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August 15th

IF I SAID THAT the thought of seeing Derrick again tonight wasn’t making me at least a little bit giddy, I’d be lying.

This time is much more spontaneous than last night’s excursion, as he only texted me fifteen minutes ago suggesting the idea. This time, he’s taking me to a local fast food shack to get fries, which we are both craving, and then he wants to drive me to this old arcade located on a pier on the beach side of town. The whole thing sounds very fun and movie-worthy.

“So you’re ditching me again to hang out with this guy,” Jasper whines beside me. We’re currently sprawled out on my bed, shoulders touching, just chatting about typical things like books and movies and my date last night.

“Sorry,” I say. “Although in my defense, you were the one who pushed so hard to make this whole thing happen, so it’s a little late to back out on me now.”

He ruffles my hair like I’m a child. “You’re right. I’m just happy to see you happy. I hope you guys have fun.”

I smooth my hair out. “Thanks, J. Also, help me find something cute to wear that’s presentable but doesn’t look like I’m trying too hard. He said he’ll be here in ten.”

Jasper shoots me a look. “What does that even mean? Is this seriously what goes through girls’ minds when they’re getting ready for a date?”

My lips curve into a smile. “Don’t ask me, I’m new at this.”

I rummage through my closet, and my fingers land on a familiar faded yellow shirt that I wore at the beginning of the month, reflecting back on when Jasper acknowledged it to be one of his favorite shirts that I wear. Back then, we had a whole month ahead of us to spend together. Now, we’re left with only half of that time, hourglass wasting away. I let go of the shirt and keep rifling, not wanting to share a piece of Jasper with Derrick.

“How does this look?” I query, pulling out a red tank top and matching it with a white pair of chino shorts. “Is this cute-but-casual?”

He narrows his eyes at the clothing articles in my hands and shrugs. “I guess? What if you paired it with a necklace or something to make it a little dressier?”

I stare at him incredulously.

“What?” he asks, sounding defensive.

“Who are you to have any input on fashion besides a half-hearted ‘that looks nice’? What’s happened to you?”

He shrugs. “Normally I don’t. I just really want this to work out for you. You deserve some fun in your life.”

My heart swells. “You’re a sweet friend, Jasper. Now turn around so I can change.”

“Bossy,” he retorts, doing exactly as told, anyway. While I slip on my outfit, he hugs one of my pillows to his chest. “Do you really think you might like Derrick?” he asks the wall.

I freeze for a contemplative moment before yanking my shorts up. “I dunno, J,” I reply. “I just met him.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean much,” he counters. “It only took me two dates to believe I was head over heels in love with Avery.”

“Yeah, and three weeks of heartache to get over her,” I blurt before I can stop myself. “Sorry. I don’t know why I said that. You can turn around now.”

He does, and he hardly looks fazed by my comment. “This is a clean slate, Lex,” he tells me. “Derrick isn’t Avery. Who knows, maybe he’ll surprise you.”

I pick out a silver heart necklace my mom gave me before she passed away and put it on. Usually, I only save wearing it for the most special of occasions. Somehow, this new opportunity seems fitting.

“You are absolutely hopeless at this,” Derrick notes with an amused grin as another ski ball falls to the outer ten-point ring—the lowest score you can receive on a toss. “I’m embarrassed.”

“Like you could do any better!” I shoot back, knowing good and well that anyone could do better. “This game is rigged.”

“Sure, blame it on the game,” he jests.

I find myself smiling, despite my lack of skillset. I’ve never before been to this arcade, seeing as Jasper and I rarely find ourselves venturing to the much more touristy beach side of town. But it’s quaint. It smells strongly of mildew and sticky candy, and the carpet looks like it hasn’t been changed since the seventies, but several neon signs illuminate the inside, casting a glow of chilling reds and blues throughout the whole place and giving it a retro vibe. Jasper would probably love to come here sometime and shoot some film footage.

“All right, Callaghan,” Derrick says when I’ve finally thrown my last ski ball, with not much more success than my previous tosses. “You. Me. Air hockey. Let’s go.”

“You’re on.”

We line up on our respective ends of the scratchy white air hockey table, flanked by old fashioned video game machines, most of which are currently unoccupied. Derrick sticks a couple quarters through the slot on the side, and the old mechanism hums to life, artificial purple lights making the whole thing appear to be glowing. On the side, digital red letters light up to read Player 1: 0 Player 2: 0

Cool air starts rising up from the evenly dispersed holes covering the table, and Derrick retrieves the puck and places it on the table, nudging it over to my side with his hand piece, putting the first move in my court. I whack it off my hand piece toward Derrick’s side with as much gusto as I can manage, and then we’re off in a fast pace match of the puck flying back and forth, crack, knock, crack.

“Hopefully you’re not as bad at this as you were at ski ball, shooting hoops, or the claw game,” Derrick says with an evil grin.

I set my gaze on the puck, still flying across the table, neither one of us yet to have scored. “We’ll see,” I simply say back.

He lunges forward and makes a side shot, aiming for the corner of my goal, but I capture the puck right at the last moment, trapping it beneath my hand piece. Derrick does a goofy little triumphant dance for almost scoring on me, and before he realizes what I’m doing, I’m launching the puck back at his side, and it goes right into the goal. Score!

“Hey,” he says. “That was rude.”

“That,” I say pointedly, “is what you get for being cocky.”

He smiles at me. “You’re right. My mistake. I won’t underestimate you again.”

Suddenly, a young girl wearing a baseball cap, no older than nine or ten, tugs on who clearly is her father’s sleeve, pulling him over to the air hockey table where Derrick and I are. “Daddy, we gotta play that game next!” she says excitedly. “So I can crush you like that girl is crushing her boyfriend!”

“Of course, sweetheart,” the dad responds. “Although I think you have it twisted. The only crushing that’s going to be happening is your dreams when I beat you.”

She shakes her head, rolling her eyes. “You wish! Come on, come watch me play Pacman in the meantime until we can play air hockey!”

Her dad sends us a kind smile before following his daughter toward the Pacman video game machine. Derrick sends me a playful smirk, no doubt about the girl referring to us as a couple, and I give a halfhearted smile back, though my insides suddenly feel deflated at the sight of a young girl with a dad who clearly chooses to be in her life.

Most of the time, I don’t think about my dad, I really don’t. He’s long gone from my life, and what memories I do have with him have soured, particularly due to the people he chose to surround himself with. But that doesn’t mean I never think about what life could be like if my father went down a different path. Unlike my mom, he’s still alive. He could be in my life. But that’s useless to think about now, since he’s rotting in a jail cell.

“Hey, earth to Lexi,” Derrick says, now standing beside me, waving a hand in front of my face. “You all right?”

“What?” I look up at him. “Oh, yeah, sorry.”

“Hey, after this game, let’s walk down to the beach. I have something I want to show you.”

“Oh, okay, sure,” I stutter. My heartbeat quickens, and I suspect that we’re drawing near to the part where he tries to make a move. And I’m not so sure I’m ready for that part.

The rest of our air hockey match flies by in a whirlwind, and despite my strong start, Derrick manages to score twice on me, winning the match. Truthfully, I probably could have beaten him, but my heart wasn’t quite as into it the second half, so I let him have his little victory.

“Come on,” he now says, giving my hand a squeeze and leading me outside toward the beach. I look around for people, but there are virtually none, save for a crowd of teenagers kicking a soccer ball several yards down the beach, but none of them look very concerned about what me and Derrick are doing.

He takes me underneath the dock, where he’s apparently gotten one or two of his friends to set up a little spot for us while we’ve been busy in the arcade, as a beach blanket has been spread out, and several little lanterns have been scattered around.

“How did you—”

“Shh, don’t worry about the how,” he interrupts. “Just relax. Enjoy the moment.”

“Derrick, this is sweet,” I tell him, honestly. “But—”

He puts a finger to my lips, silencing me. “Listen. Do you hear that?”

I do listen. But all I hear is a bunch of teenagers yelling about being wide open. “The sound of people playing soccer?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “Not that. That’s just a mood-killer. Listen again. Do you hear the sound of the waves hitting the shore? The steady pulse of the ocean, going in and out, in and out. Focus on that sound.”

I close my eyes and listen to what he’s talking about, and then I hear it. The lapping of the water against the beach, waves gently crashing into land. It’s almost therapeutic.

“My sister used to bring me to the beach all the time,” Derrick says, a new note of somberness in his voice. “We’d sit and listen to the ocean for hours.”

Suddenly I feel like I’m intruding on a memory that isn’t mine to be part of.

“You two must be really close,” I say, unsure what else to say. Though I can’t pinpoint how, something in the air has shifted, and I’m not sure I like it.

“We were,” he says. “But then she tried to killed herself and everything went to shit.”

“Derrick, I’m so sorry,” I say.

He looks at me for a moment, eyes boring into mine, with a look of somewhat desperation laced in. And then, before I have time to process what’s happening, his lips are crashing into my own slightly agape mouth. He presses his body against mine, and just like the waves a few feet away, he sways against me in the same rhythmic pattern, in and out, in and out.

I remain rigid, too surprised to react. This is essentially my first kiss, and not at all the book-worthy romantic experience I was hoping it to be. I don’t feel anything remotely in the same ballpark as fireworks; instead, I’m hopeful for it to be over.

He deepens the kiss, sliding his tongue into my mouth, and I sit limply, letting him kiss me, though I feel absolutely nothing, especially after his earth-shattering confession about a girl who could easily be interchanged with me. Somehow, it seems this boy is using me in the same way I’m using him. Where I wanted him to make me feel normal, it’s now apparent that he wants me to make him feel anything.

But the kind of anything he’s looking for is something I cannot give him.

I pull back. “Derrick, listen—”

He shakes his head and pulls me closer. “Just let me have this.”

My heart knocks madly against my chest and I find myself overcome by his referring to me as a “this,” as if I’m an object here solely for his pleasure. Evidently, that’s exactly what I am.

He keeps kissing me, and starts tugging on my shorts. And that’s when I decide that enough is enough, and spring myself away. “Derrick, no.”

“I need you,” he says, no longer looking like the carefree guy I was just with back at the arcade. My stomach feels like there’s lead in it. “I need you to give me this.”

He reaches for my shorts again, still trying to work them off, and I quickly stand up and kick sand at him, tears pricking my vision. “I can’t give you what you want,” I say, my voice shaking. “I’m sorry.”

He glares up at me, running a hand through his hair to shake the sand out. “You’re a tease,” he spits at me. “What, you think a guy is going to date you because he cares about your feelings? Grow up, Lexi, this is the real world. Love isn’t real. The sooner you find that out the better.”

“I want to go home,” I say, fully crying now. “This was just a stupid mistake.”

“Yeah,” Derrick says, voice now sounding hollow. “Whatever. I’ll drive you home.”

He picks up the blanket and we walk wordlessly to the car. The soccer match is still in full swing on the beach, but my heart feels empty. I should have known this was too good to be true. Boys will only ever see me as their own pleasure plaything. Jasper Reynolds may be the only true exception to exist.

But he won’t be around for long to counter this claim, so maybe it’s time for me to face facts: I truly am worthless.

The drive home is a silent one, and I lean my head against the cool surface of the window the whole way, silent tears spilling down my face. Derrick looks like an empty shell of the boy I first met a couple days ago, and part of me wonders if he feels equally as awful as I do. There’s a vacant look in his eyes, so it’s impossible to tell.

It isn’t until he finally pulls into the street where I live that he speaks. “I’m sorry.”

My brows draw together in confused fury. Sorry?

“I thought I could use you to get over my problems. But I couldn’t,” he elaborates. “Plus, I wanted to make Amber jealous, and the guys told me you would be an easy lay. But clearly I was wrong.”

I grit my teeth and thrust open the car door, not wanting to hear any more.

He goes to yell something else after me, but the door slams shut before his words leave the car, and I’m already marching toward the backyard, where I can compose myself before facing Aunt Colleen. My feet seem to have a mind of their own, and next thing I know, I’m sitting at the edge of the dock, a fresh set of tears dampening my cheeks.

I should’ve known. My mom ruined her whole life over a boy who she thought could love her back. I almost just gave up what few shreds of dignity I still have to one. Like mother like daughter, I think bitterly to myself, reaching behind my neck in desperation to get her stupid heart necklace off of me. My hands quiver and it takes several tries, but once I finally get it off, I stuff it in my pocket, out of sight.

Somehow, I just know that this was the last straw. My heart cannot afford to open itself up to a boy again, only to be shot down, belittled.

I’m not sure how much more heartbreak I can take before more than just my heart is left in tatters.

The sound of a screen door screeching open pierces the air, and I know exactly who it is before I even turn around. I have approximately ten seconds to get it together to avoid total embarrassment.

“Lexi?” Jasper’s tentative voice calls out to me as he trots over to where I am, Champ included.

I rub furiously at my wet cheeks and inhale a deep breath, hoping to put a blockade between me and the tears billowing within. “Hey,” I murmur back in a small voice.

He rushes to my side and sits down, putting a hand on my back. “Are you okay? What happened?”

“I’m okay,” I reply, the words coming out thick. I have to struggle to keep the lump in my throat from growing.

“You’re not,” Jasper says, brows furrowing. “What did he do? I swear to God I’ll hurt him.”

I force a smile, albeit a bland one. “Really, Jasper. I’m fine.”

“He did something,” Jasper persists. “What did he do?”

“Nothing I can’t handle,” I lie. “Really, nothing much happened. He just turned out to be the typical douche, not much surprise there.” I fake a laugh. “Boys.”

A troubled look suddenly overcomes his features. “Oh, God. This is all my fault. I never should have pushed for you to go on a date with him. I just wanted to prove to you that you could do normal things too, you know? I didn’t expect him to turn out to be such a scumbag. I’m so sorry, Lexi.” He cuts himself off, genuinely sounding broken and disappointed in himself. “I am so, so sorry.”

“Jasper, it’s okay,” I say, reaching forward and giving him an awkward pat. “I can cross ‘first date’ and ‘awful second date’ off of the Normal People’s Bucket List now. That’s an accomplishment, right?”

His eyes narrow at my lap, and I look down self-consciously on impulse, wondering what he’s looking at.

“Your zipper is down,” he notes. Suddenly, his expression fills with equal parts dread and anger. “Tell me he did not—”

“He didn’t,” I quickly cut in. “I stopped it.”

“Oh my God,” he breathes. For a moment, he’s perfectly still, silently fuming. And then he punches the dock with his fist as hard as he can, resulting in a resounding THUNK!

I grimace at the sound of the impact, and even Champ picks up her head from where it lays on her paws long enough to see what the commotion is about.

“What kind of lowlife scumbag would ever do something so—so disgusting? I can’t believe he would just do something like that to you, and on the second date. He better hope I don’t see him again or I swear to God, I’ll ruin him. I’ll—”

“Jasper,” I cut him off softly. “I’m fine. Really.”

He finally looks at me, really looks at me. “You’re fine,” he echoes.

I swallow the lump in my throat and feel myself drifting away from reality, shutting the blinds and locking up for the night. “Yep.”

“He tried to steal your innocence, how can you be fine?” he questions angrily. “I’m not even you and I most certainly am not fine with this.”

There’s no innocence left to take, that’s how.

“Thank you for caring so much,” I say, sounding like a prerecorded track thanking the public in its impersonal voice for choosing to fly with a specific airline. Have a nice day!

“Lexi, don’t shut me out,” Jasper begs. “Cry, scream, break things. But please, don’t do this. Don’t shut down. Not now. I can’t watch you shut everything out, not this close to leaving. I need you to feel this. I’ll feel it with you. You don’t have to isolate yourself!”

I harden my gaze and stare at a fixed point in space across the bay, hearing his words as if they’re muffled and distant, like I’m trapped inside of a fishbowl and a distorted Jasper is knocking on the glass from the outside. I can only faintly distinguish what he’s trying to say, and I know from prior experience that I’m unreachable by this point. Once I’ve drifted out of this reality, there’s no going back until my mind chooses to come back on its own accord.

A familiar feeling fills my insides. It’s like a cavity has ripped into the area between my chest and stomach and is crammed full of marshy gray matter like crumbled bits of newspaper-mâché. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, one I get when I feel violated or used.

Instead of words, Jasper picks up my hand and squeezes it. He knows by this point that physical touch will ground me back to reality much quicker than words will.

I wish I could give him what he wants. But I’m not sure I’m even redeemable at this point.

“I’m gonna head to bed,” I say dully. “I’m tired.”

“I love you, Alexandra Marie Callaghan,” Jasper tells me firmly. “Even when I don’t understand you and you shut me out, I still love you, and you are still my best friend. Never forget that.”

For a brief moment, my heart twists, and I feel something other than empty gray matter. But only for a moment. Because then the fog dissipates, and I’m left staring at the hideous ruins of my past.

And the empty feeling resumes.

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