ON MOST OCCASIONS, I’M the early riser between the two of us. But this morning, Jasper has me beat.
“Mmm,” I mumble in protest as he nudges me awake. “I’m tired.”
“Well you better wake up, sleepyhead,” Jasper says, a smile evident in his voice. “We got work in a couple hours.”
“Nooo,” I groan into the pillow.
His hands attack my ticklish zones and my body, unsurprisingly, chooses this moment to wake up. A mixture of yelps and laughs fly out of me involuntarily and I struggle to push him off.
“There’s that cute Lexi laugh I love to hear,” Jasper says gleefully, sitting back looking smug at his successful attempt to awaken me. My body feels heavy with the sleep I didn’t get after last night’s nightmare escapade, and my eyes feel swollen and bloodshot. I must look like an absolute train wreck. Almost as if sensing my insecurity, Jasper scoots closer and wraps an arm over my shoulders. “Did you sleep okay?” We both know he means post-dream, when he drifted off not too long after we both climbed into bed under our piles of sheets and thin blankets together.
“Uh,” I fumble, not really wanting to lie, but not really wanting to worry him, either. I slant a look at the flap of window facing the bay, where the sun batters down on the water like a million spilled sea crystals. “Eventually, I did.”
He expels a long breath through his nose, the telltale Jasper signal for disappointment. “Are you going to tell me what it was about?” he questions, his tone wary.
Stiffly, I shake my head. “It’s in the past.”
“Not if you’re still dreaming about it.”
I realize, then, that he knows. He knows my dream was more than just an odd nightmare—it was a memory. A memory of a terrible time with terrible people.
I lie back down under the covers and roll over onto my stomach, resting my head on my arms. Jasper moves close beside me, and his fingers start moving in circles around my back. My eyes flutter shut at the comfort of his touch. And then the rhythm of his movements change.
“Are you drawing a penis on my back?” I ask him, incredulous.
He bursts into laughter, such a jovial sound. “Maybe.”
“I’m just messing around with you,” he says. “Wanted to see if you’d pick up on it. Hey, guess what I sketch with my finger next.”
“Easy,” I say as I feel his finger connecting two hooks together. “A heart. Give me something harder.”
He lowers his voice to imitate the solemn disposition of a documentary voice. “Lexi Marie, nothing is harder than a heart. It’s the toughest organ of them all, because it endures the most.”
“You’re not funny,” I say, though my laughter suggests otherwise.
His fingers trail over my back, and by the way he keeps picking up them up and replacing them, I can tell whatever he’s writing next are words. However, my sensory skills aren’t quite strong enough to distinguish the letters and depict what words he’s writing.
“You’re gonna have to tell me for this one,” I say. “I got nothing.”
I slant a look up at him, and he’s got a blank look on his face, and remains quiet.
He contorts his expression into a smirk, but it looks slightly forced. “I wrote ‘Lexi is a dork.’”
I’m not sure what words he finger-traced over the cotton fabric of my T-shirt, but it wasn’t that. The way he refuses to meet my eyes confirms this. And just like that, I feel him drifting a little further away from me, getting sucked further out into a galactic vortex beyond my realm. In response, the world grows a little dimmer.
“Right, well, I’m gonna go shower,” I say. “Do you want help taking down the tent?”
He looks somehow disappointed, like my response isn’t what he wanted. But he quickly shakes whatever momentary distress he’s feeling off and glances over at me. “Nah. I got it. You go wash that late-night skinny dip off of you, dork.”
My jaw unhinges, having temporarily forgotten about our swim last night. “I did not skinny dip, that was all you! I remained at least partially clothed like a civilized person.”
“Lexi, love, your sports bra and underwear were light pink. I saw more than you think.”
Dread courses through my veins as this realization materializes, and I feel my cheeks grow hot at the thought of Jasper seeing so much . . . me. “You’re a pervert,” I mutter, wishing I could fold myself up in a box and ship it to Antarctica.
He just laughs, not nearly as fazed. “You’re beautiful, don’t feel weird about it. I’m just honored you jumped in to save me.”
I throw a pillow at his face. “You’re the worst.”
He dodges it, smiling triumphantly. “You love me.”
“It’s okay to admit. I’m your favorite.”
“Okay, now you’re getting a disproportionate ego. I’m leaving.”
“Be ready for me to drive us to work at eleven fifteen sharp. LOVE YOU,” he screams after me as I march toward the house, blushing madly at his public outpouring.
Sundays are unpredictable at Sunken Treasure, because you never know what you’re going to get. Some Sundays are slow, and only a few scattered couples come in to dine. Some Sundays are busy, with tons of families post church sermon linking up together to grab lunch. And then there are the Sundays in between, where it’s just busy enough that we’re making money, but not quite so busy that we’re running here, there, and everywhere trying to attend to all of our tables, like today.
“Is that a human or a gorilla in a bikini?” Quinn asks, peaking over my shoulder as Olivia doodles in boredom on the reservation sheet at the front hostess stand.
Olivia squints at it. “I was going for a human in need of shaving, but now that you mention it, I like the gorilla idea better.”
Quinn leans forward and takes the pen from her hand. “It needs big gorilla hands and feet. Here.” He rough sketches these additions onto Olivia’s drawing, also adding some more hair on the stomach and arms.
Jasper joins us at the front after having distributed drinks to his table of three women who look to be in about their mid to upper twenties. They smirk at him every time he walks by and giggle a little too loudly when he speaks. You’re not fooling anyone, I want to tell them. You’re all too old for him.
“Gorilla in a bikini?” he asks.
Quinn shoots Olivia a ha-I-told-you-so look and she just nods her head approvingly. “Right on.”
“Hey, Liv?” Quinn says.
He pauses and wrings his hands together, like whatever he’s about to say next is physically taxing and needs some loosening first. “Will you go on a date with me this Tuesday?”
Jasper and I exchange surprised glances at this newfound boldness. Usually, Quinn tries to deny any accusations of his crush on Olivia. Nobody ever believes him, but still. This new almost-confession is groundbreaking for all of us. I flicker my attention toward Olivia, and she looks equally as taken aback.
“Wait a sec, Liv,” he interrupts, evidently receiving the same vibe that I was picking up, that she was about to turn him down—heaven knows why, since we all know she likes him back. “Just hear me out, okay? Lexi and Jasper, you two should hear this as well: Life is too short. Last night, I got a phone call that my cousin got really drunk and ended up getting in a car and driving himself home. He flipped over three times and ended up dead on the side of some backroad in the woods.”
“Quinn, I’m so sorry, that’s terrible—” Liv begins to say, but he cuts her off again.
“The guy was a raging alcoholic. He had it coming. That’s not my point, although yes, it is sad. The point is, life is short. People die, and things happen, and people who take inaction have regrets. But this will not be one of mine. Because whether you agree to go on a date with me or not, I have been wanting to ask you this question for months now and the truth is that I really like you, even though half of our friendship consists of us making fun of each other. The truth is that I like coming to work because it means getting to see you. So say no if you want—it’s your decision. But if there’s even a tiny part of you that feels the same thing that I do, I implore you, please give this a chance.”
Olivia’s lips spread into a soft smile. “Implore, huh? That sounds like some big fancy lawyer jargon.”
Quinn just stares at her, and for the first time since I’ve met him, he looks timid and vulnerable. I’ve always thought Quinn as this sunny ball of energy that could do no harm and could not be harmed, but now I realize that he does have a weakness, after all. Olivia.
Kind of like another young man you know, a voice in my head taunts.
“Okay, Quinn,” she finally relents, her voice soft and feathery and a twinkle in her eye. “I’ll go on a date with you. But it better be something exciting. And no restaurants. We spend enough time together in a restaurant as it is.”
He grins, and just like that, he’s back, bursting with a million-watt brightness. “It’ll blow any other date you’ve ever been on out of the water. I’m quite the charmer, you know.”
We all laugh, and I find myself slightly envious of the two, though my joy for them overrides my jealousy. If only the stars destined for me and Jasper to such auspicious prospects.
One of Quinn’s tables flag him over to get their check, and Jasper disperses himself to check on one of his tables, and then I’m left standing with a rosy-cheeked Olivia. I’ve never once witnessed her blush in all my time of knowing her, despite some harrowing previous customer interactions, and this is all the proof I need to know that she likes him, too.
“I can’t believe he just did that,” she muses aloud.
“I know. Lucky you,” I reply cheerfully, only it ends up coming out with a hint of longing for what she has meshed in.
“Lex,” she says with a gentle voice. “Just because Jasper is moving does not necessarily mean it’s over between the two of you. But on the flipside, just because you’re close with him doesn’t mean you can’t be close with others. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
My heart quivers in my chest, but I nod my head. “I think so.”
“I just don’t want to see you upset, love. The universe is not a game of Who Gets Happiness And Who Doesn’t. Everyone’s got a shot. Don’t give up on yours.”
I smile. “Thank you, Liv.” And then, just because I need desperately to get the subject away from my impending separation from Jasper, I add, “I’m expecting to hear all the details about this date.”
Olivia rolls her eyes, but her mouth curls upward into a smile anyway. “Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to fill everyone in on if he succeeds or fails the mission.”
Right then a group of people around my age walk in, a cluster of both boys and girls. “Table for eight, please,” one of the boys says, looking at me.
I share a glance with Olivia and she shrugs, letting me take the table, so I pick up eight menus and lead them to a table by the aquarium tank. “Can I start you guys off with anything to drink?” I ask once they’re all seated, pulling my notepad and pen out from my pocket.
They all recite their drink of choice (water with lemon for the girls, an assortment of sodas for the boys), and I scuttle back toward the kitchen to get them. While I’m filling up the waters, Jasper hip-bumps me.
“The guy in the gray T-shirt at your new table totally keeps checking you out.”
I roll my eyes, not in the mood for his antics. “Sure he does.”
He presses on. “I’m serious, Lex. You don’t see it because you’re not looking. But I was watching them, and that guy did not take his eyes off of you. He totally thinks you’re hot.”
“Please shut up.”
“You should ask him out! Be bold! Be Quinn!” Jasper high-fives Quinn as the man of the hour himself walks by, a grin still smothered to his cute little boy face.
Olivia peeks her head around the corner, taking her focus off the order she’s punching into a computer machine. “We are not idolizing Quinn Jacobson for growing a pair and doing what he should’ve done ages ago.”
Quinn looks smug at this remark and turns toward Jasper and me, gesturing behind him at Olivia. “She basically just admitted that she’s felt the same way all along. See what being a risk taker does?”
“Ask him out! I dare you,” Jasper continues.
I frown. “No way. Besides, for all you know, he’s dating one of those girls he’s with.” I don’t mention how one of the redheaded girls keeps eyeballing him from across the table.
Before he gets a chance to reply, I’m bringing the drinks back to their table and distributing them accordingly. I’m about to ask if they’re ready to order, but one of the guys on the end grabs my wrist. “My friend thinks you’re really cute.” He nudges gray T-shirt boy sitting beside him. “Right, Derrick?”
Derrick blushes but smiles at me. “Definitely.”
Now I’m the one blushing. Jasper is no doubt watching me from around the corner, so I try my best to keep my cool to avoid further harassment. “Well, thank you.”
“Would you want to . . . maybe go on a date with me? Tomorrow night?” Derrick asks.
My jaw drops. I have never been on a date before, and I never imagined myself getting asked on one. I mean, I imagined it, like in a daydream-like sense. But never in a reality one.
“Y-yeah,” I say, surprising myself with my ability to respond almost-coolly, minus the slight surprised stuttering. I think even that part was kind of normal though, given the circumstances. “Sure.”
His smile brightens. “Great! Here, let me get your number and I’ll text you later.”
He hands me his cell phone with the add contact feature already pulled up, and I plug my name and number in, feeling slightly dazed and not really sure what to think. He’s cute, so I should be stoked. But a slight nudging from within makes me wonder if there is more to this than the surface innocence.
And then, unsurprisingly, Jasper comes over and high fives Derrick, much to my mortification.
“Right on, brother!” Jasper exclaims. “You two going on a date or what?”
Derrick looks confused, probably wondering who this random guy is and why he’s being so invasive.
“I’m her best friend,” Jasper elaborates. “And I’m here to give my blessing. Well, as long as you’re not a douche.”
Two of the three girls at the table laugh at this. The redhead remains quiet. I can’t shake the feeling that she and this Derrick guy have an underlying thing together, though maybe I’m just being paranoid.
“Wanna make it a double date?” one of the girls purrs at Jasper.
“What about Robbie, Veronica?” the guy who told me about Derrick’s supposed attraction toward me fires. “I thought you two were talking.”
She rolls her eyes. “You said it yourself: guy’s an arrogant idiot. Maybe I’m moving on to bigger and better things.” Her gaze sets on Jasper, and she has this seductive partial lip-biting look going that makes my fingers curl. I dig my fingernails into my palms as hard as I can to keep my cool, at least outwardly.
Jasper, however, is unfazed. “Unfortunately, I am mere weeks away from moving to a different continent, so dates aren’t really on the personal itinerary at the moment, ’fraid to say.”
She purses her lips and flicks a piece of hair over her shoulder, doing her best to look unbothered by this rejection. “Bummer.”
“So, you guys go to Liberty?” Jasper asks, referring to our neighboring rival high school.
They all nod. “Heck yeah, Bulldogs for life, baby!” one of the guys cheers.
I find myself wanting to slink away from this conversation, no longer feeling part of it. Jasper seems to take my silent cue, and says, “Well, I’m gonna go check on my table. Can’t lose my Abilene High reputation by talking to the enemy.” He then turns to Derrick. “Nice meeting you. Maybe I’ll see you around again, if you’re good to Lexi.” He shoots me a wink and walks away.
My cheeks are blazing hot by this point. “So, uh, do you guys know what you want to order yet?”
“Aw, she’s blushing!” one of the girls—Veronica—coos. Thanks a lot, Veronica.
Everyone gives me their order, and I chew nervously on my lip while I jot them down, trying hard to ignore the invisible daggers the redhead seems to be rouletting into my brain. I really don’t want to make anyone mad, but it’s hard to ignore the excitement bubbling up in my stomach over the prospect of going on my first date with a cute boy. It almost sounds like a step toward healing and becoming normal again.
And oh, what I would give to feel normal again.