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August 9th

THE NEXT MORNING STARTS with a blinding light flooding my eyelids and the covers being ripped away from my body. No, not just my body, mine and Jasper’s bodies. I spent the night last night.

And Jasper’s arm is currently wrapped around me.

Stay calm.

“Up and at ’em, sleepyheads. Let’s not forget that while you two adolescents are best friends, you are best friends with hormones. And sleeping that close together is not a good way to keep those hormones in line, might I add,” the loud, cheery voice of Denise Reynolds says, forcing us to wake up.

Jasper groans and rolls over, removing his arm from my torso. “You’re supposed to knock, Mom.”

“Well maybe I would if you ever listened to what I say. It’s nearly lunchtime; I told you yesterday that the Martinez family will be here at four and we need to get ready for them before then.”

Jasper looks annoyed. “Why do we have to get ready for them?”

I sit up, and his mom shoots me a somewhat desperate look. Help me, her eyes say.

“What can we do to help, Mrs. R?” I ask, rubbing my eyes and yawning halfway through my sentence.

“Keith and I are going to work on making the house look nicer than it is, but we need stuff for the cookout tonight. I need Jasper to go to the grocery store to get everything, and you, Lexi, to go with him and make sure he doesn’t screw up.”

“Excuse me . . .” Jasper says tiredly, an empty threat. “How can you even screw up grocery shopping?”

His mom shoots him a pointed look. “You’ve done it before.”

I snicker and Jasper groans, rolling over on his stomach and burying his head under his pillow. “Fine! Now leave, please,” he begs, voice muffled underneath his pillow.

“They will be here at four, Jasper! You better be ready by then,” his mom says sharply. “Also, Lex, your Aunt Colleen and Willie will be coming as well.”

I nod at this, and then she turns and exits Jasper’s door, cracking it behind her.

“Wanna sleep for another twenty minutes?” Jasper offers, glancing at me. I have to refrain from laughing at his hair, which sticks up in odd angles all over his head like a little boy’s.

“Come on, J. Your mom needs us to help her get ready,” I say.

He groans.

“Hamburger buns?”


“Hotdog buns?”



“Disgusting, but check.”

“How do you not like coleslaw?” Jasper asks, frowning.

“How do you like coleslaw?” I retaliate. “It’s awful.”

He leans forward against the grocery cart, and I take the height difference to advantage, peering over his shoulder at the grocery list his mom so graciously composed for us in her messy, slanted scrawl. “What else are we missing?”

His eyes skim the list, brows slightly drawn together in concentration. “I think just the plastic stuff and some napkins.”

We weave our way to the aisle where plastic cutlery and plates can be found, and I retrieve a package of napkins while Jasper puts the other stuff in the cart. I snatch the list from his hands and skim it one last time, making sure we got everything. Mrs. Reynolds would not be pleased if we had to run back out.

I’m three-quarters of the way through when a familiar voice rings out, and it’s all I can do to refrain from audibly sighing.

“Jasper! I’ve been wanting to talk to you since our little thing the other night.” Avery Matthews’ eyes flit toward me. “Alone.”

My jaw unhinges in surprise and I cast a sideways glance at Jasper, who’s looking extremely out of his comfort zone.

They were making out in his family’s boathouse a couple nights ago. And now here she is, back for more.

The thought makes me want to gag.

“I’ll go wait in line, I guess . . .” I say, trailing off awkwardly.

Jasper grabs my arm, stopping me. “No. Avery, you don’t need to send Lex away. You and I are done.”

She cocks an eyebrow. “Done? I know you’re moving to Australia, but come on, J.”

I grit my teeth. She got that nickname from me after she heard me call him that, back when they first started dating. I always did get a jealous vibe from her.

He glares at her. “You used me, Avery, so yeah; I don’t really find it important that we leave things on good terms.”

I shuffle uncomfortably. It feels wrong hearing this. Like I’m intruding on a conversation that will never be meant for my ears. It’s not like boys are lining up to date me like they are for girls like Avery Matthews.

She pouts her lips and runs a hand through her medium-length ombré hair. “I didn’t use you, Jasper. I get it; you’re mad because I broke up with you and then started seeing John right afterward, and then came back to you after he and I broke up. But you don’t get to punish me for doing what’s right for me. I just want to know that we’re cool.”

He remains passive. “We’re not. You lost your chance the other night when you told me you would text me and never did. I don’t want to waste my time being friends with someone who always gives out mixed signals like you do. And does it really even matter? In a few weeks, you’ll probably never see me again, anyway.”

My heart crushes in on itself as he says this. Not for Avery.

I don’t really care about that,” Avery says, looking bored. “I just don’t like leaving things on bad terms with people. But whatever, you’re right. It doesn’t matter. If I were you, I’d just be concerned about Lexi.”

My ears prick up at the mention of my name. What do I have to do with anything?

“What does that mean?” Jasper asks, getting visibly annoyed now.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Avery asks. “She doesn’t talk to anyone else. The two of you are practically joined at the hip because she doesn’t have any other friends. Everyone here knows you’re gonna make new friends in Australia, and Lexi will be stuck here without anyone to talk to. Sounds pretty messy to me.”

Red hot anger seeps into my bloodstream. How dare she talk so casually about me like that while I’m standing right there? Reminding me of the fact that in the grand scheme of things, I’m just the friendless loser?

“Lex, I didn’t mean it in a mean way . . .” she says, getting panicked upon noticing my shift in demeanor, trying to reverse the damage. But it’s too late.

I turn and storm away, desperate to go somewhere, anywhere, but right here. Not because I’m mad at her for speaking her mind at such an inappropriate time, but because it’s true. In twenty-two days, after Jasper leaves, I’ll have no one.

She’s just saying what everyone else who knows me is too afraid to admit.

I find my way to the parking lot and lean against the passenger door of Jasper’s car, breathing in and out deeply. I try reciting uplifting words to myself—she didn’t mean it she’s just jealous of course you’ll still have friends everything’s fine you’ll be fine don’t worry—but none of it is genuine. I am pathetic.

There’s Cute Shy, where you twirl your hair and avoid eye contact because you’re nervous at first, and then there’s Compulsive Shy, where you run away from the opportunity to get to know new people because you’re worried that they’ll hate you. Which is a paradox in itself because they end up hating you anyway for refusing to make an effort to talk to them.

I never chose this. I used to be normal, back in New York before Mom got cancer. I was just like any other kid.

It was living with him that messed me up so bad.

I know I’m not normal. I don’t know if I ever will be. I’m only happy in short bursts, usually involving Jasper. I’m terrified of trying new things and meeting new people. Nothing I ever do feels adequate.

It’s my fault that my dad is in jail.

That last one hits me heavy and I start to feel sick. I try to stop it, but before I know it everything comes up and I’m bent over vomiting in the empty parking space beside Jasper’s car and everything feels wrong and my head is woozy. My world feels like it’s tilting on its axis, spinning out of orbit, like I’m being hurtled into space. I start dry heaving when a hand lands on my back.

“I’m here,” Jasper says, rubbing my shoulders. “It’s okay.”

No it isn’t, I want to say. But I’m running out of time. And it’d be unfair to spring the pitiful backstory card on Jasper this late into the game. So I stay silent.

“Seriously, Lex, don’t listen to Avery, she’s—”

“Can we just go,” I say, feeling small and defeated. “Please.”

He sighs and opens my car door for me. I slide in wordlessly, wiping my mouth and wishing I had gum to get rid of the horrible aftertaste. Jasper circles around the car and puts the groceries in the backseat before getting in and sitting beside me. For a few seconds, he just sits there, making no move to start driving.

I stare out the window, willing myself to sprout wings and fly far, far away.

“Be honest with me,” he says, using an exuberant amount of effort to keep his voice calm and collected. “Was that because of what she said, or is there something else, too?”

I don’t want to talk about it. My mouth can’t form the words. A lump rises in my throat, and I know that attempting to speak will result in a breakdown. Now is not the time for that. The Martinez family will be at Jasper’s in two hours, and they do not need to witness their emotionally unstable neighbor losing it before they even officially move in.

“Please?” he says so softly, it comes out a faint whisper. “Give me an idea of what’s going on in your head right now. Something. Anything.”

I should just tell him. Just clear the air, and be honest with him. I owe him that.

But I haven’t talked about it with anyone, not even Aunt Colleen, and I don’t know if I could find the words at this point.

Images flash in my mind, a sequence of one horrible moment after another, so fast that they start bleeding together, like a stop motion film. I can’t do this. The thought of someone knowing makes me nauseous. It’s bad enough carrying the burden of my past on my own shoulders, let alone the shoulders of someone innocent like Jasper. It wouldn’t be fair to him.

“Let’s just go home,” I say, focusing on keeping my voice steady.

He sighs, loudly, but doesn’t question it any further, just like every other time I push him away. I really, really don’t deserve him. One of these days, he’s going to wake up and realize that. Our relationship is all so one-sided, him chasing and chasing and me running and running, and the cycle continues around and around, the gravitational pull of our friendship the only thing holding us in orbit. Relationships like that always burn out sooner or later, like a supernova erupting at the end of its life.

Nothing in this universe lasts forever. So why would our friendship be any different?

The Martinez family, as it turns out, includes a son that’s Jasper’s and my age. Noah, his name is. He has brown eyes and brown hair, and he’s a few shades tanner than Jasper, but he’s got a killer smile and a rock solid handshake. Whoa, I find myself thinking as he smiles politely at me while introducing himself. He is attractive.

Mr. and Mrs. Martinez seem very kind, based on the twenty seconds I’ve known them, and the daughter, Izzy, seems nice enough, for an eleven-year-old. She has brown eyes and brown hair, like Noah, but that’s where the similarities end. She’s much paler than he is, and where his features are sharp and defined, hers are round and soft. She has big doe-eyes, and her lips are small, like they’ve been carefully painted on. His lips are lush, and though his eyes are smaller, they’re outlined by a thick line of long lashes that tangle together.

“Jasper, Lexi, why don’t you two show Noah and Izzy the backyard?” Mrs. Reynolds suggests. “And you can take Willie, too.” She words it like it’s a choice, but Jasper and I know better. The adults have plenty to discuss without the awkwardness of the kids lingering around.

Jasper shrugs and Willie latches eagerly onto my hand and then the five of us are heading out the back door to Jasper’s deck, letting the screen door clatter shut behind us. Nobody says anything at first, and the tension hangs palpable in the air like a cloud of fog. And then Willie, the only person seemingly unaware of the awkwardness, speaks.

“Are you Jasper’s replacement?” He puffs out his lip, looking sad.

Izzy crosses her arms over her chest, looking like she wants to be anywhere but here. I can’t blame her.

Noah bites his lip, looking uncomfortable, but at least he speaks. “You don’t have to look at it as us replacing him,” he says encouragingly, bending down to meet Willie’s pitiful expression. “We’re . . . borrowing his house. For a little while.”

I look at him curiously. “Borrowing, huh?”

He glances at me and quickly stands back up. “Yeah . . . moving here isn’t exactly our choice. After my dad married Izzy’s mom, they claimed the new family needed a ‘change of scenery.’ Or something.” He flits his eyes at what I now understand is his stepsister. Suddenly, the difference in appearances makes sense. They’re not blood-related.

“Oh,” I say, because I don’t know what else to add.

“This sucks,” Jasper mutters. “I just wanna stay here, and they wanna stay wherever they came from, but instead they get my house and I get some place on the other side of the globe.”

“Michigan,” Izzy speaks up, for the first time. “We’re from Kalamazoo, Michigan.”

“You’re moving to Australia, right?” Noah asks, tipping his head at Jasper.

Jasper nods. “To a town right outside of Sydney. My parents are marine biologists.”

Noah nods his head understandingly. “That’s gotta be stressful, a move that big your senior year. But Australia seems like a cool place.” He’s making a clear effort to keep things positive.

“Can we go check out the dock?” Izzy asks, staring impatiently out at the bay with a longing expression.

Jasper and Noah both glance toward the bay before Jasper shrugs, giving the okay. The five of us trot over to the dock, and Izzy instantly takes her shoes off, dipping her feet in. For some reason, this reminds me of the time I did that the summer before tenth grade when Jasper warned me about the supposed sea monster that hangs around his family’s dock, to which I rolled my eyes. He kept telling me I’d better look out, and finally, after several minutes of this, he pushed me in. I went to yell at him, but he just jumped in after me and grabbed onto me, holding me tightly in his arms. “It’s me! I’m the sea monster!” he yelled in a faux angry voice. This resulted in me getting tickled to death and laughing until I couldn’t breathe.

That was a good day.

I sit down on the edge, leaving about a foot of space between me and Izzy, and Noah follows suit, sitting down beside me. Jasper, who seems peeved by this action, sits down on Noah’s other side, and Willie follows Jasper, snuggling against his side. If the parents were to look out the window right now, they’d probably mistake this moment as all of us bonding. But really, there’s nothing better for us to be doing, so we might as well sit and watch as the sun leaves watery flecks of gold on the bay surface as the water rolls in and out in the mid-afternoon breeze. Pretending to be friends with these strangers.

“So you go to Abilene High?” Noah queries, twisting his neck to look at me.

I nod. “Yup.”

He turns back toward the bay and nods appreciatively. “It’ll be nice going into senior year knowing I’ll have at least one friend. I mean, if you wanna be friends,” he quickly adds.

I blush. “Yeah. Of course.”

Everything about this feels weird. It’s like I’m discussing replacing Jasper with this guy—Noah—right in front of Jasper’s face. I can tell by how quiet he is that he is just as uncomfortable with this as I am. But still, it’s impossible to deny. Noah is cute. The girls will be all over him from the moment they lay eyes on him, especially considering how rare attractive new kids are at our school. To go into senior year being the first friend of the hot new guy would be . . . so unlike me. The idea kind of thrills me.

Maybe he’s the catalyst I need to break out of this . . . thing that I’m caught up in. Nice placeholder, my mind taunts. I think we both know precisely what thing it is that’s constantly lurking in your head.

I sigh, shaking this thought away. If we’re going to be friends, I need to know more about this guy. I need to engage him in conversation, because that’s what friends do.

“So,” I say, struggling to keep the awkward out of my voice, “what do you like to do?”

He glances over at me to make sure I’m talking to him. When he realizes that I am, he chews thoughtfully on his lip. “Lacrosse. That’s my main thing. I used to play basketball, too, but I was never good enough that I had any chance of going anywhere with it, so I stopped after last season. I’m also kind of big into music.”

On my other side, Izzy snorts. “’Kind of’ is an exaggeration. He and his friends had this band, and he always makes these weird playlists. He plays the piano slash keyboard, but he doesn’t like telling people that.”

Noah sucks his lips in, a quasi-sour look on his face. “Thanks for that, Izzy.”

She smiles sweetly at him. I get the sense that they’re not too fond of each other, or the prospect of starting a new life in the same house.

“That’s cool,” I tell him, meaning it. “How long have you played for?”

“Since my mom left when I was ten,” he says. “She always talked about wanting me to play, and I guess I figured somehow that me playing would make her come back.” He pauses and shakes his head bitterly. “Yeah, that didn’t work.”

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I lost my mom when I was around that age, too.”

His brows crinkle together. “That woman in there wasn’t your mom?”

“No,” I say. “That’s my Aunt Colleen.”

“Oh.” He looks at me sympathetically. “I’m sorry.”

I shrug. “It’s fine.” Mostly.

Beside us, Jasper clears his throat, as if reminding us that he’s here, too. We glance over at him, but he’s staring out at the water, an unreadable expression on his face.

“Is that boat yours?” Noah asks, tipping his head at The Explorer, which bobs in the water, tied up to a metal cleat at the other end of the dock.

Jasper nods. “Yeah. But we can’t take it to Australia, so I guess we’re giving it to your family.”

Noah nods slowly, looking uncomfortable at Jasper’s audible resentment. “So what about you guys?” he asks, looking back and forth between Jasper and I. “What do you like to do?”

“What don’t we like to do?” Jasper throws back rhetorically.

I roll my eyes. He’s clearly still sulking about having to spend his afternoon with the people who will soon be living in his house. But they seem really nice, so I feel like it’s my job to keep this going.

“Jasper’s big into filmmaking,” I say. “He’s really good at it. And he also plays soccer.”

“That’s cool,” Noah says, nodding his head appreciatively. “What about you?”

It takes me a second to realize he’s talking to me. What do I like to do? Hang out with Jasper is the only thing that comes to my mind. I wrack my mind for a few seconds, but come up empty. Besides Jasper, there’s not a lot to say about me. No hobbies. No story. No nothing.

“She’s really good with kids, especially Little Man over here,” Jasper explains for me, ruffling Willie’s hair. “And she wouldn’t ever tell you on her own, but she’s really good at arts and crafts. Her drawings blow anything I could ever do out of the water. She’s super creative. She works at a really high end restaurant downtown called Sunken Treasure. She can read books like nobody’s business, and she’s easily the smartest person in our school. But she would never tell you any of that on her own.”

My mouth suddenly goes desert-dry, and I freeze. It makes sense hearing all these things listed off so casually that he would know them, but I still find myself surprised. I never directly told him any of these things; he picked up on them along the way by paying attention. Really paying attention. Because he’s my best friend, and he cares, and he notices. He knows me better than anyone else, including Aunt Colleen.

And he still likes me. He knows me, and he still puts up with my constant anxiety, my moodiness, my nonexistent self-esteem. He is friends with me despite all these annoying traits.

Best of all, he is proving my dad and his friends wrong.

“Wow,” Noah muses, eyebrows raised. “You two really are close, aren’t you?”

Jasper lowers his head, staring at the water that tickles his toes down below. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “We are.”

The familiar screech of the screen door resounds, and we all turn and face Mr. Reynolds, along with Mr. Martinez. They nod at us and then set to work firing up the grill, continuing whatever conversation they’re engrossed in, beer bottles in hand. The poster picture of what a normal dad looks like. My throat tightens. I’ll never have that.

“Hey, can we take a walk around the neighborhood a bit before dinner? Get a feel for the place?” For once, it’s not Jasper rescuing me from a sudden onslaught of depression. It’s Noah.

“Yeah, let’s take them to the playground!” Willie cheers.

Jasper’s watching me closely. “Sure. Good idea, Willie Banilli.”

I glance over at Izzy, who looks like she wants to be pulled out to sea, then at Noah, who’s staring at his toes, looking relaxed but out of place, like maybe he isn’t sure if he belongs here. And for some strange reason, I find myself wanting to connect with these people. Something about them just feels familiar in a way that nobody else in Abilene does. Like maybe they’ve felt it too. Betrayal, hurt, the burden of having a parent who will never be a parent. Call it a gut feeling, but something tells me these two have experienced a fair share of pain in their lives.

“Come on,” I say, standing up and extending a hand to Noah, which is a leap, especially for me. He stares at it in surprise for a second before accepting it, pulling himself up. “We’ll show you around.”

Tonight the sky is clearer than it has been in days, and thousands of stars speckle the sea of black, glittering in their slow, subtle way. The moon is a thin sliver the width of a toenail, and the familiar lull of the bay kissing the shoreline, pulling back, and repeating fills the air, along with the loud, animated chatter coming from the parents. They’re currently situated around a table up on Jasper’s deck, sipping on wine and talking like they’ve been best friends for years. Since dinner, Mr. and Mrs. Cassel, the middle aged couple who live on the other side of Jasper’s house, have joined the adults, and now they’re all bonding, unlikely to stop any time soon, given their track record with these sorts of things.

I’m lying on a beach blanket in the sand, Jasper on my one side, Noah on the other. Izzy is a few feet away from where the three of us lie, sitting at the water’s edge, digging her feet in the wet sand. Somehow, I see a piece of myself in her, and I secretly make it a mission to get her to warm up to me when she lives here.

Between the time that we walked Willie to the playground, dinner, and the corn hole tournament after dinner, I’ve learned quite a bit about Noah. For one thing, he’s really easy to talk to. I never once got a judgmental vibe from him, and when I came up empty in our conversation, he filled the gaps, no problem.

He told me about his old school, and how there were a lot of minorities, like him. He and his dad are Latino, and his stepmom and Izzy are Mexican. When Jasper told him that there aren’t a lot of minorities at our school, I could tell he was worried that he won’t fit in, and I found this somehow comforting. Sometimes boys my age don’t feel human to me, like they never experience emotions or get nervous about things. It’s as if their brain revolves solely around sports, girls, and constantly setting out to prove how tough and masculine they are. That’s why everyone likes Jasper so much. He isn’t afraid to hide his emotions or be himself. Maybe Noah is the same way.

He talked some more about his band, which I learned was called Jailbreak, because I guess his friend, the lead singer, is notorious for jailbreaking people’s phones for them. He also opened up a little about his mom, who cheated on his dad and left the family for some bigshot local weatherman, and she hasn’t contacted him since she left. I also learned that he is really good at math, and he’s considering becoming an accountant.

I told him a little about me as well, like the fact that my mom died from pancreatic cancer and that I don’t really talk to many people in town besides Jasper. Then we exchanged phone numbers, mutually coming to the conclusion that we should stay in contact so we can keep getting to know each other and become proper friends. My heart fluttered giddily when he made the suggestion.

Now we are all pretty quiet, basking in the evening and the lights from the boats dotting the bay. It’s not an uncomfortable silence, although Jasper has been weirdly quiet all night. For once in my life, I’ve been doing most of the talking between the two of us. It feels kind of good to be the social one for a change.

I turn around and sneak a glance at the adults again. Aunt Colleen broke away from the group long enough to put Willie to bed, but now she’s reassumed her spot next to Mrs. Martinez, smiling and looking beautiful in her effortless way as Mr. Cassel rambles on about who-knows-what. Every once in a while, I catch little glimpses of my mom in her. Aunt Colleen is much prettier and more put together than my mom was, but they still have the same childlike grin and soft brown hair, not to mention the same exact nose. My mom used to tell me stories about her and Aunt Colleen when I was a little girl, from back when they were kids.

A lot of siblings fight when they’re kids, but never my mom and Aunt Colleen. My mom was always protective over her little sister, constantly looking out for her. If one of the mean kids in Colleen’s class so much as stared at her the wrong way, my mom got in their face and put them in their place before they even knew what they did. Apparently their dad had a bit of a drinking habit and would occasionally lose his temper, lashing out at whichever daughter was closer. Whenever this happened, my mom would always take Colleen’s hand and lead her into their shared bedroom, telling her all the while that it was going to be okay and she wouldn’t let anything happen to her. Where their parents lacked in maternal skills, my mom made up for it.

I don’t know much about my grandparents, seeing as I never met them, but what I do know is that my grandpa wasn’t much of a figure in my mom and Aunt Colleen’s lives. He died from some kind of liver disease when my mom was fifteen and Aunt Colleen was ten, leaving my grandma to care for them on her own.

As for my grandma, she was a very tough lady, and she didn’t like my mom much, from what I’ve heard. I guess my mom was the defiant type, always so sure she knew what she wanted, and my grandma was the classic ultra conservative who had traditional values and believed that women were meant to be poised and submit to what was expected of them. My mom had many stories of things that she did growing up that set my grandmother over the edge, but the last straw was when she ran off and got pregnant with my dad when she was supposed to be getting a degree in college. Halfway through her first semester her sophomore year, she found out that she was failing most of her classes, and when she learned that she was pregnant with me she dropped out and followed my dad to New York City, where he promised to make a future for the family. My grandma told her that if she followed through leaving and decided to keep me, that she was on her own, this time for good. My mom was stubborn, and as much as she would miss Aunt Colleen, she was the free spirit type, and there was no way she was giving up her child just because her mom told her to. And thus, she was cut off, completely isolated from the family.

Aunt Colleen always looked up to my mom growing up, and it was hard for her to adjust to life without her older sister there to look out for her. I guess she was sort of a weakling back then, no backbone of her own. When my mom left, she was forced to learn to take care of herself, and she became stronger and more independent through it. She followed all the rules, respected her mom, came home before curfew, and studied hard in all her subjects, soon putting her at the top of her class. While my mom always thrived growing up, being the one with all the friends and the fun stories, Aunt Colleen struggled. But suddenly, the tables turned and Aunt Colleen was the one thriving on her own, meanwhile my mom was struggling dealing with her pregnancy alone in New York City with no husband, no job, and no money.

I guess in a sense, my birth destroyed my mom’s life. If it hadn’t been for me, who knows where she would’ve ended up. Maybe she would’ve fallen in love with someone who loved her back, or maybe she would’ve gotten that degree and gotten a good job. But none of that was ever possible, because of me.

Sighing, I turn back around, facing the bay once again. That familiar feeling of helplessness ripples through my stomach, and I suddenly wish that my mom could be here with me. Lately I’ve been pretty good about distracting myself, but sometimes it hits me that I really am alone in this world, the only remaining family I have being Uncle Bill, Aunt Colleen, and Willie.

I sneak a side glance at Jasper, and he looks back at me, green eyes glimmering. “You okay?” he mouths at me, and I shrug. He scoots a bit closer to me until our sides touch, and inconspicuously takes my hand and holds it firmly in his, rooting me in place in a way that only he can.

Jasper is my medication, which might be both a problem and a solution. He helps pull me out of my thoughts, makes me feel like my existence means something, like I’m not some horrible burden on everyone’s lives. The mere touch of his hand is enough to cure my anxiety, and the sound of his voice is like the tune of your favorite song, inciting a familiar swell of nostalgia and peace every time you hear it.

For some reason, lying here beside him, Noah on my other side, I can’t help but think I love you I love you I love you I love you, over and over again, cycling ceaselessly around my mind like a Ferris wheel, or a washing machine set on spin cycle. Do you even realize how big of an impact you’ve had on me?

“Hey. Look up there.” Noah points up at the sky, interrupting the silence, along with my previous string of thoughts. “Do you see that tiny star-like thing moving over that way, near that really bright star?”

My eyes follow his finger, and it takes me a moment to locate what he’s pointing to, but then I see it. A dull star-looking object moving at a pace too slow to be a shooting star but too fast to be an actual star. “Yeah, I see it. What is that?”

“It’s a satellite,” he explains. “There are thousands of them orbiting Earth, taking pictures of space and Earth and stuff for NASA. They never float away because the gravity from Earth is constantly pulling them back in orbit. Kind of cool, right?”

Jasper is Earth and I’m the satellite being pulled in by his orbit, I think to myself.

“Do you ever look up at the sky and wonder what else is out there?” Jasper asks no one in particular.

Now the three of us are staring up, marveling at the sky with pensive expressions.

“Yeah,” Noah says. “Or, like, how many people around the world are staring up at the same star I’m looking at right now. Or the fact that I’m looking up at the same sky as Martin Luther King Jr., or George Washington, or Aristotle. So many people come and go, but the stars in the sky are always there.”

I glance over at this boy, practically a stranger but practically not, in astonishment. Who knew a boy as attractive as him could have such a borderline existential view of the universe? Not that attractive boys can’t have deep, meaningful outlooks on life. But I’ve never witnessed one be so vocal about it, aside from Jasper.

The thunderous sound of the adults laughing suddenly reverberates around us, reeling us out of our discussion of the universe and back into the present, in Jasper’s and soon-to-be Noah’s backyard. We turn around and look at them and Jasper sighs beside me. After a prolonged second of curious staring, Noah tears his gaze away, propping his head up in his hand and staring thoughtfully across the bay instead.

Nights like this, I can’t help but shake the feeling that there’s something bigger out there than just this small bubble of life that I know. Like there are galaxies worth of information to be discovered, and ideas to be written, and sights to be painted and documented. Like life is this incredible gift that we have the power to do with as we please and yet so many of us waste it on mundane things that don’t really matter, brushing off the important stuff.

“Are you guys doing anything the eighteenth?” Noah suddenly asks, out of the blue. “We’re driving back down with more stuff, but it’d be cool to get to hang out with you guys again.”

“Yeah, of course!” I say, maybe a little too eagerly. My cheeks heat up. “I’ll text you and let you know what we’re doing, but I’m sure we’ll be free to hang with you that day.”

“Awesome,” he says, smiling at me.

I smile back.

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