After an especially long week of work, I finally got a chance to sit down and work on my college to do list. Terin still hadn’t sent me his even though we had emailed multiple times, so I didn’t feel too bad. I looked at all sorts of schools, but I decided that in-state schools were going to be the most feasible, so I limited myself to going in depth only on Missouri schools. I found a couple that looked like they had good vocal programs and history programs, so I typed them up.
Looking at schools wasn’t all that interesting, so I closed my dad’s laptop and opened Eragon instead. Not long after I started reading, Gray, Brooks, and Daniel recruited me to go on a walk with them. Instead of staying on the trail, they led me to a spot with little waterfalls that was so peaceful that I wanted to sit there forever. Even though I enjoyed their company, I couldn’t help but long for Jed and Terin to be sitting next to me.
On the way back to the house, I replayed my last interactions with Jed over and over in my head. I hadn’t worked up the courage to write him a letter yet, because I had no idea what I actually wanted to say to him. I knew that I missed him, but I couldn’t send a letter that only said that.
I was pretty sure that I should be sorry for kissing him when I already pretty much knew that he would reject me, but I really wasn’t. It was my third kiss in my life, and even though all three times I had kissed someone I had loved them, Jed was the only one who had created fireworks inside me. Chelsea and Terin had been totally different. Even if Jed had pulled away, that kiss had given me something that I couldn’t explain.
At the same time, thinking about how he didn’t love me back made my heart heavy, and I dreaded my future, where no one would ever like me back and I’d be alone for the rest of my life.
I told that thought to go away and tried to focus on Brooks and Daniel’s screams and Gray’s laugh. Even if I never found someone who loved me romantically, I’d always have my family.
My work schedule for the week was pretty light since I had covered some other people’s shifts the week before, so I had time to meet Gray’s school friends.
We walked down the road to his friend Holly’s house, which was in the direction of town. Brooks and Daniel ran ahead of us, kicking a rock between them.
“Does your friend know we’re coming?” I asked Gray.
“Yeah,” he said. “She said we could stay for dinner. Have you ever had tofu?”
“No,” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s a meat substitute.”
“But what is it actually?”
Gray shrugged, and I smiled. “Is it good?”
“I like it.”
I knew when we were at Holly’s house, because Brooks and Daniel turned and sprinted down a gravel driveway. The house was much smaller than Gray’s and it was painted a yellow color, which I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. I had never seen a yellow house.
“Holly and her mom grow a lot of food themselves,” Gray told me. “They have some fruit trees and lots of other things in their garden.”
“That’s cool,” I said, eyeing the trees around the house and the vegetation on the ground, which I guessed was part of the garden. I looked back to Brooks and Daniel, who were weaving between cars near the house. “Lots of cars,” I said.
“Yeah, that means the others are here.”
“My other friends.”
“You didn’t mention that they were coming.”
I smiled to myself. I was learning that Gray left out a lot of details.
When we got up to the front door, Gray walked right in, just as Brooks and Daniel had. The smell of food hit me, and my stomach gurgled.
“Gray!” a girl said, running over to hug him. She wore a ruffled shirt, feather earrings, and multiple bangles on her wrists. Gray grinned as he hugged her, and when she pulled away, she looked at Cameron. “You must be his cousin, Cameron?”
I nodded, smiling. I felt my cheeks flush, and I told them to cut it out, but they didn’t.
“It’s so good to meet you,” the girl said. “I’m Holly, but I bet you know that. Come, I’ll introduce you to my mom.”
I followed Holly to the kitchen. I figured that Gray was coming too, but when I looked behind me, he was nowhere to be seen.
There were a boy and a girl sitting at the table in the kitchen, but Holly pulled me right past them and stopped behind the woman at the stove.
“Mom, Gray’s cousin, Cameron is here.”
The woman turned around. The first thing I noticed were her eyes, which were so intense that I swear they sparkled. “Cameron!” she said, as if she had known me for years. She studied my face, then took a breath. “Your nose. You and Gray have the same nose.”
I resisted the urge to reach up and touch it and smiled sheepishly. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“I’m Iris,” she said, turning back to the stove to flip the weird sticks of food that she was cooking. One side was white, but the other had turned brown against the skillet.
“Is that tofu?” I asked.
“Yes, do you like it?”
“I’ve never had it,” I admitted. It didn’t look super appetizing.
“My mom makes the best tofu,” Holly promised.
“I believe she’s right,” Iris said, flashing me a smile before turning back to the stove.
Holly pulled me back to the table, where the boy and girl were sitting.
“This is Rocco,” she said, gesturing to the guy, who had brown hair and green eyes. He smiled. “Nice to meet you.”
“You too,” I said. “I’m Cameron, if you didn’t know.”
“Gray only mentioned you about a million times,” Rocco said, laughing.
The girl at the table laughed too, tracing her finger in front of her. I smiled, but I couldn’t help but think about how Terin used to draw with his finger on the table.
“I’m Meghan,” the girl said.
“They used to date,” Holly said, and Rocco turned red.
“Years ago,” Meghan said. “You don’t have to bring it up whenever we meet people.”
“It’s an important detail to understanding your friendship,” Holly said. “I wanted to help Cameron get to know us.”
“It’s okay, I’ll learn eventually,” I said, unsure of what else to say. “Where’d Gray and his brothers go?”
“Probably to the garage,” Meghan said. “Tor was out there taking pictures.”
“Of the garage?” Holly asked. “Why?”
I followed Holly out to the garage, where Brooks and Daniel were at a computer and Gray and a guy, who must have been Tor, were looking at some jewelry on a table.
“This is my mom’s workshop,” Holly told me. “She sells jewelry and other things that she makes.”
“That’s cool,” I said, looking around at all of the envelopes, beads, string, and small, wrapped packages on the tables.
“What are you taking pictures of out here?” Holly asked, going over to Gray and Tor.
“Your mom was saying that the pictures of stuff on her website always had weird lighting, so I was taking some good pictures for her.” Tor said.
“Oh, makes sense.” Holly said. “Meghan made it sound like you were taking pictures of the garage or using the garage as a background or something.”
Tor smiled to himself as he gazed into the viewfinder on his camera. “I bet this would make an interesting background. A series on clutter or something metaphorical, like capturing the clutter inside people’s minds in a tangible way.”
Holly and Gray laughed, but I wasn’t sure if I should, so I just smiled.
“Tor is a really good photographer,” Gray told me.
“That’s cool,” I said.
“You know those family pictures in the family room?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“He took those.”
“Nice,” I said. They were good pictures.
“I’m normally more friendly,” Tor promised, toggling through something on his camera, “but I’m trying to get a job done. And Gray is messing up my lighting.”
Gray smiled and made his way over to me. Holly was at the computer hugging on Brooks and Daniel. Brooks leaned into her arm, but Daniel tried to push them away, never moving his eyes from the screen.
“They both really like her,” Gray said, “but they’re also really competitive, and I bet Holly’s messing up Daniel’s score.”
I smiled. Gray and I went over to watch Brooks and Daniel play dumb little games, trying to beat each other’s scores, until the door to the house opened and Meghan told us that it was time to eat.
We all hurried to the kitchen, where Iris had the food set out on the counters like a buffet. “Guests first,” she said, and Brooks and Daniel ran to the counter and reached up for plates. Gray went to help them, and I followed, knowing he wouldn’t be able to carry their plates as well as his own. While he got Brooks and Daniel what they wanted, I asked him what he wanted and piled food onto both of our plates. I didn’t know what some of it was, but Gray assured me that it was all good, so I tried to take his word for it.
Brooks and Daniel took the seats at the counter, and the rest of us crammed around the small dining table. The closeness of it all reminded me of the Parkers’ house, but I pushed that thought away and tried to get to know Gray’s friends better. Gray sat between Holly and Tor on one side of the table and Iris and Rocco sat at the head and foot of the table, leaving me to sit between Meghan and a girl who had showed up when we were in the garage.
“I’m Akita,” she said as I took a bite of the roasted brussel sprouts. They were actually really good, and I almost forgot to answer her before I took another bite. “I’m Cameron, Gray’s cousin. Nice to meet you.”
“Gray’s really nice, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” I said. “His whole family is nice.”
We were silent for a bit. I ate and listened to Holly, Gray, and Iris talk about biking until Akita said, “Do you like coins? Like, collecting them.”
“I’ve never collected coins, so I don’t know.”
“It’s really cool,” she said. “My grandpa gave me his collection when he passed away, so I have his collection and my collection. It’s like my own little piece of history, you know?”
“Are you into history?” I asked, smiling.
“Well, not really. Just coins, mostly. I even collect some money from other countries. I’ve never actually been anywhere, but people have given me some cool coins.”
“Nice,” I said. I had hoped she would like history and that we’d have something in common, but history seemed like a bust. “What else are you interested in?”
“Well, I like anime. Have you seen ‘One-Punch Man’? I think it might be my favorite, but there are so many good ones, you know?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anime,” I said.
“What?” Akita asked, her mouth gaping. “Meg, did you hear that?”
Meghan turned away from Rocco and looked at Akita. “What?”
“Cameron has never seen an anime!”
Meghan looked as shocked, if not more shocked, than Akita had. “We have to show you some. We can even start you out on something like ATLA, which isn’t really anime, but it’s pretty close.”
“ATLA?” I asked.
Meghan chuckled to herself, and Akita smiled at me. “I forget some people aren’t in the fandom, sorry.” Meghan said. “I meant ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender.’”
“Oh, I think I’ve heard of that.” I said.
“It’s so good,” Akita promised. “Gray has it on DVD. You’ll have to ask him to show it to you.”
“I will,” I said. Or, at least I would try it out.
Meghan and Akita talked around me for a few minutes as I ate, shrinking back as far as I could so that I wouldn’t feel like I was in their way. The tofu was okay, but I wasn’t sure I wanted more of it, and the stuff that Gray had called beet salad was really gross. I decided that beets were not my thing.
Most people went back for seconds, but when I went up, all I wanted was the brussel sprouts, and they were all gone. I went back to the table with a single tofu stick to make it look like I hadn’t gone up there for nothing, and I nibbled on it as everyone talked loudly. I wished that I could go home. I didn’t belong here. I wasn’t into anime or coins, or even video games, really. I didn’t even know how to ride a bike. I had nothing in common with any of these people, except that I knew Gray.
When everyone was done eating, we put our dishes in the dishwasher. Holly started cleaning, but Iris took the rag from her. “Go have fun. I’ll do the cleaning tonight, okay?”
Holly hugged her mom, and we all gathered in the living room to play board games. I ended up playing Chutes and Ladders with Brooks and Daniel while Holly and Rocco played a game I had never heard of, and Gray, Akita, Tor, and Meghan got out the Pokémon cards they had all apparently brought and played each other.
I got tired of playing Chutes and Ladders before the game was over, but to my luck, whenever the game was over, Holly offered to switch with me.
“I don’t know how to play this game,” I said, moving over to where Rocco lay on his stomach, staring at the game board.
“We don’t have to play it,” he said. “I don’t even like it very much. Holly just wanted to play it.”
We got up and looked at the other board games in the closet. We settled on Battleship and went back to our spot on the floor to set it up.
“You like Pokémon?” Rocco asked.
“I never played it growing up.”
“I played it all the time,” Rocco said, smiling. “I loved it. Think I kind of burned out, though. It’s not as fun anymore.”
“It happens,” I said, thinking back to when Terin and I used to challenge each other to spelling contests. “You like Battleship though?”
“Yeah,” Rocco said, smiling. “I like most board games.”
“Do you read much?”
“Mostly just for school.”
“What movies do you like?” I asked. I finished setting up my ships and waited for Rocco to finish.
“I like the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies. And Harry Potter. I read those books sometimes.”
“The Harry Potter books are really good,” I said, smiling. Finally, something.
“Ready when you are,” Rocco said.
We focused on the game for a bit before picking up a conversation again.
“Did you ever read any Tolkein?” I asked.
“Tried The Hobbit back in middle school or something. It got kinda boring.”
“I never read them. The movies were good, though.”
“Yeah. I like movies.”
You like anime?”
I laughed. “Never seen it.”
Rocco smiled. “Finally, someone sane. I mean, Holly doesn’t care too much for it either, except for ‘Avatar,’ but that one is actually good.”
“Gray has never mentioned anime before.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how much he actually cares for it. But he generally goes along with everything to be nice.”
“He is nice.”
“You gonna take your turn?”
“I was plotting,” I teased. Rocco smiled.
I sunk one of Rocco’s ships.
“You weren’t kidding, then.” he said.
“Of course not.”
“It’s hard to believe you’re Gray’s cousin.”
“We don’t look much alike.”
“Or act much alike.”
“It might’ve been different if we grew up together,” I said. I knew I would be very different if I had grown up with my birth family, if I had gone to public school, and if I hadn’t had Terin to challenge me intellectually.
“Maybe,” Rocco said. He guessed a coordinate and missed my ships again.
“Do you have any siblings?” I asked.
“No, we’re all only children here, except Meghan. And Gray, obviously.”
“I’ve never felt like an only child, even though I actually am.” I said, and then I wondered why I had said it.
“When we were little, Gray mentioned that he had a cousin who was lost or something. Was that you?”
“Sounds like me,” I said, hoping Rocco wouldn’t push farther.
“So where were you?”
“Oh,” Rocco said. “I’ve heard horror stories about that. Are they true?”
“I can’t speak for everyone, but I had my share of bad experiences.”
“Sorry. Must’ve sucked.”
“Yeah, sometimes. But I’m here now, so it’s okay.” I smiled at him, and he smiled back. I didn’t need him treating me like I was delicate or something.
After a couple games of Battleship, Rocco and I watched the others play Pokémon. Brooks and Daniel ended up running around shooting at each other with finger guns. I looked at the clock, surprised to see that it was past ten o’clock.
“Hey Gray,” I said, leaning towards him. He wasn’t playing in the game of Pokémon that was going on, so I didn’t feel too bad interrupting. “I have work in the morning, so do you want to leave soon or something?”
“Oh,” Gray said, looking at me. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I could always just take Brooks and Daniel home, and you could stay here or something.”
“Really?” he asked, his eyes widening.
“Sure,” I said. At least I wouldn’t have to walk home alone in the dark.
“Thanks, Cameron,” he said, grinning at me.
I chased down Brooks and Daniel, and we said goodbye to everyone and left out the front door. I felt bad not saying goodbye to Iris, but I hadn’t seen her anywhere.
“Did you guys have fun?” I asked my cousins.
“Yeah,” they said together. Then they said, “Jinx!” and dissolved into giggles. I smiled and breathed in the fresh air. Having lived in the suburbs my whole life, the openness of the country was calming to me.
“I’m hungry,” Daniel said, tugging at my hand.
“It’s kinda late,” I said, but I was a little hungry too. “Maybe we can grab a secret snack when we get home, okay?”
“Okay,” Brooks and Daniel agreed, giggling again. “Can we have ice cream?”
“Maybe,” I said, “and maybe a cookie.”
They ran ahead of me in excitement, and I walked faster in attempt to keep up. “Watch for cars!” I called.
They ended up beating me to the house, but they waited for me outside the front door. Almost all of the lights were off inside and the door was locked, so I pulled my key out of my pocket and unlocked the door quietly. “If we want a secret snack, we have to be super sneaky, okay?”
“We can tiptoe,” Brooks whispered.
“Good idea,” I whispered back.
I opened the door and we crept inside. I locked the door behind us, and we snuck to the kitchen. I got the ice cream out of the freezer and scooped some into bowls for all of us while Brooks and Daniel raided the cookie jar. They both had one in their mouths when Daniel handed me one. I gave them their ice cream and crumbled the cookie over my own bowl. I stirred it up a little, then sat at the table and enjoyed the treat. Brooks and Daniel both got stuff all over their faces, so I handed them napkins. When we were done eating, I took them to their room and made sure that they got into bed before heading up to my room and crashing into my bed.