JUST FOR THE RECORD, it was Jasper’s idea to camp out in a tent in our backyards tonight, not mine. Although secretly, and I would never admit this to Jasper, I’m happy we’re doing it.
“There’s no moon tonight, so there will be like a billion stars in the sky,” is his reasonable explanation. “Plus, it’ll be fun. No distractions, just me and my best friend, living the easy life. We can even make s’mores!”
It’s nearly eleven at night, and by this point, both of our families have gone to bed, wishing us the best on our camping adventure and reminding us not to get bit up by mosquitos. We’re currently posed around the mini campfire Jasper built in the sand, hands sticky with gooey marshmallow remnants and mouths stained with melted chocolate. I polish off the last bite of my s’more and dust off my hands over the crackling fire.
“That,” Jasper says pointedly, “was a fantastic idea. You’re welcome.”
I shake my head, unable to hide the smile that etches onto my face. “Okay, fine. Great thinking, O Wonderful Savior Jasper Reynolds.”
He breathes a laugh and gets quiet for a moment, and then a thought plants itself in his head and he shoots forward. “I have another idea, and you’re not gonna like it but it’s always secretly been on my bucket list and it’s probably secretly on yours too because it’s secretly on everyone’s bucket list, and I think we should do it.”
“Do what?” I ask skeptically, already not liking where this is going.
“Skinny dipping!” he exclaims. Before I even have time to protest, he’s already going on trying to sell it. “Listen, I know you’re weird about that stuff, but I’ll go in first and you can turn away when I go in, and I’ll turn away when you get in. We don’t have to see anything, because that’s not the point of doing it; it’s just the principle that we can say we’ve done it.”
The normal kid in me kind of wants to do it, but the not-normal kid in me—the real me—just can’t.
“Jasper, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that,” I say, staring down at the fire. That’s a level of vulnerability that I am unwilling to attain. I can’t do it. No way.
He comes around to where I’m sitting and rests a hand on my back, letting his fingers splay over the cotton fabric of my oversized T-shirt. “Hey,” he says softly. I keep my eyes trained on the fire, refusing to look at him. Refusing to look the awkwardness I inadvertently placed on the situation in the eye. “I’m not going to make you do anything you don’t want to, okay? But I just think you should try to do normal kid things to see that you’re not as far off as you think. I think it would be fun, but if you don’t, I will respect that. I just wish you weren’t so self-conscious all the time. I’m never going to judge you, remember? It’s just me, Lex. It’s just Jasper.”
I wish I could tell him that it’s not his judgment I fear. Part of me wants to do this with him, it really does. But a bigger part of me shuts this idea down. It has to.
“You can, if you want,” I say. “I’m gonna hang back.”
He sighs. “Okay, fine. But you have to at least get in with me if I do this.” I open my mouth to protest and he cuts me off. “I don’t wanna swim alone, Lexi! Come on, this will be a fun adventurous thing for us to do together. Don’t you wanna be adventurous?”
“I don’t want to be wet and sticky when I go to bed,” I counter.
He smiles deviously. “All the more reason to skinny dip with me! If you leave your clothes on the shore, you can dry off when you get out and they’ll be dry too!”
Somehow, I find myself faltering already. About the swimming, not skinny dipping. This idiot can make any stupid idea sound alluring with enough convincing.
“Turn around,” he instructs after laying out two towels.
I smile and shake my head, doing as told until the quiet splash permeates the air that signals that he’s jumped in. I wait for him to resurface so I can call him out for being the total idiot that he is, but several seconds tick by and there’s no sign of him.
Do not play this game with me, I think darkly, getting annoyed. I’ve seen this ploy used in books and movies enough times to know what he’s trying to do.
After about twenty seconds have lapsed and there is still no sign of him, I start getting antsy, and it’s at about the thirty second mark that I finally whip off my T-shirt and shimmy out of my running shorts, leaving me in nothing more than a sports bra and underwear, and dive in, frantically calling his name.
I hold my breath and go under, reaching all around me desperately, trying to locate my best friend, to no avail. My hands sweep the muddy bottom of the bay, and I dart all around, heart hammering in my chest. No no no. After several long and painful seconds, the burning in my lungs forces me to resurface for more air, and when I finally do, the triumphant figure of a sopping wet Jasper stands several feet away, grinning like he just scored the winning goal in a soccer game.
“Don’t do that!” I practically shout at him, my previous feeling of panic transforming into one of frustration. “I’m serious, J, that wasn’t funny.”
Now he can tell that I’m upset, and he swims closer, his face contorting into something apologetic. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out so badly,” he says. “I just wanted you to jump in with me.”
I glare at him for a few more seconds, just to get the point across. Not okay.
“But hey,” he adds, “you took your shirt and shorts off, which for you is basically the equivalent of skinny dipping. So that’s kind of a win.”
He’s right, but I don’t acknowledge it. Instead I squat down so the water comes up to my neck, obscuring my body from view. Jasper comes and swims beside me, keeping a reasonable distance between us considering, you know, he’s wearing literally nothing.
I stare up at the stars to distract me from this slightly unnerving thought and realize he was right about one thing: there sure are a lot of them visible tonight.
A few moments traverse by, cloaked in a comfortable silence.
“Do you think I’ll like it there?” he asks quietly, voice drifting through the night air like a delicate gust of wind.
I know he’s referring to Australia. All I can do is shrug. “I imagine so. With your personality, you’d get on well with a brick wall if it could talk back to you.”
This does little to quell his nerves. “You think the Australians will want to waste their time befriending the service dog-carrying diabetic new kid with an American accent?” he asks, skeptic.
“Duh,” I say lightly. “Everyone wants to be friends with the foreign new kid; it’s probably the only real taste most of them will ever get of that culture. Besides, accents are fun. To them, we’re the ones with weird accents. They’ll adore you. And Champ.”
The water splishes and splashes beneath us as we float in place, and several yards away, the sound of a fish jumping out of the water slices through the warm air. Crickets chirp from our backyards, nature’s great symphony. All around us, we’re surrounded by summertime, sweet summertime, and somehow it registers that in the future I’m going to look back at this particular moment with Jasper and miss it. I’m suddenly overtaken by a swelling of that strange feeling you get when you’re nostalgic for a moment while you’re still living it, and instead of feeling happy to still be in the moment, I’m sad that it’s only fleeting.
“So you never told me,” Jasper says. “What did you and Meredith talk about yesterday?”
“Oh,” I mumble. “Just how we should try to be better friends again, like old times. She thinks she and River are gonna break up before he starts college.”
He nods his head. “Yeah, I think we all saw that one coming. I could tell things had changed between them.” Like how things are changing between us.
I slowly start paddling toward shore, but Jasper shoots forward and latches onto my wrist, stopping me. “Let’s stay out here for a few more minutes,” he says. “This is probably our last time night swimming together for a while. I want to enjoy it.”
I chew my lip, nodding quietly and trying to block out his use of that dreadful word. Last.
Somehow, despite the fact that I’m looking out at the rippling bay and not at him, I feel the gravity of his gaze focused on me, and it makes me squirm. Can’t you stare at something else? I want to say. I don’t want to be seen so intently.
It’s all I can do not to let out an aggravated sigh. Why does he have to say things like that?
“Jasper, come on—”
“I’m serious,” he says. I can tell by the look on his face that he means it. “You are amazing, and you don’t need me around for people to see that about you.”
I want to believe it. I want to take what he’s saying and accept it as truth and let it rest at that. But I can’t. It’s seared into my brain, their ugly, terrible words, and try as I might, I can’t clear them out. Worthless. Dumb. Soulless. Difficult. Boring. Selfish. Pathetic.
And when your own father is the one who feeds some of those words into your head and perpetuates these ideas, you start to believe them until they consume and become you.
“Lex, whatever screwy things that happened in your past, they do not define you,” he continues. “If you’re not going to talk about them, fine, but don’t give them the power to hurt you. You’re better than that.”
Better. What a lovely word, implying that it is, in fact, possible to improve.
For a split second, I consider opening up to him. I consider painting him a picture of the messed up stuff that dwells permanently in my mind. But only for a split second. Because thinking of telling him is one thing, but actually gathering the words to say it out loud is completely different. I’ve never spoken about it before, and at this point, I’m not sure that I even have the words to try.
“Trust me, J, I’m working on it,” I say.
Work harder, a voice in my head throws back.
After that, he lets it drop, though I know that it’s never far from his consciousness. He tilts his head back and stares up at the sky, and I watch as he lets himself get lost in a black sea of stars and galaxies, just like Meredith did yesterday in Europa. You’re the beautiful one, I want so desperately to tell him, but the words feel thick and heavy in my throat, and they get stuck there, unable to escape.
I’ve never actually vocalized how much Jasper’s friendship truly means to me before, and as my days with him diminish, I keep feeling this reoccurring sense of urgency to tell him. I know he knows that he means a lot to me, but he has no idea the extent to which his friendship has played a role in my life. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d have given up long before.
“Hey Jasper—” I say at the same time he says “You know what I realized?”
I take this as a sign to give up trying, unsure I’d adequately find the words anyway, and say, “What?”
“Wait, were you gonna say something?” he asks.
I wave it away. “Another time. What did you realize?”
“Oh yeah. I realized that you’re the only person I’m always one hundred percent myself around. With everyone else, it’s like I always put on a little act to some extent. Nothing too monumental, but different people know slightly different variations of Jasper Reynolds. My dad gets the tough and sporty version. My mom gets the soft and health-conscious version. The people at school get the cool and collected version. But you just see it like it is. That’s why you’re my best friend. You see me for who I am and you stay anyway.”
I watch him guardedly and he just has a content look on his face, and I swear all that goes through my mind after he says this is God I love you. It would probably do him good if I actually said that out loud, too, the way he always tells me that he loves me. But of course, when I go to try, the word lodges itself in my throat and for the second time, I’m incapable of telling him what a treasure he is to me.
But I have to try. He deserves that.
“It’s funny,” I say. “When I first came here, I honestly didn’t think that I would make a single friend. It’s a miracle that Meredith somehow finagled her way into my life, because I wasn’t going to go out of my way to befriend anyone. I remember the first time Aunt Colleen pointed you out to me, you were running outside chasing some neighborhood kids wearing a red cape and a cowboy hat and she said ‘That’s Jasper Reynolds. He’s a really good boy, you should be friends with him!’ At the time, I thought, no way that boy would ever want to be friends with me. It only took half a day at my new school to figure out who the cool people were, and you were obviously among them. I read enough books by then to know that cool and popular people definitely did not associate with quiet nobodies, so I figured, why bother trying? And then that day at the carnival happened a few years later, and I swear to God I panicked when I first saw that you were the person Meredith and River had invited. I thought for sure you were going to think I was a loser. But then you surprised me by being the nicest person I’ve met since I’ve been to Abilene, and honestly you’ve continued to be full of pleasant surprises ever since.”
I know that this is not an adequate summarization of how much he means to me, but it’s the most I’ve revealed about my past to him yet. That’s something. And judging by the stunned look on his face, he thinks it’s something, too.
“Lexi, nobody thinks you’re a loser. It’s all in your head, I promise. Sure, people think you’re a little reserved, but nobody is judging you that harshly,” Jasper says. “Except maybe Avery,” he adds as an afterthought, recalling that day at the grocery store when she went a little berserk. “But screw her, she’s the worst.”
I crack a smile at my opening to lighten the mood. “I still can’t believe you ditched me for four whole months to be with her.” This is still, to this day, a sensitive subject for Jasper. Although he didn’t entirely ditch me, Avery had made it known that she did not want him spending more time with me than he did with her, and she made sure to suck up every ounce of spare time they had to be together, essentially leaving me in the dust.
Jasper groans. “It was a dark time, I was young and naïve. Never again though. If whoever my next girlfriend is can’t handle me being close with you, she’s gotta go.”
Assuming we’re still close by then.
“Okay, I’m getting out,” I announce, stroking my way toward shore. I stay low under the water, hiding my mostly exposed body underwater for as long as possible until I have to stand up. When I do, I keep my back to him but I swear I feel Jasper’s eyes glued to me, and the feeling makes my stomach tighten. I make a quick grab for a towel and wrap myself in it, covering my body.
I look out at Jasper and smirk when I realize that the getting out process isn’t quite so simple for him since the idiot decided to go skinny dipping. “You getting out?” I call out to him teasingly, an innocent expression on my face.
He just shakes his head and laughs. “Remember all those times I turned away while you were getting changed?” he calls back. “Yeah, my turn. I know you wanna see all of this, but look away, Callaghan!”
I breathe a laugh and turn my back to him, staring out toward the direction of his family’s backyard. By the dock, The Explorer bobs lazily in the night, and I reflect on all the boating excursions Jasper’s parents have taken us on. We’ve spent many a day lazing on that boat, fishing, recording clips of each other with Jasper’s video camera, or just sitting at the bow, talking about everything and nothing simultaneously. Another odd prickling of nostalgia bites at my ankles.
“Okay, I’m good,” Jasper calls. I turn around and he’s sitting by the now dying campfire, adding firewood and lighter fluid to rebuild it, wearing his shorts once again, but no shirt. Subconsciously, I wrap my towel tighter around my body and join him by the fire.
“So like, when are we going to bed?” I have to ask it. We both have lunch shifts at Sunken Treasure tomorrow, and I’d prefer to be as rested up for that as possible.
Jasper, on the other hand, has a different idea.
“Who says we’re going to bed?”
“Maybe tomorrow’s work schedule?” I try.
He sighs. “Don’t you ever wish that your body didn’t need sleep? That you would have an endless supply of time to do all the things in the world that you want to?”
I shrug. “It’s just the way of the world, I guess.”
Jasper isn’t satisfied with this remark. “Well the way of the world sucks. We have all this potential life to live, and yet nearly a third of it gets wasted to unconsciousness. What good is that?”
“That’s where a lot of creativity comes from, though. Apparently, Einstein’s theory of relativity came to him in a dream about cows being electrocuted,” I counter, recalling a report I did on the subject back in eighth grade.
He just shakes his head. “I wish I had dreams about scientific breakthroughs, but instead I just dream about school and soccer. Lame.”
I smile and shake my head at him. At a glance, he seems so unremarkable. Just another boy with normal interests and normal traits. But to me, he is anything but. To me, he is molecules of stardust all combined in just the right arrangement to create a fiery nebula in all different shades and colors. He’s the happily ever after in a fairytale story. The lullaby that eases even the stormiest of souls into a state of comfort and tranquility.
We sit around the campfire in silence for a while longer, lost in our thoughts. Eventually, our bodies dry and Jasper throws his shirt on over his head and I change back into my clothes from earlier, and we make our way inside of the tent. Two sleeping bags that we previously laid out, along with a small heap of pillows, are waiting for us eagerly, looking delightfully cushiony and luxurious to my sleepy eyes. We get situated in our respective sleeping bags, and Jasper dims the little lantern we brought until it’s barely visible inside.
“When you wake up with a sore back, just remember this was all your idea,” I tease playfully as I adjust myself on the hard ground, despite the efforts of all the pillows.
“When you have the fond memory of camping outside with your very best friend burned into your brain, just remember, this was all my idea,” he singsongs back gleefully.
I smile. “Goodnight, Jasper.”
Of course, that’s not the immediate end of our conversation. We continue cracking jokes back and forth, and musing on what our plans for tomorrow are, until eventually our sleepiness gets in the way and even Jasper, despite his previous anti-sleep sentiment, finds himself turning in for the night.
“Come on little Alexandra,” a man with a mischievous glint in his eye purrs, slipping in my bedroom and shutting the door behind him. “Let’s you and me have some fun.”
“No,” I wail, trembling vehemently as my back skims the wall behind me, caging me in.
“Don’t you worry, I’ll show you what to do,” he says, his voice low and gruff.
My heart hammers in my chest, and I cower against the wall opposite of where he’s standing, reaching over to turn off the light switch. As he does so, I notice he’s recently added a tattoo to his sleeve collection on his left arm, the latest of which being a hungry-looking wolf on his forearm.
“Now, take your pants off,” he says, already inching closer.
“No,” I pronounce slowly, the color draining from my face. Did my dad let him come back here?
He moves forward and sits on the bed, mere inches away from me, and the bed dips with his weight. “So we’re gonna be a bad little girl, that right?” His piercing blue eyes stare daggers at me, and there’s a kind of hunger in them that reminds me of a predator about to attack its prey. Like a hungry wolf about to feed on a helpless bunny.
“Please,” I begin to sob.
The man leans in so close that I can smell the liquor he’s been drinking all night on his breath. “Give me your hand.”
“Come on, little Alexandra,” he coos. He’s so close now, I can see every single one of the pores on his face. “Touch me.”
“No!” I scream.
“Lexi, shh, it’s okay, it’s just me, Jasper,” a new, present voice soothes. Before I know it, I’m wrapped up in his arms, shaking with residual fear. “I’m right here, it was just a bad dream.”
No, it wasn’t, my brain screams.
Actual tears are pooling down my cheeks now. “I-I’m sorry,” I sputter, heart pounding in my chest as I take in the surroundings around me. It’s sometime in the middle of the night, and I am in the tent in Aunt Colleen’s backyard, with Jasper, and only Jasper. “I didn’t—I—”
“Shh.” He rests his chin on my head and hugs me closer to him, his fingers traversing up and down my arms in soothing motions. “Just relax. You’re safe.”
Safe. The word has been a reality for nearly seven years now, and it still feels like a foreign concept; too good to actually be true. Safe from them physically, maybe. But mentally—emotionally—they’re always there, mocking me, degrading me, hurting me. I remember everything, and the memories feel rotten and decrepit, their filth littering my mind.
“Jasper,” I whisper, the emotion thickening up just those two simple syllables. My voice acts as the bony arm of a prisoner locked away in a metal cell, reaching out desperately in hopes of being rescued, but I don’t have the proper words to meet him halfway and tell him exactly what I need to be rescued from the prison that is my mind. The shackles of my past hold me back.
“I’m right here,” he whispers back, giving my bicep a gentle squeeze. “Do you want to talk about it?”
I shake my head.
“Do you want me to talk about something that’ll help you forget?” he offers.
Staring straight ahead at the little flap of window on our tent that overlooks the bay rippling tranquilly several feet away, I feel my heart twist. “I just want it to go away,” I babble, only semi-aware that I probably sound like a madwoman. “I don’t want to think about it anymore.”
“Think about what, Lex?” Jasper prods. “What’s bothering you?”
I stifle a sob. Try as I might, I can’t say it. I can’t utter the words to describe it. That dream—that nightmare—only intensified the mental image of a display I’ve spent years trying to scrub clean from my memory.
My brows draw together as a new realization takes shape. “He knew.”
“Who knew? What are you talking about, Lex?”
I ignore Jasper as something terrible belatedly registers in my mind. My dad knew what his friends were doing with me. They didn’t come into my room to read bedtime stories or ask if I needed anything. And he did nothing to stop it.
A churning sensation bubbles up in my stomach and I rip the zipper to the tent down with a quick jerk, lean my head outside, and vomit. Jasper’s hand lands on my back and he brushes my hair away from my face and holds it out of the way with his other hand.
“I’m here,” he soothes, rubbing my back. “I’m with you. It’s okay.”
No it’s not, I want to cry out.
When I finish throwing up, Jasper passes me one of the Gatorades we brought out with us and I sip it thirstily, cheeks rosy with embarrassment. The crying has subsided marginally, but not enough to cover it up altogether. Pathetic.
“Lexi, talk to me,” Jasper pleads. “What was your dream about? And who knew what? Your dad?”
For the second time in the last couple days, the thought resurfaces: I want to die.
They didn’t think I had a worthy existence, so why should I?
“I’m sorry,” I choke out. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, Lex. It’s okay. I’m not mad at you, I just wish you would tell me what’s going through your mind right now.”
I want to tell him that no, he doesn’t want to know what’s going through my mind. He would never look at me the same if he did. He already sees me as weak and defenseless; no need adding this catalyst to the equation.
“I can’t,” I whisper, my voice fading out into oblivion like dandelion seeds being blown away, carrying unspoken wishes with them.
“I love you, Lexi, and whatever is bothering you, that’s not going to change that,” Jasper says.
“Is it possible to be haunted by someone who’s still alive?” I find myself asking.
He looks perplexed by this question, and I realize how crazy I sound. “I think you can be haunted by anything that’s hurt you in the past,” he answers. “Who hurt you, Lexi? Was it your dad? Did he do something?”
I shake my head. I can’t be having this conversation. Not now. Not with him.
“I’m sorry I woke you,” I say, my voice coming out hollow and very un-Lexi-like. “I’m fine. It was just a dream. Let’s go back to bed.”
Jasper hesitates, and I can see the internal conflict brewing in his sea green eyes. He wants me to reach out to him. But he doesn’t want to push me to do so out of fear of making things worse. You can only push someone for so long before they fall over the edge completely.
I make a move toward my sleeping bag, but he stops me short, grabbing my shoulders and pulling me into a bear hug. I’m taken a bit off guard, but I find myself nestling into his embrace, eyes fluttering shut so I can savor the moment. Savor the security of being wrapped in his arms, where nothing bad in the world can reach me.
“Let’s unzip the sleeping bags and make one big bed we can both share, okay?” Jasper murmurs into my hair, still holding onto me, protecting me.
I stiffly nod, afraid that my voice will waver if I attempt to speak.
We combine our beds and he wraps an arm around me when we lie back down, which anchors me down to the present and quells the current of distress zipping inside of me enough to relax a bit. Nobody knows what happened when I lived with my dad but me. The secret remains safe from public scrutiny. Someday I am going to learn how to be okay. And in the meantime, I still have Jasper Reynolds.
I’d like to have hope that one of these days, I won’t need a Jasper to seek solace from the ghosts of my past. But as much as I love stories and fairytales, I’ve never been much of a dragon-slayer, and I’m not confident that I’m up for the task.
Especially not when the villain of this story happens to be my mind.