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August 17th

SINCE WILLIE WILL BE starting kindergarten in two and a half weeks, I have been tasked by Aunt Colleen to take him shopping with a written list of specific supplies he needs. It’s not that she doesn’t want to do it herself, but she’s busy preparing for the school year ahead and all the science classes she’ll be teaching. In the past years, her teaching has been limited to chemistry and freshman-level general science classes. This year, she has been asked to take on one of the honors biology classes because there is an overflow of students taking it, so she has a lot of preparations and lesson plans to make.

I’ve decided to ignore Jasper as much as possible after our awkward moment yesterday, so I texted Meredith on a whim to see if she was interested in accompanying Willie and me. To my surprise, she said yes.

“All right, William Butterfield,” Meredith says in her most official sounding voice. “The designs on the folders you are about to select will make or break you in your first year at school. Choose wisely.”

“I like the superhero ones!” Willie exclaims, running over to where a bunch of folders covered in Batman and Superman logos are strewn about in disorganized piles on the shelves.

“Respectable choice,” Meredith says, nodding her head agreeably. “But that’s a very forgettable approach you’re going for. All the boys in your class are going to have the same folders, and you won’t have anything unique to you that will distinguish you from the other boys. If you’re aiming to be the stud of the class from day one, you need to set yourself apart a little. But only a little, you don’t wanna get labeled as the weird kid on day one, either.”

“Meredith!” I exclaim, equal parts exasperated and amused. “He’s five, I don’t think being a ‘stud’ is on his radar yet. Let the kid be a kid.”

“I wanna be a stud! How do I be a stud, Meredith?” Willie asks, striking a pose as if ready to be critiqued.

I shake my head and bring a hand up to rub my aching temples. Good lord.

Meredith shoots me a pointed look. “See? The kid wants to stand out. I respect it. Willie, look at this folder with baby goats. It’s cute, right? If you mix that in with a superhero folder or two and maybe one of these folders over here with some cars on it, the girls will go nuts. They’ll think, ’wow, he’s cool enough to be into typical boy things like superheroes and cars, but he’s also sensitive enough to care about animals. Who is this guy?’”

An involuntarily laugh bubbles its way out of my chest. God, I missed this.

“Girls are icky though,” Willie points out, a valid argument.

Meredith does not shy away from honesty. “Kiddo, there will come a day when you change your mind on that. And when that day comes, you’ll want to have built yourself up a good reputation with the girls so they don’t look back on that time you tripped them in freeze tag or told them their outfit was weird. You have to be confident, like nothing phases you, but also considerate of their feelings. It’s a delicate world out there in kindergarten.”

“But also,” I quickly add in, not wanting to overwhelm the poor child, “just be yourself and do what makes you happy. If the superhero folders are really what you want, then there’s nothing wrong with being like all the other boys.”

“I wanna do what Meredith said!” he exclaims, already compiling a stack of folders in his hands, grabbing some superhero ones, some car ones, and some cute animal ones. “I’m a stud!”

Meredith shoots me a kids, what can you do look and I roll my eyes. But secretly, I’m just really thankful she came out with me to do this.

“I could use the excuse to get out of the house,” she had said when I first thanked her for coming. I’m not sure what that meant, but I figure she’ll further elaborate on her own time.

I scan the list once we’ve added folders to our ever-growing pile of kindergarten school supplies. Being in the back to school section of the store reminds me of the supplies I should probably be getting for my own final year in grade school. But that would mean I’ve accepted that senior year is coming, and that I have accepted a senior year without Jasper. And that simply isn’t the case, not yet. Despite what I told him yesterday.

“We just need to get some tissues for the classroom yet and then we’re golden,” I announce. “There’s a bunch over at the front of the store by the college stuff.”

We make our way to the front of the store where columns of tissues have been strategically placed in the middle of an aisle for easy grabbing. I scan the prices for the cheapest box and toss it in the cart with the various other back to school goodies we’ve managed to accumulate.

“Okay, I think that’s it for this shopping excursion,” I announce. “Meredith, do you need anything while we’re—Mer?”

Her eyes are wide and she’s staring at a point over my shoulder. I turn around to see what it is she’s staring at, and see River, back turned to us, reaching up high on a shelf to grab one of those water filters college students use. A woman who I assume to be his mom is with him, but neither of them have noticed us yet.

Finally, Meredith tears her gaze away and shrugs at me. “Let’s go check out if we’re done then.”

My brows draw together in confusion. Last I talked to Meredith, she said that she foresaw her and River breaking up. Did that happen in the last couple days since we’ve had that conversation?

We trek to one of the self-checkout computers and I begin scanning and bagging Willie’s supplies while he bounces excitedly on his toes, going on and on about how much fun school sounds. Meanwhile, Meredith has a faraway look on her face, and my heart aches a little to see such a joyful soul looking so joyless. I don’t know the details behind her and River, but he sure missed out on a beautiful future with a beautiful person.

When we’re done, we each lug handfuls of bags to my car, and after I strap Willie into his car seat, I turn towards Meredith. “Are you okay?”

She expels a shaky breath. “I’m okay. That was the first time I’ve seen him since we ended things two nights ago, and I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest for a second there.”

“Mer, I’m so sorry,” I say quietly.

She smiles at me. “I know you are. Honestly, I’m okay. It stings, of course, considering that’s three years together down the drain. But it was for the best. We both want different things, and that’s okay. It’ll be okay,” she adds, although it seems like more a reassurance for herself. Then, to lighten the mood, she says, “I’m going to have to recruit you as my best friend this year, though. We’re both losing important guys, and everyone knows that girl best friends are more important than the guy ones, anyway.”

I smile back. “I would love that. Senior year will be you and me, like old times.”

She catches my eye and I can tell by the glimmer of hope there that she truly wants to believe this.

Meredith going shopping with us has turned into Meredith staying for dinner and sleeping over, which is fine by me.

Aunt Colleen seems more than happy to witness Meredith’s reappearance in my life, and I don’t blame her. She’s been concerned for years about me not having any solid female friendships, aside from Olivia from work, which hardly counts considering she’s only around during the summer. And even when she is around, we rarely hang out outside of work.

While Aunt Colleen cooks dinner, Meredith and I sit on my bed upstairs and catch up on lost years.

“Do you remember that time—” Meredith gets out between laughs, brown eyes crinkled, “that—that time when I dared you to prank call Josh Gibbons, and when he answered, you just played that creepy song from that one horror movie I made you watch?”

Now I laugh. “Yes! He was so freaked out, I thought he was gonna start crying.”

“Right! How is he one of the cool guys in our grade now? He used to be such a baby,” Meredith sniggers.

“Seriously. And to think he’s now going to play football in a year for some D3 school. Speaking of—do you know what colleges you’re applying to?” I ask when we’ve controlled our giggles. “Do you have any idea what you want to do after high school?”

She screws her mouth thoughtfully shut. “Honestly? I don’t know. Part of me just wants to go somewhere far away, like California or Florida or, heck, Alaska. Just start over and rebuild a life without River. But I don’t know what I even want to do, and I feel like location isn’t the only determining factor for picking a college. I don’t really have any talent besides running my mouth, but it’s not like you can get a degree in talking.”

“Sure you can,” I say. “I mean, not exactly talking, per se, but there are a lot of degrees for comfortable speakers. You could go into political science and voice your political opinions. Or you could become a teacher, or a speech pathologist. Or you could do something with marketing at some big business and give presentations and stuff.”

She stares at me. “Clearly you’ve done your research.”

I blush.

“That’s good, you’re a lot more ahead than I am,” she says. “What about you? Where do you wanna go to college? What do you want to do?”

I stare at the ground. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go to college. My parents didn’t leave me with much money, and it’s not exactly like Aunt Colleen and Uncle Bill are swimming in cash. I don’t want to burden them like that.”

Meredith puts a hand on top of mine. I forgot how touchy-feely she can be. I welcome the comfort of her touch. “Lexi, there is no way your aunt would let you give up your future like that. Talk to her, maybe they’ve already figured something out and just haven’t gotten a chance to tell you about it yet. And at the very least, I’m sure they can afford to send you to an in-state school. North Carolina has some good ones.”

I shrug, the familiar anxious feeling I always get when college is brought up resurfacing.

Suddenly, there’s a faint tapping on my window. Meredith stares at me in confused terror, but I just roll my eyes and get up to unlock it, letting my idiot mess of a neighbor inside.

“Oh, hey Meredith,” Jasper says after crawling inside of my room. “Girls night?”

Meredith looks justifiably aghast. “Does he do this all the time?” she asks me. “Just come in through your window like some horrifically cheesy teen movie? And hey, Reynolds.” She nods her head at him in acknowledgment.

This feels weird, having Meredith and Jasper simultaneously inside of my bedroom. Like two completely different worlds colliding.

“Jasper, hey,” I mumble.

“I can come back tomorrow, if now’s a bad time,” he says, looking flushed.

“Um, okay.”

Meredith looks back and forth between the two of us, and finally speaks up. “Okay, what’s the deal with you two? I have never felt so much tension between two people who clearly love each other in my life. You have, what? Half a month together yet? Maybe less? Regardless, you only have but so much more time together. Say whatever you’re both thinking. I’ve dealt with enough tension in the last week to last a lifetime, and I will not accept it between you two.”

“She and River finally ended things,” I elaborate upon noticing Jasper’s confused stare at her mention of experiencing tension in her own life.

“I’m sorry, Meredith,” he says.

She shrugs flippantly, like breaking up with the guy she previously expected to marry is no biggie. “It’s whatever,” she says. “Right now I care more about the status of you two.”

“Meredith, I don’t know if now is the best time for this,” I say softly.

Jasper looks conflicted for a moment, and then decides to speak. “You know what, Lex, Meredith is right. I can’t focus on anything when I think you’re mad at me.”

Great. Group confrontation. Exactly the thing I’m most bad at.

“I’m not mad at you,” I say, my voice coming out quiet.

“You were yesterday,” he says. “And that’s fine. Maybe I was a little overbearing, forcing you to come outside. I just need you to know that I’m not mad at you. I just want things to be okay between us.”

I stay quiet, and Meredith scoots beside me and grabs my hand, lifting it in the air for me in mock enthusiasm. “Sure, Jasper!” she says, impersonating me with a somewhat offensively high falsetto. “Let’s agree to always be pals who do weirdly low key romantic things like climb in each other’s windows for the rest of our lives. I forgive you!”

The corners of my mouth quirk up the slightest bit. “Sure, what she said.”

Jasper and Meredith glance at each other for a moment, and I’m about to query what they’re thinking when Meredith yells “Get her!” and the two of them spring forward and attack me with tickles. I’m at a really unfair disadvantage, two against one, so I succumb to the numbing sensation of being unable to do anything but laugh and wheeze for air.

“Stop!” I squeal. “Mercy! I call mercy!”

Meredith finally stops tickling me and flings herself on the bed beside me, letting her long auburn hair fan out around her. Jasper tickles me for a few more agonizingly long seconds, relishing the sound of my laughter for a few moments longer, before following suit and collapsing on my other side.

“You guys are mean,” I say, panting for air.

“Friends are supposed to give each other a hard time,” Meredith says beside me. “Life is too boring to be nice one hundred percent of the time.”

“In that case, I’ve always thought you’re really strange, Billingsley,” Jasper quips.

Meredith launches a throw pillow at Jasper, and he launches one back.

“Girls! Dinnertime!” Aunt Colleen bellows from downstairs.

Jasper sits up and cradles a pillow to his chest. “Well, that’s my cue.”

“Hey wait,” I say, reaching a hand over and latching onto his wrist, stopping him. The movement is subconscious, but he stares down at the contact like it’s a note from his crush. I loosen my grip and snatch my hand away, feeling self-conscious. “You can stay for dinner, if you want.”

“That’s okay,” he says. “You two hang out. I don’t want to interrupt girl time.”

“That’s right, Reynolds, Lexi is mine for tonight,” Meredith fires at him teasingly. “You’ve had her long enough. It’s my turn to spend time with her.”

He raises his hands in mock surrender. “I lay my weapons down and respectfully choose to retreat from this battle.” Then, in a more serious voice, he adds, “Bye Lex, have a good night. Also, Noah is coming back tomorrow with his parents and wants to do something with us, and I figured we could take him to the carnival. If that’s cool with you.”

“Oh—yeah!” I say, a little too enthusiastically. “That’ll be fun. I’ll see you then.”

He gives a small smile and head nod and then turns and retreats the way he came, through my window, soon disappearing like a bird in the mist.

Meredith turns toward me and cocks an eyebrow as soon as Jasper is gone. “That boy is head over heels in love with you, if you haven’t figured it out yet.”

My cheeks heat up. “I don’t think that. He’s just very . . . open . . . when it comes to expressing emotion.”

She smirks, but decides not to comment further on the subject. Instead, as she follows me out the door and down the stairs, she tries for a new subject. “So who’s Noah?”

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