Thomas and Niko in the City of Trees

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Chapter 5

As you can probably guess, I’m pretty quiet in the car with Lexie. She showed up just as Thomas’s car went out of sight, so of course she’s none the wiser about the whole thing. But she only puts up with me being quiet for a few minutes before getting into the tough questions.

She turns to me in desperation. “What’s going on, Niko? He won’t talk to Madison.”

“He’s just working through some stuff,” I say.

“He barely paid attention to her today. She needs him to be honest right now, but he won’t tell her anything.”

I guess I’m trying to protect Thomas at this point. Or maybe I’m more selfish than that. Maybe I’m starting to see how this could all come back to me. I’m madder at him than I’ve ever been over this, but I don’t want to say anything that would implicate either of us. That means I have to lie to Lexie. I’m feeling really torn up inside. But I figure I’ll do anything to buy him some more time to calm down. If he can get over this and blame it all on something else, then we’ll be safe. I just want all of it to blow over so we can get on with our lives. Because that thing we did, it only happened once, and it won’t happen ever again.

“He won’t tell me, either,” I say. “I tried to get him to talk to me, but he won’t.”

“When did you see him?”

The way she’s driving has me holding on tight to my door. “Just before you showed up.”

We’re stopped at a red light. She’s looking over at me for a long time, not saying anything at all. She knows something isn’t right. I can tell. She knows I’m not giving her the full story. Or maybe I’m being paranoid—I can’t be too sure of anything right now.

“Why aren’t you freaking out about this?”

“What do you want me to do?” I say. “Don’t ask me why he chose now to lose his shit. I don’t fucking know. It’s finals, Lexie. I have so much to do. I’m not going to let him throw me off my game, no matter how fucked up his behavior is right now.”

“Well I think that’s shitty of you,” she says.

I don’t say anything back. The less said the better.

She’s trying to calm herself down. “Will you please come to my house?”

“I won’t get any studying done at your house, and you know it.” Normally she’s more supportive when I get super into my school work. Normally she understands, because she cares about her grades, too. Not as much as me, but she’s also smarter than me and therefore doesn’t have to try as hard. She knows that.

“Come on, Niko, you would have to royally fuck up at this point to lose your four-two. Don’t be selfish.”

That sets me off for some reason. “Holy shit, Lexie, it’s one fucking week of our lives. Can we stop acting like everything’s so dramatic for one fucking week?”

She smacks the steering wheel. “You know what? I think it’s better if I just drop you off.” She’s using this creepy, flat kind of voice that means she’s so mad she’s gone all the way around to calm again.

“I think that’s a fucking genius idea,” I say.

Now she doesn’t say anything at all, she’s so mad. Nothing, for five whole minutes. It’s longer than it sounds. I don’t say goodbye when she drops me off. I just walk away from her stupid little car like I don’t know her.

I get along fine on my own over the next couple of days. You would be surprised how easy it is to avoid people. Even your close friends. It’s not like I become some kind of anti-social freak, either. I hang around with Garrett and some of the other guys at lunch in order to bring down the stress. A lot of them, they don’t give two shits about their grades. A few, like Thomas, are headed places due to their athletic ability, and only minimal effort in the academic department. Around here, that mostly means football. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not exactly my preference to be hanging out with these guys all the time. There’s a reason I’m not as close to them as I am to Thomas. Some of them are pretty dumb, if I’m honest. Others spend all their time just talking shit about people, which tends to freak me out a little. You should hear them. Some of these guys will straight-up trash anybody they perceive as lower than them in this school. Anyone from try-hards, to poor kids, to girls who sleep around a lot, to guys who don’t sleep around enough…the list is a mile long and anyone is fair game. I always wonder, though: If you really think you’re better than them, what’s the point of rubbing their faces in the dirt? It’s messed up, is what it is.

So anyway, it’s Wednesday night and I’m just sitting at home. I’m working on this essay, because that’s my final in English. I’ll be honest. I’m trying extra hard on it, not because I’m worried about my grade in that class, but because I want to impress Ms. Nolan. I can’t explain to you what it is about her that I like so much. Every day, she just shows up to that school like nothing can get her down. She’s nice to everyone, she believes in everyone, and she notices when people are hurting. I think I got on her radar because my mom never shows up to the parent-teacher conferences. They’re just too much for her to handle. Anyway, I had Ms. Nolan for English in tenth grade, and again my senior year. I don’t take AP English. I only took AP Physics and Math this year, which is why a four-point-two is the best I can do. Luckily it’s enough for the scholarship. Ms. Nolan seems to have it in her mind that I should’ve taken AP English, too. She’s given me a few books that the other class reads, and that’s fine. I like reading them, and talking about them with her. But I’m not completely dumb. I know she knows that I capital-G-Get them, if you know what I mean. So she’s probably expecting a lot out of me for this essay. I won’t disappoint her. My laptop is a huge piece of shit and freezes up a lot, but other than that I have a good time writing it.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my mom. Her early life was messed up. She came to Boise in 1994 as a Bosnian refugee, along with a shit ton of other Bosnian refugees. There’s a lot I don’t know about her childhood. You can hardly get her to say one word about it. But once, a couple years ago, I got super mad and asked her why she was so crazy. And she looked right at me and said, “That’s what happens when little girls get made into women before they’re ready.” She was mostly on her own once she got here. And she was still pretty young when she got pregnant with me in 2000. And like I said, my dad didn’t stick around, which I think only added to the whole situation. She’s made a lot of effort to improve her life, and even though she still has it rough most of the time, she never gives up. You can’t fault her for that.

Anyway, I finish the essay, and I’m just sitting there looking over it. There’s really nothing left to do with it, nothing I want to change, and it’s getting close to ten, so I decide I’m done. I get ready for bed and say goodnight to my mom. She turns down the TV without me even saying anything about it. I realize I haven’t worked out at all since Thomas and I quit hanging out. I’ve got this dumbbell I keep in the corner of my room, so I use it to do some curls, and I stretch, and I do crunches and pushups.

I’m lying there in bed, and of course I can’t sleep. I’m so tired, and I miss Thomas so much I could die. I start to freak out a little, just in my head, because I realize there’s a small chance he could be serious about all that shit he said. He’s one of those people where once he’s made up his mind about something, it’s pretty much set in stone. But there’s no way he’s made up his mind about this. Right? There’s no way he’s so stupid that he’ll throw our friendship away over something like what happened. I start getting really worked up over all of it. I just wish he was here, because when I get like this, he’s the only one who can calm me down.

I know I’ll have to get to sleep somehow, so I pretend he’s here. I think about all the things he would say: how fucking legit this summer is going to be, or how much it’s going to suck, depending on his mood. I pretend he’s lying in my bed next to me. It’s just a twin bed, so there’s not a lot of extra room. We’ve only tried it a couple of times, when we were younger. Shit, nowadays we’d just be spilling off of it, unless we got close.

I know you’re not stupid. I know there are things I’m not talking about. I want to get close with him. Every day of my life, I want to get close with Thomas Chu. I’m just not sure what that actually means. I have no idea what the endgame would be, and I’m just so scared of even letting myself think about it.

Thomas knows more of my secrets than anyone else. But not this one. Not the fact that I get these quick little rushes when I notice how big he’s getting. Not how, in the deepest, darkest corner of my mind, I want those arms around me, protecting me. We spend most of our lives together as it is, and I want to keep it that way. But sometimes, I want more. And when I go off to school, and we don’t see each other as much anymore…well, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do.

I’m just so tired and scared, so I give in. I imagine what it would feel like to have his arms around me now. I try to feel that warmth he radiated during the insane moment we shared Saturday night. Instantly, I start to calm down. I remember more of that moment. I remember him against me. I reach down and it doesn’t take me long at all. After I’m done, I sort of feel around for something to clean myself up, and I don’t remember anything after that.

Other than turning in my essay, there’s not much I’m looking forward to in English class the next day. The main problem is that Thomas and I are both in that class. It’s kind of the perfect storm, to tell you the truth: The class takes up two hours of the afternoon, there’s nothing to do because we’re mainly there to turn in our essays, and Thomas and I are each pretending the other person doesn’t exist. On Tuesday it was fine because we were allowed to work on our essays either in the classroom or the library, and you better believe I busted my ass to the library the second I saw Thomas setting up camp at his desk.

Today we’re both stuck in the classroom, and I don’t have much to distract myself besides studying for my Physics final tomorrow. Anyway, I keep myself looking busy doing that for a while. Thomas is just talking and laughing in the back corner with some varsity football guys. They call me over but Thomas doesn’t look like he wants me to join, so I tell them I better keep studying. They make fun of me quite a bit for that, and keep sort of antagonizing me while I pretend I’m super focused on my textbook. The whole time, Thomas doesn’t say a word.

I go up to Ms. Nolan and ask if I can study in the library. She gives me a smile that says she understands, and I excuse myself.

“Come on Savic,” says a guy named Driggs who I normally talk to quite a bit. “We’re just having a good time. Join us.”

I tell them I really have to study for this test. They let me go without too much trouble. I don’t know what the hell is going through Thomas’s mind at this moment. I bet it’s killing him.

I get to the library and find a quiet corner. I’m sitting there picking at the cover of my textbook, thinking of the boys back in the classroom. I get this strange feeling, because I realize none of them are in my classes tomorrow, which means that was the last time we would all be sitting in a class together. I don’t hang out with many of them outside of school, at least not regularly, so who knows which of them I’ll ever see again, if any. That moment back there, when they were having their fun at my expense, it all starts to feel so insignificant, like it’s already fading behind me. I’ll start college up north (or university, as they call it) and every single thing about it will be new. The people, the places—even stuff about me could be new. Maybe the person I want to be up there is a little different than the person I am down here. Honestly, that idea gets me pretty excited.

The last day of school is pretty weird. I take my Physics final and do fine on it. We get out of the last class and people are sort of wandering around like they don’t know quite where to go. I wish you could see it—it’s the strangest sight. Some people are kind of teary-eyed, saying their goodbyes and whatnot. I’m chatting with a few guys and we’re just talking about summer jobs, and college, and how we’re going to hang out a ton this summer and all that bullshit.

I pass by Ms. Nolan’s class and she’s talking to a couple students. She looks past them at me and motions for me to come in. I sit kind of awkwardly by the window with my ass against the heater until the other kids leave. Then I sit down in my usual spot by her desk and we have a nice little moment.

“You’re not a student here anymore. In fact, you’re an adult,” she says. She stresses the first syllable the way some people do. “Just between us, I want to exchange contacts. You okay with that?”

I’m not sure what to say. I just nod a little. She hands me her phone and asks if I’ll put in my number. It feels really weird, just sitting there holding Ms. Nolan’s phone. I do as she asks, and she looks happy about it.

“You’re going to get up there, and everything’s going to open up for you. Do you understand what I mean by that?”

I tell her I understand.

“There will be so many new things to do, and try, and be. I don’t want you to be scared or hold back. Just do it all.” I start to laugh but she says she’s serious. “I know you’ll make the right decisions, when it matters.”

I thank her, for everything. She gets emotional. She tells me not to be a stranger. I tell her I won’t. After that, I walk out of the school. I don’t see anyone I know on the way out. I’m not looking at any of the faces.

I told you before when I realized how little all those guys matter to me. Even if it meant never seeing any of them again for the rest of my life, I’d still want to get out of this place.

But what about the person I would give it all up for? That’s right, even now, if going meant never seeing Thomas again, I would stay. In a heartbeat. I would stay forever in this dumb town. I guess that should give you some idea of how much pain I’m in right now. It doesn’t help that school’s over. And it really doesn’t help that I’m still not talking to Lexie.

I never told you why mom stays up so late. One reason is that she has insomnia like you wouldn’t believe, and the other is that she likes working the night shift at her job. She works the counter at a convenience store over at Milwaukee and Emerald. It’s one of the few in the city that stays open twenty-four hours, but even so, it’s usually pretty dead. I think that’s what she likes so much about it. Her shift starts at nine. She’ll get home around the time the sun’s coming up and sleep all day. She’s done it on-and-off for years.

She’s not home now. I don’t know where the hell she is. I’ve never been able to decide if I’m an introvert or an extrovert, but it’s times like these when I’m fairly sure I’m the latter. Even when everything’s going fine, I don’t usually like to be alone for too long. But everything’s not going fine. I start wondering if maybe Thomas and I developed some kind of co-dependency along the way, which I understand to mean that we’ll start going crazy—maybe literally crazy—if we don’t talk anymore. If it were true, then that would mean he’s feeling the same way I am, right? I try to remember what it’s called when only one person needs the other, then realize that’s just dependency. Damn, I really don’t like that word.

Well, if I text him, he’s not going to answer, so what the hell are my options? The only real option I can see is to text the person who will answer, even if we haven’t been talking for the past five days.

So I type the following into my phone and hit send: “What up?”

Those little blue dots show up right away, but it’s a long time before her response comes through.

“Not a lot, Niko. Will you come over?”

Twenty minutes later, I’m at Lexie’s place. She shows up at the front door, and I can already tell by the look on her face that she’s forgiven me. I’m such a fuck-up sometimes, it’s a miracle that she’s put up with me for so long.

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