River walking up with Jasper, Champ in tow on a red leash. My initial reaction was fear due to the fact that I hadn’t ever spoken to Jasper, and he kind of freaked me out with his admittedly attractive looks and diabetes thing, not to mention the fact that he had so many friends, like Meredith.
It was weird; the only times we ever recognized each other’s existence was when we accidentally made eye contact in the halls at school, or when we’d get home at the same time and see each other. But never before had we acknowledged the other person’s existence past that. As soon as our eyes would meet, mine would always flit toward the ground, embarrassed to have even made that much interaction.
And yet I was expected to spend the whole day walking around with him at the carnival?
Meredith introduced us—officially—and the four of us walked and talked with each other for an hour or so up until Meredith finally announced that she wanted to ride the Ferris wheel with River, which wouldn’t have been a problem if it would have seated four people and I didn’t have a deathly fear of Ferris wheels. But unluckily for me, our Ferris wheel was a two-seater and I had no intentions of ever riding the contraption, which meant that I had to go off alone with some boy in my grade who had to carry a service dog everywhere he went and was not lacking in the appearance department whatsoever, an evident contrast to my entirely unimpressive and, if anything, undesirable looks.
I had no business being there with Jasper, and I was absolutely terrified of initiating conversation with him out of fear that he would find me to be some kind of awkward idiot who was unworthy of his time or something. I managed to pass the whole hour without once speaking to him, only acknowledging Meredith and, occasionally, River. And suddenly it was just us.
“So what do you wanna do?” Jasper had asked me in his cool voice, apparently way more comfortable with the situation than I was. I kept my head down and dragged my toe along the dewy grass, shrugging nonchalantly.
“You okay?” he had asked me, actual concern seeping into his voice.
I replied with a timid, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“I mean, it’s okay if you’re not,” he added, surprising me and causing my heartbeat to flutter in my chest.
After that, I felt a little bit better, though it was still indisputably bizarre that I was walking next to Jasper Reynolds at a carnival.
“Hey, daydreaming again. Surprise surprise,” a voice teases from my window, reeling me back into the present day, pre-senior year. I turn toward Jasper as he effortlessly climbs inside my room, swinging first his right leg, then his left leg inside. He’s been coming in that way for years now, climbing up the tree that’s conveniently placed right by the low roof over the back patio right outside my window.
Aunt Colleen is accustomed to us not using the front door when we enter and exit my room by now, despite her insistence that really, it’s okay to come in through the front door like normal people, honest.
My face instantly lights up and I push myself out of the spinning chair in front of my paint-chipped white desk and stand up, unashamed of my striped pajama shorts and tank top that constitute my outfit for the day.
“Hey you,” I greet, sending a dimpled grin his way and brushing a lock of hair that falls in my face behind my ear. “What’s up?”
“Just came to wish my best friend a happy last first day of the month together. And I may or may not be going crazy from boredom as my mom sorts through all the stuff in the attic.”
My smile falters. “Stop, Jasper. You swore you wouldn’t talk about it.”
He sighs in defeat, taking a seat on the white comforter of my bed. “I know, I’m sorry.”
I fold my arms over my chest and prop my back against the sky blue wall beside my closet, eyes glazing out of focus as I try not to let the words of my best friend eat me alive and spit me out with vengeance, leaving me in a state where I’m shriveled and disheveled and perpetually alone with only the residue of what was once taken for granted remaining.
On August thirty-first, exactly thirty days—seven hundred twenty hours—away, Jasper and his parents will be moving away from the small bayside town of Abilene, North Carolina, all the way to Australia, thanks to his parents’ marine biologist job which is apparently more useful out there than it is right here.
My best friend and the only person I talk to, gone.
As much as it makes me sick thinking about it, there is nothing in my or Jasper’s power that we can do to prevent it. Their house has already been sold to some family with two kids, half of their belongings now reside in brown cardboard boxes strewn haphazardly around every nook and cranny visible, and I feel an eternal sinking feeling in my stomach every time I think about it, a sure reassurance that this isn’t imagined.
I know that I should probably be ecstatic for the great opportunity and fresh beginning that his family has been blessed with, but honestly I’m too selfish to be anything but depressed about it. I mean, who else will I take with me when I want to walk over to The Book Nook, that little bookstore on Main Street, the one with the tiny little coffee stand in the corner where Jasper always goes while I browse through the books? Or who will be there to make work a little less unbearable while I’m serving food at our local seafood place, Sunken Treasure? Who will invite me to sit with them during lunch at school?
He runs his hands along the surface of my bedspread and I watch them distantly, entranced by my thoughts. Right now is one of the few times he’s without Champ, and I figure that he probably checked on his blood sugar level right before coming over. The only occasions that Jasper Reynolds is ever seen without Champ at his side is when he’s working at Sunken Treasure since the job involves him giving people food, when he climbs into my room since he lives right next door and it’s never been an issue before, when he’s playing soccer, or when he’s in the water. He even sleeps with Champ curled up by his side; it’s a really precious sight.
A precious sight that I won’t get to witness for much longer.
I look at him and the corners of my mouth droop into a frown.
The thing about Jasper is that it can be intimidating to have him for a best friend. He’s beautiful in all the right ways, and then you look at me and it’s disconcerting. He’s a freckled constellation of stars that you can’t help but admire; the first creamy spoonful of ice cream on a hot summer day that can refresh you by his mere presence. His heart pumps blood with trace amounts of pure gold and is held together by a solid framework of love; the real, genuine kind that oozes from every fiber of his being. He’s the kind of person who would walk in the rain just so you can use his umbrella, and I’ve never once heard him use any kind of foul language, a direct result of his regular church attendance.
If you look up the definition of “good” in the dictionary, a clear image of Jasper Reynolds’ dazzling smile would pop up, most likely wearing that old blue polo that he likes to wear in pictures so much because he claims it makes him appear more photogenic than he actually is. If you look me up in the dictionary, you’d probably find my name in small print under the word “pathetic” or “failure,” no picture necessary. That’s just the way it is.
Admittedly, Jasper hates when I think things like that. He’s constantly reminding me that I’m too important to have such ridiculous thoughts of myself, but he doesn’t get it. No matter how hard he tries to commiserate, he’ll never know what it’s like. In his mind, everything is simple; black and white. His parents are together and normal folks who love each other and go to church every Sunday and have normal jobs and normal lives and would welcome anyone into their home that needs help. His life is ridiculously easy, minus the diabetes thing but he even wins with that because he gets to carry Champ around with him everywhere he goes on a leash and get all the girls’ attention because of it, something that he secretly eats up.
“Lexi,” I hear him say from across the room, snapping me out of my thoughts. I promptly lift my head to look at him.
“You’re doing the thing again. Your I’m-deep-in-thought face. What is it this time, ice cream or that new book you got the other day?”
I roll my eyes at his attempt to lighten the mood, taking a step in front of my closet so I can pick out a change of more socially acceptable clothing, and begin rummaging through hangers.
“Ice cream for sure. I already finished that book like two days ago.”
“Didn’t you only get it two days ago?”
“Three. And thanks to you, I really want ice cream now. Good going.”
I can feel him staring at me.
I pretend to absorb myself in picking out a shirt from my closet, ignoring the tone in his voice. I know that tone; it’s his I’m-about-to-have-a-confrontation voice. I hate that voice.
“You read a whole book in one day. And how many pages was it? Four hundred?”
“Three hundred thirteen,” I mutter defensively.
“Okay, you read three hundred thirteen pages in one day. That’s more than I’ve read all summer. Don’t you think you should be going out and doing teenager-y stuff these last few days of summer? Listen, it’s August first. We have one month left until school starts up, and only one month together until I—”
“Don’t you dare say it,” I cut him off.
He frowns at me. “I want this less than you do, okay? But you can’t ignore it. The fact of the matter is that on August thirty-first, I’m leaving. And Lexi, I want you to be happy here when I’m gone. I can’t move halfway across the globe with the thought that you’re spending your days holed up in here reading when you should be out experiencing life and making memories. Think of it as you writing the pages of your own book.”
“Stop, Jas,” I warn quietly. “We’re not having this discussion. Let’s go to that little coffee shop that just opened up down the road and grab a bite to eat or something. I’m starving.”
He stares at me with a look of concern for several seconds, and I swear I can see the internal debate unfolding right before my eyes.
Finally, he sighs in defeat, stands up, walks over to my closet, and grabs a faded yellow shirt from one of the hangers. “Wear this one,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite shirts on you.”
“Hello world. My name is Jasper Reynolds and I’m currently walking to a local coffee shop with my best friend and life inspiration, Alexandra Marie Callaghan, as together we embark on the documentation of the final days of our mutual kinship before I am forcibly relocated to some irrelevant province somewhere in Australia. Any words for the general public who are watching your debut right now, Alexandra?”
Jasper balls his free hand into a fist and holds it in front of my mouth as a makeshift microphone, pointing the lens of his very treasured and very expensive video camera at me. He likes talking formally to the camera because for some reason, he thinks it makes him seem more professional.
Personally, I think it just makes him sound overly pretentious and annoying.
“How many times have you heard me say how much I hate when people call me by my full name?” I all but groan. I shove his fist away from my mouth and ignore the pang of dejection that pricks at my stomach at the mere mention of his impending departure.
“Right, she prefers to be called Lexi. Take notes, folks. This girl here is going to be the next sensation. You heard it from me, first.”
“Except ‘this girl’ has no desire to become an actress,” I point out. I make a feeble attempt to block the lens with my hand so he can stop recording me, but he jerks the camera away from my reach.
It’s been like this all summer. Jasper is an aspiring film director, and he’s been making me be the central focus in front of the camera for months, claiming that it’s for some big project that he’s working on. So far he’s only gotten footage of me trying to push the camera away, casual conversations that aren’t exciting enough to incorporate in whatever film he’s trying to piece together, and the occasional clip of me doing something that he swears up and down to be cutesy that he manages to catch when I’m not looking.
I don’t think he grasps the concept that I’m probably the lamest person he could choose to make his summer project, despite my insistence otherwise.
“As I was saying”—he turns the camera around so it can capture his mock irritated expression—“we’re walking together to a local coffee place whose name I will not disclose for confidentiality purposes.”
I snort. “Right, because we don’t want your widespread panel of viewers to find out where you live in case they decide to stalk you.”
A dramatic sigh escapes his nasal passage and he shakes his head. “I’m doing this for your protection, dearest Lexi. I don’t want the scumbag boys across America to get any ideas.”
My mouth stays thoughtfully shut as we continue onward. I don’t mention the fact that that would involve said scumbag boys actually noticing me, something that never happens with anyone of the opposite gender, aside from Jasper.
He pauses by a bench that rests in front of a hardware store and sits the camera that’s still recording on it before walking back over to rejoin me where I’m standing a couple feet away.
“What are you doing?” I ask, my voice skeptical. “Someone could steal that, dummy.”
“No they won’t. And I want to get a clip of us walking, like, normally. You know, like they do in the movies. For dramatic effect. Just for several feet and then I’ll turn around and get it.”
My protest dies in my throat as he excitedly grabs my hand and I try to ignore the tingles that spread from my palms and traverse to my heart. We’ve held hands plenty of times by now, but lately I’ve been really memorizing the way his hand molds together in mine like how the words fit together in a book; starting off as something that is nothing more than a simple concept or idea on its own, just another part of speech like an adjective or a verb, but becomes a whole story full of infinite life and wonder when combined together. I guess that likewise, I’m just another noun on my own; another person going about life without really living. The only time I get to be part of a story is when I’m put together with Jasper, because he is a story.
A walking, breathing story.
Oblivious to my internal feeling of sentiment, he continues walking, Champ’s leash clutched tightly in his one hand, and my fingers interlocked with his other hand. “You do know that I fully plan to make this the best month of your life, right?” He twists his neck to look at me expectantly.
I smile involuntarily and tuck a strand of hair behind my ear. “If you say so.”
He stops walking.
“Okay, I think we’re good. Lemme go grab the camera and then we’ll get something to eat.”
“’Kay. Oh, and you kind of have to pay. I just realized I forgot to bring money.”
He turns to me with a devious smile. “Forgot to bring money,” he scoffs teasingly. “That’s what happened.”
Before I can react, he unlatches our hands and quickly hooks his arms around me to tickle my sides, causing me to squeal and giggle uncontrollably as his fingers brush my skin. I’ve always been extremely susceptible to ticklishness.
“S-stop!” I manage to shriek, spluttering from laughing so hard and slightly embarrassed when a couple who appears a few years older glances at us a little ways away, shooting an unreadable expression at each other. After what feels like an eternity in tickle time, he finally does, though he has a bright look in his eyes and his whole demeanor is smiling.
He thinks that me being tickled is the funniest thing in the world.
I try to catch my breath and straighten out, giving him a weak shove.
“Don’t do that!” I reprimand. He just grins and throws an arm around my shoulder, pulling me into him. Champ watches us from her spot on the ground, blinking lazily. Clearly she isn’t as amused as Jasper is, though her tail is wagging which signifies that she’s happy nonetheless.
“Ya gotta lighten up,” he says, squeezing my shoulder. An unfamiliar swarm of butterflies suddenly take flight from my chest and flutter together toward the pit of my stomach. “Life’s too short. Now let’s go grab my camera before someone takes it. I can’t afford to buy a new one since I’m covering all your food expenses, jerk.”