“Lex. Do you have my laptop?” Ava’s strained voice came down the phone line Thursday afternoon. I finished class at four thirty and had just caught the bus home, opening the front door just as my cell rang.
“Ah … no.” Some days I thought Ava would lose her head if it wasn’t attached. I set down my bag and closed the door behind me so I could focus on the conversation. “When did you have it last? What happened?”
“Ugh. I don’t know, Lex. I had it yesterday. I’m at school now and think I remember bringing it this morning. What if it got stolen?” I could practically hear her chewing her lip over the phone. “Shit, shit, shit … And I need it tonight for class too.”
“That’s awful. What can I do?”
“Can I borrow yours?”
“You know I’d do anything for you, A. But I need mine to prep a presentation for tomorrow. Maybe I can spare it for an hour though, or use one in the library …”
“OK. I’m asking a few other people. Just texted Emily but haven’t heard anything.”
Kicking off my shoes, I padded upstairs with the phone still to my ear. No Emily, but the door at the end of the hall was ajar. I stuck my head in.
Jen was stretched out on her stomach on the floor with a book open in front of her. Scratch that. On closer inspection I realized she was holding herself up in a plank on her elbows and toes, hovering just a few inches off the carpet.
“Hey, Jen, can Ava borrow your computer tonight? Hers went missing again.” Jen glanced toward the door, no strain evident from the core workout. The girl had abs of steel. I was totally envious but also nowhere near willing to put the work in.
She rolled her eyes as if to say seriously? Then just as she opened her mouth Ava started talking in my ear.
“Wait, Dylan just wrote back. He can lend me his but he’s in lab. Can you bring it by?” After four, parking was free on campus, and my car was now fixed.
“Um—” I checked my watch “—sure. What time?”
“You’re a lifesaver. As soon as you can.” She named the building and room and I clicked off.
“You’re off the hook,” I said to Jen.
“Thank goodness.” Her perky voice was relieved, though I could hear the strain at the edges. I wondered how long she’d been holding that for. “You know I love her, but if I lent that girl more than a pair of socks I’d probably regret it.”
I pulled into campus ten minutes later and parked in the lot behind the building Ava had mentioned. It was a newer one, redone about five years ago, and housed most of the chemistry department.
I hadn’t been in the building before, but the map inside the front door told me where to find lab 214. The stairs took me to the second floor and a long hall lined with photos of various classes. A glass display case at one end held more photos and trophies. It looked more like a prep school hall than a science building. We must have generous science alum.
The door to room 214 was open and I peeked in. About twenty students were working in pairs at lab benches. It looked like they were titrating something. Most had gloves on but some were taking notes. I glanced around the room. I didn’t have to look far before my eyes stopped.
Dylan was easily the tallest guy in the room. Wearing jeans and a polo under his lab apron, he’d obviously been dubbed the notetaker rather than the titrator as he wasn’t wearing gloves. He was perched on a stool with one foot resting on the rungs. He was focused on what was happening in a large beaker, tapping his pencil absently on the top of one knee. It was the same look of concentration he’d had when he was fixing my car. Like he was so absorbed nothing could have snapped him out of it.
His lab partner, a short red-haired guy, noticed my stare. He looked up and gestured to Dylan, whose eyes immediately went to the door. My breath lodged in my throat for a second when he smiled my favorite smile—the genuine one. Then he motioned me over.
“Lex, this is Gary,” he introduced me. Gary looked a bit star-struck, though it wasn’t clear why. My wavy hair was doing its usual thing down my back. I didn’t look like a total slob but was still casual in dark jeans, boots, a black T-shirt and the moto jacket I’d bought in New York. It was a bit tougher than my usual look, but what could I say, Dylan’s car-fixing getup had inspired me.
“Is she your …” Gary turned to Dylan, eyes still a bit wide.
“Yeah. Now if you could just move the hydrochloric acid, we’re going to go at it on the lab bench.” Dylan responded smoothly.
I tried not to blush at the visual Dylan’s comment had inspired. Poor Gary. I hadn’t thought his eyes could get wider.
“Lex is a friend.” Dylan rustled around in his book bag and produced a shiny MacBook Air. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he muttered, setting the power cord on top as he handed it to me with pleading eyes. “Tell her whatever she does, do not lose this one.”
“I’ll do my best.” I smiled and turned to walk to the door. He moved to follow me out.
I turned at the doorway to face him when something occurred to me. “When do you need it back? Tomorrow?”
“Nah, she can have it until Monday. The guys and I are going to TJ for the weekend.”
The smile evaporated off my face.
“You’re going to Tijuana? With your roommates?” I chewed my lip and wondered how much I was overstepping. “Is that a good idea?”
“Why not?” A cocky grin curved his lips. “Because you’ll miss me?”
I didn’t return the smile. “No, Dylan. Because you wanted a fresh start here? Because you’re a scholarship student?” I glanced around before adding quietly, “Because at your last school everyone went postal because they heard you’d gone to rehab?”
“I’m not going there to party, Lex.”
“Really? You expect Tijuana to be character-building?”
He lifted a shoulder, suddenly looking defensive.
“Because I’m pretty sure Rick isn’t going to make piñatas.” My voice was sharp.
“We’re just going to hang out. Unwind a little bit. Get off campus.” He held up his hands. “It’s no big deal.”
The more I knew about him, the more important it had seemed that he was starting fresh. And booze, single-minded guys, and possibly drugs didn’t feel like a great way to reinforce that. I wondered whether part of me selfishly wanted to keep him away from the partying and everything that could go with it, but decided it was more about him than me.
“You are just getting settled here, just making friends, and you seem happy to be letting go of some of your baggage.”
“Lex, just … back off. You’re not my sister and you don’t need to tell me what to do.” His voice had an edge to it I didn’t understand.
“No, I’m your friend and I care about you. I don’t want to see you do anything that might hurt you, or your reputation.” I was being more than a little unreasonable, but something felt wrong. I wasn’t sure why I had trouble letting it go.
He stared at me for a moment before running a hand through his hair. “Just tell Ava I need it back Monday.” Dylan turned away from me.
A couple of other students had glanced our direction. In my peripheral vision I could see Gary watching us as if we were a real life soap opera. If my face showed any of the frustration I was feeling, he wouldn’t have been disappointed.
I gave into the very childish desire to test the toes of my boots, kicking the doorframe in frustration on the way out. It was partly for Gary, mostly for me.
I dropped the notebook off to a sweating Ava. “Oh, thank God. You’re the best.”
“It was all Dylan.” I didn’t bother passing along the comment not to break the computer, but did share the one about timing.
“He’s going to Mexico for the weekend?” Ava rolled her eyes. “Typical. I keep waiting for this good-guy thing to crack. I love my brother, Lex, but last year was a fluke. He’ll be back into old habits in no time.”