THE WORST PART ABOUT unexpectedly being stripped away from your home to live with your aunt, who’s practically on her own since her husband isn’t home the majority of the time due to his highly dangerous job for the military?
The constant guilt you feel about all the money she has to spend on you; money she doesn’t really have a whole lot of to begin with.
I think it goes without saying that spending the latter half of my afternoon researching colleges and their yearly tuition fees online was not my finest idea.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say Aunt Colleen and Uncle Bill are well off, nor am I going to dramatize it and say that they’re dirt poor. No, they fall somewhere in the middle. Which, for a family of three with plenty of years ahead of them to start saving up for their five-year-old son’s college tuition, that’s a pretty comfortable position to be in.
But when your soon-to-be college-bound seventeen-year-old niece suddenly becomes a factor in the equation, things get a little messy.
When my mom died, she left only half of her inheritance to Colleen, her sister. But the other half, she gave to my dad, since he was the one who had custody over me in those last few months. Which, in retrospect, only made things worse.
If I’m being honest here, I don’t think my mom ever truly fell out of love with my dad. Even though he had a knack for letting her down time and time again, she kept handing out second chances like loose change in her pocket. You’d think leaving her to deal with her pregnancy alone at only twenty-years-old would have been enough of a warning for his character.
Yeah, well, apparently that wasn’t the case.
Starting from when I was six, she had roped him into agreeing to hang out with me for a few hours once a month every month, hoping that spending time with his daughter would make him realize his mistake and give the whole family thing a shot. She thought that he’d fall in love with his one and only daughter just by getting to know her and seeing what she’s like. And I’m sure for a lot of guys out there, that would have been enough.
Not my dad.
Sure, he agreed to do it, but more often than not, he’d just take me to get lunch somewhere, maybe spend a little while at the park, and then he’d ask if I had any friends in the area whose apartment he could drop me off at for a bit while he “ran some errands.” I wouldn’t see him for a few hours, and then he’d come to pick me up and explain to me what crazy stories we would share with my mom about our day once I was reunited with her.
I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. It was painfully evident that my mom thrived off of those false recollections that I made up after each visit. I already knew that my dad had no intention of being the proper father figure that all my other friends had, and the last thing I wanted to do was let my mom down.
And so I rolled with it. After all, it was only one day out of the month that I had to give up. Just twelve times per year pretending like I had a dad who I was excited to spend time with. I could handle it.
But then my mom collapsed that one fateful September day when I was nine, and that’s when things suddenly weren’t okay.
As it turned out, she knew about the fact that she had pancreatic cancer months before I was ever clued in on the secret. When she spent long hours at the grocery store, only to return with a jug of milk and a few other necessities, she was really at the hospital being CAT scanned. When she went to meet up with her friends, she was really meeting with her doctor to discuss the next steps she should take with the prospect of death hovering over her shoulder.
She knew she was dying. And instead of going about it the responsible way and making arrangements with Colleen, the only person who she told was my dad, the last person she ever should’ve told first.
She needs you, I remember overhearing her say on the phone one night, desperation lacing thickly in her voice. She needs a father figure in her life. Please. Please.
No I don’t, I wanted to say. I didn’t need anyone in my life who didn’t want to be there.
But how was I supposed to explain that to my mom? Especially when she was dying and had a chance of reconnecting with her old love who she never truly got over? I didn’t want to take that away from her, not after everything she gave up to take care of me all those years.
Eventually, he cracked.
I moved all my stuff to his two bedroom apartment, which would serve to be my home for an agonizingly long, torturous half of a year. My room was a matchbox of a thing with enough space for a single-sized bed, dresser, and tiny table to be used as a makeshift desk. The walls were white and bare, and there was only one small window that overlooked the hustle and bustle of the city down below.
Not too long after, my mom was permanently relocated to the hospital, where she would spend the remainder of her life.
For a while, I held out hope that she would be one of those miracle stories who would miraculously beat their cancer. But then I thought to Google the survival rate of pancreatic cancer and as it turns out, ninety-four percent of people diagnosed die within the first five years, and seventy-four percent die within the first year.
That was when realization truly sunk in, and I understood just how serious my mom’s condition actually was.
And that was when, for the first time in my life, I felt truly alone.
“Did you know that the pool is having a deal for all teenagers tonight where you can get in for free as long as you have a school pass?” Jasper’s voice resounds from my window, startling me from my reverie enough to flinch at the sound. “Get your swimsuit on, Callaghan, we’re going swimming!”
“Can’t,” I say, hand over my heart while I try to regain composure. “Reagan just called me in to work. I guess seafood is in high demand tonight and they’re short staffed because Ian felt sick and had to leave early.”
“Why didn’t they call me?” he asks, looking somewhat offended. “I can come in and help, too.”
“Reagan knows you’ll be gone in a few weeks,” I point out. “What’s the use in calling someone in to work if you know they’re not going to be working for you anymore?”
Digesting this new idea, he presses his lips together and looks down thoughtfully. A tiny crease forms between his brows while he thinks and eventually he looks up and meets my eyes with a new look of determination. “I’m coming with you,” he decides.
I cast a pointed expression at him. “Jas, don’t. You said you wanted to swim tonight; go swim. I bet a ton of people will be there. Besides, we already watched like a bazillion movies together earlier. You got your daily dosage of Lexper time. Go have fun, I’ll be fine.”
I dip my head over and gather up my hair into a ponytail, using a worn hair elastic to secure it in place. My work uniform is already lying on my bed: long black slacks paired together with a white-collared shirt and black apron. It’s not the most glamorous choice of wardrobe, but it’s Reagan-approved, which is good enough for me.
My boss, Reagan, is, for lack of a better description, her own person. For a twenty-seven-year-old soon-to-be married woman, she is the essence of poise. Everything about her radiates perfection, from the carefully planned table arrangement in the restaurant, to her perfectly plucked eyebrows that arch discontentedly at even the slightest sign of mishap. She’s got a kind heart, but she’s not afraid of expressing exactly what’s on her mind, whether it’s harsh or uplifting. She knows what it takes to be at the top, and she’s willing to do anything to get there. Born and raised in a wealthy family off the coast of California, she entered college with the ambition to start her own restaurant and make a fortune.
Fast forward nearly a decade after long hours of hard work and elbow grease, and she’s already established an award-winning seafood restaurant, Sunken Treasure, known for its hospitality and large blue fish aquarium that the consumers can watch delightedly as multiple breeds of fish with varying colors mosey on past their table.
All while sporting the newest collection of Ralph Lauren or Gucci or whatever other designer brands are out there on the market. She’s a classic example of your typical rich girl striving to prove to her father that she can make it big without his assistance. And boy, did she show him.
“Turn around so I can change,” I say once I’ve gotten my hair looking semi-presentable. Usually I’d just kick him out, but I need to hurry up and get down to the restaurant, and it’s not like he’s a pervert.
He does as instructed without argument, taking a seat at the chair in front of my desk and pulling out a notebook. “What’s in here?” he asks curiously as he begins rifling through it.
I come up behind him and slap it shut. “Nothing that your eyes need to see.”
“Ooooh, a secret,” he says, rubbing his hands together. “Now I’m dying to know.”
“Just sit there and be a good boy before I kick you out for good,” I threaten with an eye roll even though he can’t see me.
That notebook dates back to the days of eighth grade and ends somewhere in the summer before freshman year. Although a lot of it was just me recounting my day and all the crazy stuff I did with Meredith, some of it was kind of . . . dark. Like, way darker than what any normal eighth grade girl should be expressing.
I still remember something that I had written in there one day after one of the boys in my grade told me to “loosen up” and “not be such a loser.”
I am the sole outlier in a straight slope town.
Not to mention, in the last half of that journal, the main subject in most of my entries was Jasper himself, and I’d rather not let him read what fourteen-year-old me thought about him.
“Ya know, I think that this is the sign of a very strong bond between two people that you don’t see a lot of anymore,” he says to the wall while I cautiously slip out of my shorts, eyes glued to the back of his head to make sure he doesn’t try anything, even though the likelihood of him actually doing something like that is almost nonexistent. “Trust.”
“Mmmhmm,” I mumble incoherently in response as I pull up on my work pants.
He drums his fingers on the surface of my desk, continuing to look straight ahead at the wall. “In all seriousness, I’m coming with you to work.”
“No you’re not,” I counter with growing frustration. “You’re gonna go swimming with everyone else.”
“Hate to break it to you, Lex, but you can’t make me.”
I grit my teeth as I button up my shirt.
“Jasper, seriously, I’m just going to be working. It’s not even like we’ll be hanging out. Go spend time with your other friends.”
“I’ll come to work too,” he decides. “If it’s as busy as you said, Reagan’s not going to turn down another pair of hands to help out.”
Adjusting my apron, I frown and glance out the window at the sinking sun, a big ball of fiery orange simmering in a pool of pink and yellow.
He’s acting suspiciously clingy.
“What’s this really about?” I finally ask, fed up with beating around the bush. “You can turn around now, by the way.”
He spins around and smiles lazily. “You look cute in your work uniform.”
I narrow my eyes. “Stop changing the subject. Why are you so dead set about coming to work with me? You’re usually doing everything you can to avoid being called in for work.”
The smile on his face fades a little.
“Does it really matter?” he asks with a groan. “Maybe I just wanna soak up every remaining second with my best friend; you ever thought of that, Callaghan?”
He pauses for a few moments and sighs, like he’s trying to decide whether or not he should come clean about whatever this is about. After about a minute of being the object under my scrutiny, he finally caves.
“Okay, okay. I was gonna see if I could get Reagan to transfer whatever money I make onto your paycheck. But it’s only a few short hours of my life working alongside with my best friend—that’d be you—so you can stop giving me that look. I want to do this.”
Unbelievable. I’ve mentioned the money thing to Jasper in the past, but I was just doing it to relieve some of the stress, especially as college apps start rolling in. But this—this isn’t okay with me.
Shaking my head angrily, I grab my work nametag, phone, and car keys off my desk and yank on my bedroom door, letting it flail open and proceed to march down the steps with Jasper following closely in my wake.
“Lexi, wait,” he calls after me. “Please. Stop.”
In the living room, Aunt Colleen looks up from her position on the couch watching the evening news.
“Hey, everything okay?” she asks cautiously.
“Fabulous,” I say, voice flat. “I’m going to work; be back around eleven.”
“Lexi, hold on,” Jasper pleads. He follows me as I push open the front door and grabs my arm when I finally make it to the car. “I don’t think of you as some kind of charity case, okay? I just wanted to spend the night with you, and I don’t really need the money.”
“Must be nice,” I mutter before I can stop myself.
“Hey.” He takes one of my hands in his and looks at me. “Your aunt and uncle are going to figure this out. And sure, whatever money you make will help, but it isn’t your responsibility to cover all your costs. You can’t help the fact that your parents left you with almost no money. Colleen and Bill can handle this. Stop stressing.”
He doesn’t get it. His parents—his parents, not aunt and uncle or anyone else—make a sufficient income being marine biologists without any help from his end. He doesn’t have to worry about how he’s going to pay for his college tuition. He doesn’t have to experience the guilt every time he needs to ask for money for something.
The things I would do to trade lives with him.
I fall back against the car door and let my eyes flutter shut while trying to sort my thoughts. He just wants to help me. He only has good intentions; it’s not like he’s trying to make me feel bad. I should be grateful. And to some degree, I am.
But that doesn’t cover up the shame that comes with being so poor and dependent on people who aren’t my real parents. Not that I don’t love Colleen and Bill—they’re great—but they’re not my mom and dad. That’s a void nobody can truly fill.
Not even my actual parents.
Finally, I decide to relent. Not because I’m okay with it, but because I don’t want to drag Jasper down with my problems any further than I already have these past few days alone. If he wants to be an idiot and waste away his evening working instead of swimming and having fun with everyone else in our grade, he might as well have at it.
“Okay, fine,” I say. “You can come with. But you have precisely three minutes to get in your house and get changed or I’m driving without you.”
He shoots me a jubilant grin and turns and jogs in the other direction toward his house, leaving me waiting in my car, pretending to time him.
And that is the extent of our argument.
“Hi, my name’s Lexi and I’ll be your waitress this evening. Can I start you off with anything to drink?”
I recite the same opening line I always do, my cheap black pen hovering precariously over my waitress’ notepad as I wait for the family of four to order, and I try not to look impatient as another large group begins filing in through the main entrance. Only two hours in and I’m already counting down the minutes until I can get out of this place.
It’s going to be a long night.
“Yes, I’d just like water with lemon, please,” the woman who I assume to be the mom says, picking up the menu in front of her to scan its contents while the others order their drinks.
“I’d like the same, thank you,” the man who appears to be the dad says, hardly sparing me a glance. “Mia? Tommy? What do you guys want?”
“Do you have Sprite?” the girl—Mia—asks loudly.
I nod and proceed to write a little note to bring Sprite.
“What about Pepsi?” the boy who must be Tommy questions, a twinge of accusation in his voice.
“We don’t carry Pepsi products; sorry,” I say with as much patience as I can muster. “We have Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Root Beer, lemonade . . .”
“I’ll just have water,” the boy finally decides, crossing his arm over his chest and drawing his eyebrows together in annoyance.
“Sounds good,” I mutter, scribbling down the drink orders before scampering back toward the kitchen. While I’m filling up the drinks, someone touches my shoulder, making me jump in surprise and nearly spill the Sprite.
“Rough night?” Jasper asks sympathetically.
“You regret coming yet?” I ask with a tiny smirk.
“Nah.” His voice is devoid of any signs of sarcasm.
Chewing on my lip, I turn my attention back toward the drinks and find a tray to balance them on, praying that they don’t spill. It’s never happened to me before, but I have a somewhat irrational fear that it’s going to happen one of these days.
“Gotta go,” I say, using my back to push the kitchen door open and plastering on a smile as I approach the family with their drinks. Once I’ve distributed the drinks to everyone, I relax. Another successful round of Lexi Brings Drinks Without Spilling Anything.
“Are you guys ready to order?” I ask, pulling out my notebook.
“Would you recommend the crab cakes or the fried oysters?” the mom asks, her nose still pointed at the pages in her menu.
I freeze in hesitation. One of my least favorite things as a waitress is when people ask me what I recommend. I haven’t tried over half of what’s on the menu, and my taste might be completely different than theirs. The possibility of telling them the wrong thing stresses me out.
Reagan says whenever this happens to just tell them to get the more expensive thing. Might as well take advantage of the extra potential income, she once told me with a shrug.
But I feel bad doing that to the customers, so instead I just try to take note of what dishes seem to be most popular, and base my answer off of that.
“Well I’ve only ever tried the crab cakes, but I thought they were good, and they seem to be pretty popular,” I offer.
“That’s what I was leaning toward,” she agrees, nodding her head approvingly. “I’ll take that.”
I scribble down a note for the crab cakes, internally sighing with relief.
“I’ll have the steak and shrimp combo, please,” the dad says, thankfully keeping it easy.
“I want chicken and French fries!” Tommy announces once it’s his turn to order.
“Okay,” I chirp, writing in the orders. Once I’m done, I look up at Mia. “And for you?”
“I don’t know,” she says, her nose scrunched up. “I don’t wanna order off the kids’ menu. It says ages ten and under and I’m eleven now.”
Refraining from sighing, I dig the heel of my shoe into the ground to avoid showing any outward signs of annoyance.
“Mia, you had all this time to look at the menu!” the mom scolds, casting an irritated sideways glance at her daughter. “Pick something.”
“I don’t know what I want!” she whines.
“One, two, three,” the mom begins counting slowly, and I can tell by the look on the girl’s face that an argument is about to go down.
“I don’t know, okay? God, it’s not like you asked if I was ready to order.”
I need to do something fast before a meltdown happens on my watch. Leaning forward to look at the menu, I point to a popular entrée that a lot of customers of various ages enjoy.
“How about this one?” I ask, attempting to keep the desperation out of my voice. “A lot of people love it.”
“What is it?” she queries, her face looking like she just sucked the lemon in her mom’s water.
“You’ll find out,” the mom snaps. Then, turning to me, she says, “She’ll just take that, thank you. That’ll be all.”
“Okay, it should be out shortly,” I say, offering a tight smile before hurrying back in the kitchen to hand off the order to one of the cooks. While I have a minute to myself, I let my eyes close and lean back against the wall, yawning. Oh, how lovely it will feel when I can go home and sleep.
“You feelin’ okay, Lex?” one of the cooks, a thirty-something guy named Jimmy, asks while digging out a bag of potatoes from a pantry beside me.
“Yeah,” I respond, blinking hard. “Just tired.”
“Aren’t we all,” he says with a chuckle. “Just another hour or so and the dinner rush should die down.”
“Hallelujah,” I mutter, which makes him grin.
Figuring that it’s best to be doing something productive, I push open the kitchen door and make my way to one of my other tables to see if they need anything. Once I’m back out in the main area, the mellifluous sound of laughter rings through the air, and I look up to catch sight of a table with a bunch of girls about my age flashing beautiful white smiles at whatever Jasper said to them.
My eyes shift toward Jasper and he’s grinning as well, and it takes everything inside of me to rip my gaze away and move on toward an elderly couple at one of my tables instead.
Jasper Reynolds flirting with a bunch of girls who are way prettier than I could ever dream to be.
It’s after eleven when I get home, Jasper slouched in the passenger seat, just as worn out as I am. His head leans against the cool glass window, and it takes me a moment to realize that he’s fast asleep, chest rising and falling at even intervals.
Smiling a little to myself, I unbuckle my seatbelt and lean over the center console to gently nudge him awake. “We’re home, J,” I tell him softly as he slowly blinks himself awake.
“Time to get out of my car, princess.”
He yawns and rubs his eyes groggily. After a moment of getting his bearings, he murmurs, “I don’t wanna go home.”
“Jasper,” I say firmly, shooting him a tired expression. “You need to go home or your mom’s gonna get worried.”
“Screw that,” he mutters. “Did you know when I got home from your place earlier today she had the nerve to tell me that I’m not spending enough time at home? She’s the one who took that job transfer out in Australia. And she gets mad when I want to spend every last second here with my friends.”
“She loves you,” I say. “You’re her only kid.”
“Lex, please,” he begs. “Look, I’ll text her and tell her where I’m at. But please, let me crash at your place. I don’t feel like dealing with her right now.”
“What’s she gonna do? It’s after eleven; for all you know she’s already asleep.”
He looks at me flatly. “The light in the living room is on and I know she’s not going to go to bed until she knows I’m home safe. And I already know what’s gonna happen when I walk through those doors. She’s gonna corner me and continue our discussion from earlier about how I’m never home and I just don’t want to see her right now. Please, let me stay with you.”
I hesitate. He’s crashed in my room in the past, and it’s not like it’s that big of a deal. But there’s a small voice in my head telling me that maybe this isn’t a good idea tonight. After hours of having to put on a good face and deal with forced interaction with many various people, I desperately need the evening alone to recharge.
“You’re gonna show me that you sent the text,” I finally relent, too tired to put up a proper argument. “And you will go home after you wake up tomorrow so she sees you’re okay. I don’t want Denise getting mad at me for stealing you away.”
His face lights up. “Thank you thank you thank you. And she won’t get mad at you; she loves you. She thinks you’re a good influence, and you know that’s a lot coming from her.”
“Yeah yeah.” I wave dismissively and pull the keys out of the ignition.
Denise Reynolds is the definition of your typical All-American mom, which is kind of ironic since she will soon be giving up her American citizenship. She and her husband both have rock solid jobs to tide them over, Sundays are reserved for church and afternoon football, they have a son who plays soccer and has a good head on his shoulders, it’s not uncommon for them to invite the neighborhood over for barbeques in the summer, and if her house is anything but spick and span, it simply will not do. She’s an honest woman with a deep compassion for others, particularly Jasper first and foremost. She’s the kind of mom that kids complain about and pretend to not like but are secretly thankful for, and Jasper is no exception.
He just gets fed up with her constant fussing over him and his whole diabetes situation. She’s always worried about him, understandably so, but he gets sick of her constantly hovering. And when she announced the move . . . let’s just say, she was not someone he wanted to associate himself with for a while. There’s been this unspoken tension between them since March, and Jasper does everything he can to stay away at all costs, which naturally puts Denise at unease. And so the cycle goes.
“Be quiet,” I say while we slip through the front door, the front room illuminated only by a small lamp and the moonlight outside. “Colleen and Willie are probably asleep upstairs.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” he says with a salute.
I roll my eyes and give him a weak shove.
“Come on, dork.”
He follows me up the stairs, making a clear effort to stay silent.
I duck my head and try to smother the smile that threatens to traverse across my face, but the corners of my lips and the ceiling appear to be magnetic poles that attract one another, so my efforts are soon deemed useless. Jasper Reynolds may be a total idiot, but he’s secretly a sweetheart.
Just don’t tell the other people in our grade; he doesn’t want his reputation to make him seem too soft. The diabetes thing already bends their perception of his state of fragility. And contrary to popular misconceptions, Jasper Reynolds is the definition of strength.
As far as I am aware, he only has one known weakness, which I’m sure anyone who knows us could already guess.
But not in the conceited I’m so good I’ve got him wrapped around my finger kind of way. The thing is, Jasper cares about me on a level deeper than merely a best friend. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see it. He treats me like his sister, best friend, and soulmate, all wrapped up into one. Which is dangerous for someone like me, who’s bound to get attached, only to have him ripped from my clutches in a few weeks’ time. And although he’s been trying to act nonchalant about the whole thing to help keep me sane, I know it’s killing him to have to leave me behind to fend for myself without his assistance. He knows how weak I am, no matter how hard I try to cover it up.
Commence reason number 3,952 why I am toxic for him. People like Jasper aren’t supposed to have to deal with serious real world problems, especially involving people like me. He doesn’t deserve that.
Me, I deserve whatever I get, really. I don’t have anything to offer this world except more problems and more damage. And it’s always people of Jasper’s kind who are left doing damage control, picking up after my mistakes, all out of the goodness of their heart. He mistakes the kind of bond that we have for friendship, when really it’s him who’s the friend, meanwhile I’m too selfish and caught up in my own life to give his the full attention it deserves, even when I want to.
We reach the top of the stairs, and the suffocating blackness of my room greets my eyelids, heavy with exhaustion. I creep over to my desk, flipping on a little lamp that instantly swallows the black, replacing it with a soft yellowy glow.
Jasper takes a seat at the edge of my bed, getting to work unbuttoning his work shirt, and I retrieve a faded old gray T-shirt of his that I kept from last summer when he left it hanging on the clothes line to dry after swimming in the bay, only to be forgotten. He catches it when I toss it to him, and I make a conscious effort not to look when he takes his work shirt off, exposing his irritatingly impressive abdomen.
Once I have a pair of shorts and a T-shirt picked out for me to sleep in, I hesitate, casting my eyes warily at Jasper, whose back is facing me at the moment.
It’s just Jasper, I try reasoning with myself. You changed with him in the room earlier and nothing happened. Stop being such a baby.
My hands tremble a little while I undo the first button of my shirt, and it’s only when I’m fumbling with the second one that I surrender to the gnawing panic in the pit of my stomach, no matter how unprecedented it may be. I can’t do this. Not with the possibility of him turning around at any point and seeing me.
It was light out when I changed earlier. The world was awake. Things were fine.
Nighttime doesn’t provide that kind of protection.
Weak, a voice in my head says coolly. You’ll never amount to anything if you keep this up.
After a while of hearing no movement, Jasper finally turns around to look at me and frowns.
“Are you okay? Why aren’t you in your pajamas?”
My mouth goes dry as I try to pinpoint a reasonable response, but my mind blanks and pathetically enough, I feel like crying. For oh, I don’t know, the fiftieth time this week alone.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” I finally blurt, refusing to look at him while I gather my clothes in my arms and make a dash for the lavatory down the hall. Once I’m inside, I lock the door and slink down on the ledge of the bathtub, trying to quell my intense panting and regain composure.
A brief image of ten-year-old me sitting in this exact position in the tiny bathroom back at my dad’s apartment trickles its way into my mind, and I fight to push it away.
This is different.
Be normal for once in your life! I mentally scream at myself, but this only makes me feel worse. I don’t even know what normal is.
Eventually, I’m able to at least get ahold of myself enough to stand up and make my way over to the sink, where I’ve discarded my pajamas in a crumpled ball. I quickly peel my work clothes off and change, feeling marginally better as the cool air greets my exposed skin, which feels hot and itchy.
Using the same hair elastic that I used earlier for work, I gather my hair into a messy bun and turn on the faucet, cupping my hands and splashing cold water onto my face. Once I’ve patted my skin dry and am ready to go face Jasper, I glance up at my reflection and try to convince myself that it’s something I can be confident enough to be proud of.
My attempt fails.
Dull blue eyes stare back at me, the color drained from them so much that they border on passing as an icy shade of gray. My lips are set in an impenetrable line, and it takes a lot of effort on my end to even lift them up into a small smile, albeit a blatantly fake one.
The only time I ever truly smile is when I’m with Jasper.
And yet I’m still terrified of doing something as miniscule as changing with him only a few feet away, facing the other direction.
Having seen enough, I turn away from my reflection and flip the light switch off, padding lightly back to my bedroom. I can feel my heart pulsating in my chest, but I try to ignore it. Try to ignore the shame of being just as weak as he and everyone else thinks I am.
He’s sitting in the same spot on my bed, eyes glazed out of focus, though there’s a worried crease present between his brows. As soon as he hears me enter, he blinks and looks over at me with an expression that is difficult to properly gauge.
“Are you okay?” is his instantaneous inquiry, as I should have suspected.
“Yup, I’m fine,” I reply blandly, leaving my work clothes in a pile on the floor near the door, which I tentatively shut behind me. “You good with your blood sugar thing or whatever?”
“Already took care of it,” he says, still eyeing me warily. “Look, if me staying here is an issue, I can go home . . .”
“No,” I immediately counter. I want to prove to myself that I can fix this. Or at least salvage what remnants of tonight I haven’t yet ruined. “Stay.”
“Lexi, I’m worried,” he admits, point blank, putting all the cards on the table.
“Don’t be.” My voice sounds as unenergetic and lifeless as I feel on the inside. “Let’s just get some sleep.”
I climb under the covers and settle into a comfortable position, trying to envision myself enshrouded in a feathery cluster of white puffy clouds, hundreds of yards off the ground. My eyelids suddenly feel heavy, and I allow them to flutter shut, the feeling of sleep already threatening to hold me hostage.
Jasper remains sitting at the foot of my bed, and from what I can tell, he’s made no attempt to move.
“I’m just gonna sleep on the floor,” he decides quietly.
As much as I don’t want to, I promptly sit up and narrow my eyes at him. “What are you talking about? Get up here; I’m not making you sleep on the floor.”
He fidgets. “Are you sure you’re comfortable with that? I mean, I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do, Lex.”
“You’ve slept over before and it wasn’t an issue,” I counter tiredly. “Please just turn off the lamp and get over here. I don’t have the energy to argue with you.”
Reluctantly, he does as told, and soon enough the room becomes a black hole swallowing the two of us up once again. He slowly makes his way across my room in the pitch black, finding the way to the empty side of my bed by memory, and the bed dips with his weight when he finally sits down and climbs in the spot beside me, keeping a generous space in between. The only sound comes from the melody of our breathing as our inhales and exhales mingle together. As my eyes begin to adjust to the darkness, the dim moon outside providing just enough light to make out the outline of his features, I suddenly find myself craving the comforting warmth of his touch.
Yet at the same time, there’s still a tiny leftover tremor of panic that makes me nearly shudder at the prospect of a teenage boy lying only several inches away from me. But I’m being ridiculous, it’s just Jasper.
I swear, my entire being of existence is nothing but one big contradiction.
“You’re sure you’re all right?” he whispers, voice slicing through the air only several moments after we’ve both gotten comfortable under the covers.
“Goodnight,” I murmur, both syllables feeling thick and raw as they pass through my tired lips.
He doesn’t respond, so I shift around and turn to face the side opposite him, consciousness already slipping from my grasp, each relaying moment shutting down another sector of my exhausted mind until a feeling of peace settles into nearly every cell of my body.
I’m almost completely oblivious to the world when my foggy state of half-consciousness recognizes the arm that drapes around my body protectively, making my insides feel fizzy like the carbonated bubbles you see when you first open a soda.
“Goodnight, Lexi,” a voice whispers softly into the darkness.