WHEN I WAKE UP the following morning, two unpleasant things catch my attention. The first of which being that according to the digital clock that resides tactfully on my bedside table, it is almost noon and I’m only now waking up to face the world, Jasper still dead asleep beside me, meaning I’ve already wasted the morning away. And the second being the fact that the bed feels like a hole found its way in the roof and drenched my sheets in rainwater overnight. Except, the weather didn’t call for any kind of precipitation, and there most certainly is no hole in the roof.
I lift the sheets up a bit and promptly let them flutter back down when the strong and somewhat repulsive stench of urine greets my nostril.
Yup. Just as I suspected.
I sigh for a moment, knowing I need to wake Jasper up but feeling awful about disturbing his innocent restfulness to inform him that he just so happened to wet the bed—my bed.
It’s not even that I’m mad—how could I be? It’s not his fault his diabetes makes his body store up a surplus of glucose in his blood that needs filtered out and as a result makes him have to pee a lot. He didn’t choose this. And it’s not like there’s really even anything he can do to prevent it; there isn’t.
But he’s gonna be mortified all the same when he wakes up and realizes.
Gently, I shake him awake, rocking his shoulders back and forth until his face twitches and his green eyes flutter open, landing immediately on my bleary face.
He yawns and rubs his eyes awake, and it only takes him a couple seconds to finally process the situation, realization smothering his features.
“Tell me I didn’t,” he pronounces gravely, his voice low and a bit croaky.
“Jasper, it’s okay—”
“No it’s not!”
He looks at me desperately and I sit up, trying hard to ignore the dampness on my bare legs. If it were anyone else, I would be highly repulsed right now; maybe even too mortified to ever face them again. But this is Jasper—my Jasper—who carved our initials into a tree to remind me that he’s here for me, even when no one else is; who is always feeding me stupid little compliments every chance he can get in hopes to boost my Dead Sea self-esteem; who was willing to sacrifice his Friday night last night to work with me and then transfer the money he earned over to my paycheck, even after I told him not to.
For a brief moment, neither one of us says anything, and I take the opportunity to climb out of bed to retrieve a couple of towels from the hall closet, tossing one to Jasper, who doesn’t make an effort to catch it, and holding onto the other to use for the shower I’m going to be taking in a few minutes.
“I can’t believe this happened. It hasn’t happened in almost two years.” For a moment, he remains sitting rigidly in place, his eyes glazed out of focus as he tries to come to terms with the situation. And then he looks up, alert, and there’s a discernible self-loathing evident in his features that makes my skin crawl in overprotectiveness. “Look, I’ll take all your sheets and everything to the laundromat and get them washed right now,” he asserts, crawling out from my bed and already getting to work bundling all my covers up into one giant pile.
I step forward and rest a hand on his arm, promptly stopping him from continuing his efforts.
“You don’t have to do this right now,” I tell him gently, honestly. “Take a shower first. Go home. Get changed. It’s really not a big deal; I’m not mad.”
“Yeah well I am!” he nearly shouts, desperation dripping angrily from his voice. “What kind of seventeen-year-old loser still wets the bed? Or has to check his blood sugar multiple times a day to make sure I have enough insulin because my body doesn’t wanna cooperate and do its job. God, I hate diabetes!”
“Jasper,” I choke out quietly, feeling slightly nauseous at the sight of him feeling so upset and worked up. “This. Is not. Your fault. Okay? It’s not.”
He rakes a hand through his hair, causing a couple random pieces to stick out in funny directions. “Sometimes I feel like such a freak,” he mutters, staring at the ground like it just spread a rumor about him. “Constantly watching what I eat, making sure to get enough exercise, making sure I’m giving myself enough insulin, having my mom text me every hour wondering how I’m doing. I never asked for any of this.”
“Of course you didn’t,” I agree gently. “But it’s what you get, and I know that’s not fair, but life sucks and life isn’t fair and the best thing we can do is deal with it and help each other out the best we can to make it a little more bearable, ya know?”
It takes me a minute to realize that my heartbeat is thrumming madly against my chest, winded from the anxiety from witnessing Jasper have a meltdown, something that almost never happens. He’s supposed to be the calm one, the one in control who can deal with any situation. It’s supposed to be him solacing me because I’m the unstable one. That’s how it’s always been.
I know that he secretly hates the fact that he has diabetes, even though he likes to joke around about it with his friends and shrug it off with a cool nonchalance when people ask him how he copes with it. He hates when he can’t have an extra slice of pizza at lunch like the rest of his friends because his blood sugar is too high. It kills him when he has to sit the bench in a soccer game because he starts feeling lightheaded and has to eat something, or because he has to pee for the third time in the last two hours.
But the thing about Jasper Reynolds is that he’s a fighter, and he doesn’t let the little things like this get to him too much. He has to shake it off, otherwise he’ll be spending the rest of his life under the radar, missing out on all the fun and opportunities.
For a while, neither one of us says anything. What more is there to say? ’Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone that you peed in my bed while we were sleeping in it because I don’t have any other friends to tell’? Of course not, especially because the latter part of that statement is already blatant enough.
“Lex?” he says softly after about a minute.
My brows crinkle together. “For what? I already said it’s not your fault so you don’t have to—”
“For being weak,” he promptly interrupts. “I guess I just overreacted because, let’s be real, it’s embarrassing that I’m a couple months away from eighteen and still wetting the bed, even if it only happens rarely, and the fact that I wet your bed makes this ten times more humiliating. But I don’t want you thinking of me in a poor pathetic ‘woe is me’ kind of way. I want to be strong for you. So I can be there for you.”
For some reason, this comment annoys me. No, scratch the “some reason” part of that sentence; I know exactly the reason why.
“Stop thinking of me as only something that needs to be fixed all the time,” I snap.
“I don’t think of you as—”
“Stop. Yes you do. I know you wanna be there for me, and that’s great, but you can’t be there forever. I thought at the beginning of this summer that maybe if I pretended that you aren’t leaving that that’ll make it go away, but it isn’t. And you can’t patch up something that isn’t yours to fix, you know? It’s not your job to help me; I never asked you to do that. All I want is a friend. And I couldn’t care less if that friend is weaker than I am, or if they’re a diabetic with an insulin pump who wets the bed every now and then and walks around with a service dog. I don’t care about that stuff. Being there doesn’t always equate to being strong, it literally just means that you’re with the other person. And you know what? Sometimes that’s enough.”
He chews his lip, and I can tell I got him thinking by the pensive look that washes over his face.
“Hey Lex?” he says a few moments later. “I just want you to know. You’re not as weak as you think you are. I really mean that. You’re gonna be fine when I’m gone; you’ll see.”
“Yeah, okay,” I murmur, somewhat sardonically.
“I’m being serious. You’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. If anything, I’m the weak one here, not you.”
I freeze, flitting my eyes upward to meet his. No, I want to say. If you had any idea what I think about when you’re not around, you wouldn’t be saying that.
I grab the towel and make my way to the door, my hand pausing over the cool brassy surface. “Everyone has weakness, J. Some people are just better at hiding it than others, that’s all.”
“And some people are stronger than they realize,” he adds.
I grip the doorknob, my knuckles blanching. “Go home and shower and then come meet me so we can drop all this off at the laundromat,” I say, pointing vaguely in the direction of my bed with my free hand.
“Okay,” he says quietly. “And Lex? Do you have any pants or anything I can borrow? I’d rather not let the world witness me leaving your house with a giant pee stain if I can help it.”
I smile. “In my dresser; bottom drawer to the right, there’s a pair of sweatpants you left here a few months back.”
“How much of my clothes do you have?” he asks jokingly. “Geez, if I didn’t know any better I’d think you were my girlfriend.”
My face heats up at the mention of the word girlfriend and I chuck a jacket hanging on the back of my desk chair at him, which he easily dodges. “I’m taking my shower now,” I announce, trying desperately to ignore the sly grin on his face, no doubt there because of the fact that I’m blushing so hard.
The sun that smiled down on the earth for the past several days has finally decided to take a break from its constant cheeriness, and today it hides behind a cluster of gray and white clouds. There’s a thickness to the air, like we’re standing in a sauna, and I wonder if the weather is calling for a storm tonight.
Maybe a full out, raging thunderstorm is exactly what I need to gather my wits.
The familiar sight of the cracked and disintegrating black and white sign that reads The Book Nook captures my attention, and I exhale soundly, feeling like I’ve finally found my home after being lost for several years. The corners of my mouth quirk up into a tiny smile and I pull the shop door open, taking a deep breath as the scent of old literature immediately hugs the sensors of my nose like a long-lost friend.
Jasper follows me wordlessly, despite the fact that he hasn’t touched a single book all summer and has no intention of changing that withstanding tradition of his. While I make my way down the narrow aisles lined with countless tales with worn binding and yellowed pages, he slides into his usual red leather armchair by the window, next to the little stand that offers coffee to any customers, looking much more at peace than he did earlier this morning, now that he’s showered and dropped my bed sheets off to be washed clean.
My finger trails along the cracked spines, pulling out a book with a name that catches my interest to read the description or flip to a random page to taste test an excerpt every so often.
This is my happy place.
A particular book captures my attention, and I think back to the summer before freshman year, about a month after I first talked to Jasper at the carnival.
“What’re you reading?” he queried several feet away from where I sat, sending an unwarranted jolt through my body at the unexpected sound of his voice.
“You scared me,” I admitted breathlessly, laying the book down on the splintery, graying surface of the dock and squinting up at him. “What are you doing here?”
He slowly came and took a seat beside me, letting his legs dangle over the edge of the dock, his toes just skimming the surface of the water. Beside him, Champ lay down, yawning drowsily as the sunlight illuminated her black and white fur.
“Inviting you to a bonfire at Ethan Schultz’ house,” he replied casually. “A bunch of people are gonna be there and I think you should come.”
I hesitated, chewing uncertainly on my lip as I thought about how me showing up to a bonfire at a popular soccer player like Ethan Schultz’ house would go over. Only negative outcomes came directly to mind, most of them ending with me sitting alone, isolated from the rest of the group while everyone else chattered and laughed over jokes that I could only dream of being part of.
When I first moved here, I was so shy and unsettled with the new location that I didn’t make much of an effort to befriend anyone, which the other kids seemed to understand and respect fairly quickly. By the time middle school was out, people just knew not to bother trying with me, kind of like how they knew that Meredith is good for a laugh or Jasper is that guy who you can trust to tell your boy troubles to because he’s one of the few who aren’t total douchebags.
Me and social events just didn’t mix, like water and oil, or Halloween costumes on Easter.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I murmured quietly, because back then I was still quite shy around Jasper, though I was slowly warming up to him the more he pushed for a friendship. “I’m not really much of a social person.”
He laughed, but not in a mean or mocking kind of way. It was more like ha ha you silly goose you don’t think I know you well enough to know that by now? kind of laugh.
“I know that,” he said. “I want you to give it a try, though. I mean, I’m totally not forcing you or anything, but it could be fun. I think I heard that Meredith and River are going, and I’ll be there with you, too.”
At the time, that last part about him being there with me went right over my head. All I heard was Meredith and River are going.
Meaning they didn’t even tell me about it and at least give me the option of tagging along like they normally did. Meaning I had just another reason to be scared about losing my best friend to a guy once and for all.
“I’m sorry, I can’t.”
He frowned, and there was genuine disappointment in his eyes. “How come you never want to hang out with everyone in our grade? They’re not as bad as you may think, I promise. I can introduce you to everyone and I’ll stay with you the whole time if you want me to and—”
“I’m really sorry, but I’m not going,” I said apologetically. “I’m too quiet for those things, and I really don’t know what to say around other people most of the time.”
“This isn’t about Meredith and River, is it?” he asked.
“Can I please just read my book?” I asked timidly, keeping my head down, staring dully down below at the rippling water.
“You like reading a lot, don’t you?” he asked, scooting closer so he was only mere centimeters away. “You still haven’t told me which book you’re reading, by the way.”
My stomach flipped at his sudden proximity and my cheeks turned a nice rosy shade of red.
“Um, it’s called To Kill a Mockingbird,” I replied shyly, resisting the impulse to scoot away from his sudden closeness.
He reached over me and plucked it up from where it rested beside my thigh and flipped through the pages, being sure to keep a finger in the spot where I left off. A tiny crease formed between his brows while he skimmed through it, and I found myself studying the way he licked his lips every so often, and the way his hair was that in-between shade where it wasn’t quite brown but it wasn’t exactly blonde, either. It was the color of wet sand.
“Tell me what it’s about,” he said after a few relaying moments of looking it over, handing it back to me and swinging his legs back and forth a bit, resulting in quiet splish splash sounds in the water below as his toes dipped in and out.
“Do you actually care?” I found myself asking, somewhat dubiously.
He shrugged. “I mean, the likelihood that I’ll ever read a book that isn’t on Spark Notes is pretty slim to none, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like hearing the story.”
“Um, okay, I guess. I-it’s about racial prejudice in the south, and the main character, Scout’s, dad is a white lawyer who agrees to defend a colored person who was wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, even though it’s kind of obvious that he’s going to lose the case. And I guess it’s just about doing the right thing, even when it’s hard.”
Beside me, Jasper sighed peacefully, thrumming his fingers softly on the dock and listening intently.
“You’re really happy when you talk about books,” he noted.
I bit my lip and stared down at my lap, feeling embarrassed.
For the second time since I met him, he took my hand and slowly linked my fingers with his, staring at me tentatively the whole time to search for signs of discomfort or unease.
Aside from the fact that my face felt like it was sunburned from blushing so hard, I didn’t give him any.
“I know we haven’t exactly been friends for a while,” he started, “but you can talk to me. Everyone needs friends, and Meredith isn’t exactly your best option right now since she’s all lovey dovey or whatever with River. I get it; it sucks being rejected by your friends. Believe me; it’s happened to me before. But you gotta have somebody to talk to. And I don’t mind that you’d rather spend the night reading than hanging out with other people, or that you’re really shy. I like you and want to be your friend, if that’s cool with you.”
Something about this speech struck me as odd. Not that being a compassionate sweetheart was totally out of the realm of possibility with Jasper, but something about his words seemed a little too . . . prepared. Like he was expecting my answer, and already accounted for the reply he would give me when I rejected his offer to tag along to the bonfire.
“Did my aunt make you be friends with me?” I blurted.
Not that I would’ve put it past Aunt Colleen; she was just as worrisome and finicky about my social life as my real mom would’ve been if she were here. She was constantly suggesting that I go to all sorts of different social events, encouraging me to put myself out there and make new friends. She had been fairly good friends with Jasper’s parents longer than I had lived here, so it only made sense that she would want to entrust Jasper with the position to take me in under his wing and show me the ropes to what a true, healthy friendship looks like.
But still, if he was only saying all of that because that was what my aunt wanted, then I most certainly wasn’t going to go along with it. I had some pride.
His eyes skirted my face and he sighed, defeated.
“She might have initiated some of this, but hear me out, please.” He tightened his grip on my hand when I made a move to get up, anchoring me to my spot. His eyes searched mine, pleading for a chance. “I’ll be honest with you because you deserve the truth, okay? Yeah, Colleen asked me to befriend you. But that was after she saw us hanging out at the carnival. This was my choice, she just kind of helped speed up the process. Honestly, I’ve always found you kind of intimidating. Like, you never really acknowledge anyone in our grade, you always keep your head down . . . Part of me wondered if it was because you didn’t like people. But I realize now that it’s just because you’re shy, and I want you to know that you have someone who you don’t have to be shy around anymore, you know? I’ll be your friend; you just gotta let it happen.
I felt my mouth go dry as I tried to process what he said. Since when did anyone put in that much of an effort to know me?
A hand suddenly lands on my shoulder, sending an audible gasp spilling hastily from my mouth before I can stop it. A relieved rush of air expels from my lungs when I see it’s just Meredith, though I can’t stop the look of disbelief that etches its way onto my face at the sight of her in a bookstore. Meredith Billingsley and books go together about as much as ketchup and watermelon.
“Lexi! Hey!” she greets, flashing a big, white-toothed grin at me warmly. “Okay, this is totally perfect that I’d run into you here. Do you know where they’d keep a copy of Macbeth? I need it for the summer reading that I kind of put off until now and the guy who works here scares the crap out of me.”
Unable to help myself, I snicker amusedly and shush her, glancing over my shoulder to make sure nobody’s around. “He could hear you right now,” I whisper, even though I’m smiling.
She shrugs, brushing a stray lock of curly auburn hair away from her tan, freckled face. “Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time too loudly totally would be the way I’d go,” she quips, her face contorting into a devious grin.
I smile, a wave of nostalgia swelling inside of me. For a moment, it almost feels like old times, back before River entered the picture. It’s just me and Meredith, laughing over one of her witty remarks. And something about that feels like home, even though I was long ago pushed out of that home to make room for a new dweller.
If there’s one thing that I miss most about Meredith, it’s her unremitting audaciousness, which temporarily helped coax me at least a fraction of the way out of my shell in the latter half of my middle school days. She was always concocting crazy schemes and ideas, ranging from slightly risky behaviors like jumping off her trampoline into her pool and progressively working our way up to borderline normal things like prank calling Josh Gibbons and sneaking into the community pool just to say we did.
If it weren’t for her, I’d have virtually no stories from middle school to keep locked away in the chambers of my brain. And despite the fact that we aren’t exactly close enough to be considered friends anymore like we once were, that still means a lot to me.
“They have a section for classics in the back; that’s where they usually keep Shakespearian stories.” I point the general way out for her.
She quickly gathers me in a thankful hug. “You are such a doll.”
I shrug and turn to go, feeling guilty for keeping Jasper waiting, when she grabs my arm, stopping me.
“Hey, I know I am absolutely horrible about saying we should do something and then never following through, but are you free this coming Friday? I’d really like to catch up.”
“You and River don’t have any plans?” I ask, finding it surprising that they wouldn’t soak up every spare minute they can together before he leaves for college.
Something in her expression hardens, and suddenly her defenses are raised. “Believe me, it won’t be an issue.”
Staring at her warily, I nod my head. “Then yeah, I’d love to catch up. Just text me the details at some point.”
Yeah, leave the situation in her hands so she can forget and skip out again. Good plan.
“I will for sure,” she says. “Listen, I gotta go buy this stupid book before my mom gives me another lecture on procrastinating and using Spark Notes, even though that’s totally what everyone else does and I’m literally only buying the dang book to show her that I have it, but I mean it about this Friday. I miss you.”
“Yeah, you too. I’ll see ya,” I say, sending her one last smile before we finally turn to go our separate ways.
Feeling somewhat lost and tired and no longer in the mood to spend any money, I make my way to the front of the narrow shop, where Jasper is lounging in the same chair as earlier, head propped on his hand and eyes closed.
I slowly creep behind him, feeling an opportunity coming on. Right as he exhales the air from his lungs, I grab his shoulders, which sends him bolting upright immediately.
“Gotcha! Sucker,” I proclaim slyly when he looks up in alarm, his lips curling into a devious smirk when he sees that it’s me.
“Oh, it is on,” he says, springing up from his seat. He goes to lunge at me but I’m too quick, ducking out of the way. He tugs on Champ’s leash, coaxing her up from her sitting position on the floor, and I take the opportunity to make a beeline for the door, Jasper and Champ following closely in my wake.
I sprint as fast as my legs permit, a mixture of laughs and pants. While I run, the sights of Main Street blur past, first the coffee shop, then a thrift store, followed by a pizzeria, maintenance shop, and so on. The sidewalks are relatively stripped clean of pedestrians, which isn’t surprising, given that the weather is calling for rain tonight and there really isn’t all that much to do in town, anyway. But Jasper and I like walking around all the shops, because it’s a lot quieter and homier on this side of town than it is on the beach side, which is almost eternally bustling with travelers, particularly this time of year before school starts back up.
Finally, I make it to the laundromat, my lungs already feeling like collapsing, as pathetic as that is. I thrust the door open and let it clamber shut behind me, smiling triumphantly at an amused Jasper through the other side and forming an L shape with my fingers, which I promptly bring to my forehead to direct at him with a smug expression. It’s not often I can actually outlast Jasper in a chase.
“I win,” I mouth to him victoriously through the fingerprint-stained glass door.
One of the few times that I feel completely and utterly at ease with the world, no matter how awful of a day I’ve had, is when it’s family game night with Colleen and Willie. Colleen tries to maintain that every Saturday night be family game night, mostly to appease to Willie’s restless need for entertainment and fun, though secretly I don’t even mind giving up my Saturday evenings to cozy up on the living room floor in a hand-crafted pillow fort with a steamy mug of hot chocolate warming my palms and the layout of Sorry! or Monopoly resting by my feet.
Tonight’s game of choice is Jenga, though Willie’s stubby fingers are a bit unsteady and it’s taken him quite a few failed attempts to understand the strategy of the game.
“How are things with Jasper?” Aunt Colleen asks while Willie inspects the stack of wooden blocks, lips pursed and curly locks of hair spilling over his forehead, his stomach flat against the ground and his elbows angled against the floor, allowing his hands to prop his head up. She’s sitting with her back against the couch beside him, dressed in an oversized T-shirt and capris sweatpants. “You two doing okay?”
“We’re okay,” I muse, picking up my mug to take a sip of hot chocolate and zeroing in on the blocks in front of me, avoiding her calculating stare.
After our little argument last night, we ended up not telling Aunt Colleen that Jasper slept over. Especially after what happened this morning with the whole bed wetting incident. He was embarrassed enough as it was that I had to deal with it, but the thought of Aunt Colleen finding out was too much. Which was totally understandable.
Willie finally makes his move, pulling out a block and managing not to tip the whole tower over this time, which results in a wide grin glossing over his lips. “I did it! I’m getting good,” he announces proudly.
“Don’t get too cocky, Willie Banilli,” Aunt Colleen scolds gently. “Arrogance is not a good trait.”
“I’m not cocky!” he disputes. “I’m a good boy.”
Aunt Colleen shoots me a wry expression. “I dunno, Lex. Do we believe it?”
I shrug innocently at her, looking as Willie with feigned doubt. “I don’t know . . . he could be lying . . .”
“I don’t lie,” he grumbles indignantly.
“Should we check to see if he’s lying?” Aunt Colleen asks me, pretending to look unconvinced. “I heard the tickle monster can make any lie come out.”
I nod solemnly. “I think that is an excellent idea.”
Aunt Colleen inches forward and then jerks her hands forward, splaying her fingers across Willie’s sides and letting them dance across his pajama shirt.
“Okay, okay!” he sputters, giggling up a storm. “I flushed one of your teddies down the toilet, but I just wanted it to go swimming!”
It takes a moment to process what he’s talking about. And then I remember—Aunt Colleen has a thing for Cherished Teddies, those little teddy bear figurines. Her mom, who used to collect them, passed them down to Aunt Colleen before she died several years ago, and they now reside on the various mantles strewn around her house, little reminders of my grandma, though I never officially met her.
She wanted nothing to do with me, or my mom who chose to move out from home and move to New York to chase after my dad, and then she passed away of old age before I ever got a chance to meet her properly.
“You did what?” Aunt Colleen asks, incredulous. “William Jacob Butterfield!”
“It was an accident!” he cries. “It wanted to go swimming. And now it can swim happily!”
“Willie, that was a very bad thing that you did. My mom gave me those before she died.”
Aunt Colleen tries to glare at Willie, but it’s hard not to notice the slight twitching of her lips. Come on, it’s funny.
I don’t even try to hold back from laughing, a series of giggles erupting from inside, my smile so wide that I can feel the indentation of my dimple take form. Eventually, Aunt Colleen joins in, and after a moment of confusion over what’s so funny when he’s supposed to be getting scolded, Willie laughs too, and the three of us are all sprawled out on the floor, lying on our backs, a stream of laughter effervescing out of our stomachs and into the open air, and for the time being, we are a normal family without a care in the world or an uncle deployed overseas or a mom who has been dead for seven years or a daughter who is slowly falling apart, one day at a time.
I try to push any negative thoughts out of my head because for once, I feel light and free and the thought of August thirty-first is not hanging over my head like a cloud of dark, ominous smoke poking at my skin and testing my limits with wispy tendrils.
But as the realization that I’m not thinking about it sets in, I find myself thinking about it once again. And just like that, the switch inside of me flips back to its default setting, and the laughter slowly dies from my throat.
In twenty-six days, I’m going to be alone.
And just when I was having a bit of fun with someone other than Jasper, someone who will still be here when August fades into oblivion and September becomes concrete, I had to go and ruin it by letting myself think negatively. Like the selfish coward I am.
I don’t even want to think about what I’ll be like once he’s really gone.
It’s too scary to think about.