THERE ARE VERY FEW places in this world that make me feel like I’m at home, some of these including my bedroom at Aunt Colleen’s house, Jasper’s family’s boat when they take it out for a spin on the bay, The Book Nook, and the serene atmosphere of a small coffee shop on Main Street called Europa. It’s named after the moon orbiting Jupiter, and manned and operated by a small woman with a fetish for all things astronomy. You know, scientific research has proven that it is very possible that there could be some forms of life on Europa, Cass, the owner of the coffee shop would say. If you don’t think that’s cool, you need to redefine your idea of exciting.
We walk up to the line, which is presently unoccupied, and a skinny boy from the nearby community college with a pair of those black hipster-looking glasses and a The Smiths T-shirt that I recognize to be named James nods at us.
“What can I get for you two today?” he asks diffidently, straightening out a stack of menus lining the wall beside the cash register as an excuse to avoid eye contact while he waits for our reply.
“Lex?” Jasper prods, diverting his attention from the menu for a split second to see if I’m ready to order.
“Small strawberry banana smoothie, please,” I say, sticking to my usual request.
“And you?” James asks, watching Jasper.
“Man, decisions,” Jasper muses, shaking his head in mock distress. “I’ll just take what she’s having.”
“Okay,” James says, punching numbers into the cash register. “Will that be together or separate?”
“Together,” Jasper says at the same time I say, “Separate.”
The cashier looks back and forth between us for a moment before Jasper eventually slides a ten dollar bill in his direction. Looking somewhat relieved, the young man says, “That’ll be six seventy-four.”
“So how’s your summer been, James?” Jasper asks conversationally while James counts out his change.
“Huh? Oh. It’s been pretty good. Going by too fast, though.” He shrugs.
“Agreed.” Jasper’s eyes dart in my direction. “It’d be great if life had a pause button.”
“Yeah . . . Here’s your change; your drinks should be out shortly,” James says, clinging to impersonal formalities like they’re his lifeline. Not that I can blame him; I’m awful at making small talk with people, too.
Jasper grabs a seat at a table in the corner, illuminated by a lightbulb hanging down from the ceiling, which is painted black and speckled with hundreds of holes where the light filters in, looking like a bunch of stars. The walls are painted the same black and are covered with little flecks of light poking through meant to represent stars, and detailed versions of all the planets in our solar system, plus the sun, are painted on walls around the room.
Cass really outdid herself when she created the shop, with the help from her older brother, who is evidently an incredible painter. You walk inside and automatically feel like you’ve been sucked out of orbit and are floating around in a coffee bean-scented Milky Way galaxy.
“This place makes me wanna be an astronaut and explore space,” Jasper says once we’ve sat down.
“It makes me realize how small we really are, in the grand scheme of things,” I muse.
Jasper’s nose scrunches. “But if you zoom in on that earth painting over there a thousand times, you’ll see us sitting right here in this little café, and even though we make, like, no impact on the universe as a whole, in this tiny, concentrated little ecosystem of people and animals and plants, life would be completely different if we weren’t here. And maybe life isn’t about the big picture; maybe it’s the little details that count.”
I sigh dreamily, basking in his words. “You should be a poet,” I murmur, resting my head on my hand and slouching forward.
He snorts. “Contrary to popular belief, my brain is about as deep as a kiddie pool. I just call it like I see it and every once in a while I get lucky and say something vaguely poetic-sounding. You’re the one who should write between the two of us.”
Silence blankets the air around us, though the faint humming of a coffee machine and lull of music emanating from the overhead speakers prevents us from being enshrouded by total quiet. I glance up at Jasper, who’s now typing away on his black iPhone, most likely texting one of the soccer guys back. A lock of hair falls in his face as he looks down at his phone, and I have to refrain from leaning across the table to brush it out of the way.
My gaze lowers to the wooden surface of our table, carved initials covering its exterior. Cass says that she wants to keep her coffee shop messy, raw. That’s how the universe is, she once said when Jasper and I questioned her nonchalance in regards to the vandalism on her tables.
James ventures to our table, each hand holding a strawberry banana smoothie topped with whipped cream. “Here you are,” he says, laying both plastic cups down on the table. “Enjoy.”
“Thanks,” I say, and Jasper finally puts his phone away, glancing up at James and smiling in gratitude.
“You know, I had an epiphany the other day,” Jasper says once James has scurried back toward the front desk where people go to place their order.
“Which was?” I probe after taking a sip of my smoothie, the creamy blend of strawberry and banana giving my taste buds a delicious fruit-flavored ice bath.
Jasper swirls his straw around in his cup, looking distant and focused at the same time. “August is the only month with no traditionally celebrated holidays. Like in January you have New Year’s, February you have President’s Day and Valentine’s Day, March you have Saint Patrick’s Day, April is usually when Easter is, May is Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, June is Father’s Day, July is the Fourth Of July, September is Labor Day, October is Halloween, November is Thanksgiving, and December is Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza or whatever people celebrate. But August has nothing.”
“Huh,” I say, because I’ve never thought about that before. “August is usually when the whole back to school thing happens though, and people kinda look at that as if it’s a holiday.”
He shakes his head. “Doesn’t count. It kinda sucks, you know? Like why doesn’t August get a holiday?”
It does seem kind of unfair. August is such an important month; it’s a month of both beginnings and endings. It’s the end of the summer and the beginning of a school year simultaneously. And maybe that’s what makes it magical. It’s still hot, but there’s an unspoken chill to the air as the prospect of autumn looms around the corner. The beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. Maybe it’s all relative.
“I’m gonna go grab a napkin,” Jasper says after a dribble of whipped cream overflowing from the lid slides down his cup and onto the table.
He gets up, and I take idle note that he left Champ at home again today. Sometimes I get so accustomed to him having Champ that I forget that he even has her. But when he doesn’t have her, it almost feels weird. I wonder if he had to fight his mom on leaving her at home. She’s usually pretty adamant about Jasper taking Champ with him wherever he goes.
While Jasper crosses the room to retrieve a napkin, the sound of the main entrance door opening fills the coffee shop with a soft screech, but I make no move to turn around and see who it is, instead leaning forward to take another sip of my smoothie.
That is, until the high pitched squeal of some girl stops me dead in my tracks. “Meg!” the girl exclaims, and I can hear her running up to me.
My heart does a nervous somersault, and I turn around to face a really tall girl with a deep tan, wearing an OBX T-shirt. Most likely a tourist.
The girl behind her, who bears the same deep tan but is a few inches shorter, snickers. “Well that’s not Megan,” she concedes.
“Oh my God, I am so sorry,” the tall girl gasps. “I thought you were our friend who we’re supposed to be meeting here.”
“That’s okay,” I murmur, my face reddening. Like anyone would actually be that excited to see me anyway.
“Yeah . . . sorry ’bout that,” the shorter girl adds with an apologetic shrug before they turn toward another table on the far end of the shop at the same time Jasper returns with a stack of napkins in his hands.
“Megan, right?” he asks with a wry smile as he slides back into his chair.
“Shut up.” I roll my eyes.
“You know what we haven’t done in ages that I think we should do today?” he asks, changing the subject.
I look at him questioningly.
“Go for a drive. Windows down, music blasting, no worries. I think we both need some of that.”
“To where?” I ask.
Somewhere behind me, the main entrance chimes, signaling that someone has entered, and I can hear Megan and her two friends reuniting with each other. My muscles tense and I self-consciously look down at my smoothie, trying to drown out the sound of exclusion, which is ridiculous since I don’t actually know any of these girls. Still, their squeals and rapid chatter serve as a bold reminder of a life I’ve never lived but always longed to be part of.
“If I have to leave Abilene in twenty-four days, I want to be sure I’ve experienced every inch of Abilene that there is to experience. I don’t want a single square inch to go undiscovered by my eyes,” Jasper says after a moment of pondering.
“I feel like we have discovered every possible square inch, though,” I counter. “It’s not a very big town.”
He shakes his head in disagreement. “No way. There are plenty of places we have yet to experience. And like it or not, you’re going to accompany me to go find them.”
I don’t really have any reason to protest, as his quest is very much a viable one, so I look at him one last time and give a half-shrug. “I guess it would be a shame to let you leave without feeling like an expert on all of the shining empire that is Abilene.”
He looks at me and smiles, and I know that even if I didn’t want to do it, I would have eventually cracked at the mere sight of that horribly wonderful smile.
“I don’t believe this. What is wrong with you? I’m actually embarrassed for you right now,” I say, burying my head in my hands.
Jasper sings—loudly—to Bet On It from High School Musical 2, which is currently blaring out of the windows of his jeep. Sassy hand gestures that closely resemble Zac Efron’s choreography during the scene of this particular number are being thrown left and right, and I glance nervously at the car parked beside us at the stoplight, hoping their windows aren’t down so they can remain blissfully unaware of the spectacle beside them.
No such luck. Their windows are down and the middle aged couple is staring—hard.
“The fact that you have this on a playlist on your phone has me somewhat concerned,” I shout over the music.
“It’s a seduction technique. I play High School Musical songs for the women I want to woo,” he shouts back, hand thumping on the steering wheel in tune to the music. “Plus, it’s catchy as hell.”
Unable to help myself, I burst into laughter.
Thankfully, the light turns green several seconds later, and the married couple in the vehicle beside us is spared from enduring another second of Jasper’s Troy Bolton impersonation.
“You’re ridiculous!” I yell between spells of laughter as he continues singing along to the lyrics with a startling accuracy.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got just the thing you need,” he responds, grabbing his phone from the center console and sliding his thumb across the bottom of his screen and typing his four digit passcode to unlock. He glances at the road before promptly looking back down and clicking a button to change the song. As soon as the first few notes fill the air around us, I stiffen and shoot him my best death glare.
“Come on, Gabriella! We’re soarin’, flyin’,” he starts singing along to the song, holding a pretend microphone to his face with one hand and drumming his hands on the steering wheel with the other.
“I’m gonna contact all the girls you meet in Australia and tell them that you still sing and dance to High School Musical songs,” I threaten, finding it increasingly hard to remain serious.
“Come on Lex, this won’t work if you don’t be the Gabriella to my Troy,” he whines.
I fold my arms. “No way.”
He continues singing persistently. Then, raising his pitch a few decibels, he sings the Gabriella part for me.
“No!” I protest, giggles bubbling up my throat. “Don’t do that; you sound terrible.”
By now he’s half singing, half shouting.
I shake my head and look out the window as the world whizzes past in a green and blue blur. Unbelievable.
“Come on!” he presses, dropping his air microphone and instead latching tightly onto my hand, giving it a prompting squeeze. “Duet with me!”
“Okay okay!” I relent, shaking his hand out of my grasp. I cannot seriously hold his hand while he sings me High School Musical songs. I just can’t.
I join in all the Gabriella parts, and by the time we hit the chorus the second time around, we’re both sing-shouting and laughing so hard that our stomachs hurt. A good kind of hurt.
“Hold on, I got the next song,” I say, grabbing his phone and typing his passcode to unlock it. 1-7-0-0. His soccer jersey number and the amount of times he’s made out with his current celebrity crush (zero, not seven hundred). (He wishes that number was seven hundred.)
I scroll through Jasper’s extensive song selection of ballads ranging from eighties rock hits to modern country songs to—yes—High School Musical, before finding the song that I want.
“Four, tres, two, uno,” sounds from Jasper’s speakers, and Fergalicious begins rumbling with the bass. It’s our secret guilty pleasure song that we like to jam out to on car trips.
“D-to the E-to the L-I-C-I-O-U-S,” we sing in unison, both of our faces smothered with ridiculous grins. When we get to the rap part, we’re singing so loud we’re practically shouting.
“Wait! What is that road?” Jasper suddenly asks when the song is about three-quarters of the way over, turning the music down to a level that isn’t borderline deafening.
“I dunno,” I admit, studying it. “I don’t usually go up this way.”
“Me neither. Let’s investigate,” he says.
“Dude, hold on. What if it’s private property?” I query, feeling nervous as he slows the car and pulls into the dirt road before us.
“Then we turn around and leave satisfied with the knowledge that we discovered a new place in Abilene; something I never thought was possible after living here my whole life.”
He has a point, I realize, though there is still an unsettled feeling rocking around the pit of my stomach like a ship being tossed over a stormy sea. I have never been comfortable with uncharted territory.
Although it’s unknown whether our adventure is a legal one, it sure is pretty. A canopy of oak and hickory trees with lush, green leaves towers above us, as if protectively shielding us from the outside world. The sun filters through the leaves with electric lime and golden silhouettes, and the thicket of woods surrounding us holds a serene aura that results in Jasper instinctively cutting off the music to preserve the tranquility. We become hyperaware of the almost magical land surrounding us, and somehow find the ability to sober up from our goofy singalong session only moments before.
The car staggers forward slowly, tiptoeing onward with tentative caution. Jasper inches forward in his seat, an expectant look on his face.
“Maybe it’s the headquarters for that spy you saw at the carnival yesterday,” I say somewhat smugly, mostly because I want to break the silence.
He grins and slants a look at me. “Or the secret hideaway for a psychopathic serial killer.”
“Jasper Michael Reynolds!” I scold, shooting him my best glare. “Why would you even say that?”
“Oh come on, Lex. The diabetic and the book nerd. They’d never see that one coming. We could take ’em.”
I gently slap him senseless.
He just laughs and shakes his head, continuing forward. How long is this path?
We bumble on for a little while longer before a large three story house with a forest green sign that reads Penn-Irving Manor comes into view. The house consists of a white paneled exterior decked with rich emerald shutters, a wraparound porch supported by thick columns, and a small balcony overlooking the surrounding treescape from the third floor. The driveway loops around the sign, and as Jasper nears closer to the sign, the subtitle below the name of the house reads Est. 1892.
“A historical house. Cool,” Jasper muses.
“Can’t believe I never knew this was here,” I say. “I wonder who lives here now.”
“I dare you to knock and find out.” Jasper shoots me a devious look.
“No way. I’d rather not be brutally mutated by the psychopathic murderer who resides here, or the ghosts of his or her ancestors.”
He laughs. “Valid point.”
The sudden sound of a screen door being thrust open reels us both off guard, and a middle aged woman with matted brown hair thrown into a ponytail comes marching toward us, as if she had overheard our prior conversation speculating how the current residents of this home could be psychopaths.
“This is private property!” she yells. “What do you kids think you’re doing invading—”
But we don’t hear the rest, because Jasper has gunned the ignition and the sound of us speeding away down the path we came from drowns out any potential threats from this (neither proven nor disproven) psychopath.
“Go!” I yell, giggling as Jasper hightails it out of the once magical forest that now feels dark and desolate, trapping us inside. “I told you this was a bad idea!”
“It was fun,” he counters, twisting his neck to look at me, residual delight lingering in his expression. “This is what being a kid feels like, Lex! You have fun every now and then and don’t worry so much about the consequences.”
“Okay, chill with the words of wisdom, Troy Bolton,” I throw back. “Just listen to your Disney songs and continue living the life of a ten-year-old.”
“I will!” he yells back in faux indignation, though I know him well enough to know that he’s just messing around. Then, sobering us, he adds, “But let’s keep the fact that I have Disney songs on my phone on the DL, all right? I have a reputation to uphold.”
I fight back a smile. “I thought it was how you woo your women?”
He slants a wry smile in my direction. “It is. Only the woman I wish to give my heart to is permitted to see this side of Jasper Reynolds. The others would be too judge-y; only the one who has my heart can handle all this.” He gestures at himself.
A tingling sensation in the pit of my stomach ensues. “Are you saying I have your heart?” I joke.
He looks at me with a peculiar expression, as if he’s in on something I’m not. I find it impossibly hard to believe that he actually does have any feelings for me that aren’t strictly platonic, but the subtle gnawing at my heart tricks my mind into thinking otherwise, if only for a split second.
“I’m saying that out of all the girls I know, you’ll judge me the least, which means you get the pleasure of witnessing the extra fun side of Jasper Reynolds. And maybe you hold my heart too, who knows. I have the maturity of a ten-year-old boy, what do I know about love, right?”
I relax, thankful for Jasper’s ability to take a potentially awkward situation and make it anything but. Of course he doesn’t like me like that, I tell myself. He would view me as his little sister that he needs to protect before he’d view me as someone he loves.
And that’s how it needs to be. It would be awful if he left and our relationship was anything more than a close friendship. Just because two people of the opposite gender feel strongly about one another does not mean that they need to end up falling in love and getting married and living happily ever after, much to the movies’ chagrin. Sometimes, friendship is enough.
As long as both parties are present to maintain that friendship, a bitter voice in my head adds. Enjoy it while it lasts, because once he’s gone, so is any chance at remaining friends the way you are now.