Schooled

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Chapter 25

Thanksgiving had come before we knew it.

Since the start of college I’d always gone to Ava’s for the break. Her family wasn’t perfect, but they were tight. Her mom, Christine, and dad, Paul, had always been amazing to me. Had been welcoming since the first time I came for an impromptu sleepover in grade school.

Unlike my mom, they seemed to take everything in stride. Including Ava’s early forays into fashion. Like the time she’d nabbed our second-grade teacher’s scissors and done some impromptu styling on Ashley Cook’s corduroy jumper at recess. It had ended up sleeveless with a serrated edge. (Ashley had loved it. Her mom and Mrs. Darby, not so much.)

It was only a thirty-minute drive from our place to theirs. Even though we had a perfectly good washing machine Ava insisted on taking laundry home at least every couple of months.

“Mom misses me. This is one of the ways she copes,” Ava insisted, dropping the world’s largest hamper into the trunk of my car before sliding into shotgun. I passed her the tin of molasses cookies I’d made that morning for safekeeping on the ride.

“Somehow I doubt your mom’s waiting with bated breath on your dirty sheets and tights.”

My fight with Dylan was still top of mind. We hadn’t made up and it was eating at me. Though I knew he was going home for Thanksgiving, we’d had only a brief exchange in the week since and it’d been by text. Basically he’d said he would see me at home but had a killer assignment due.

It was the “I’m not avoiding you, I’m studying” excuse. I wrote that excuse. And the fact that he was using it with me drove me crazy.

“Should we pick Dylan up?” I asked casually. “I mean, if he’s going?”

“I think his girlfriend’s dropping him off. Marcy, or Marcia or something.” Ava leaned forward and clicked on the satellite radio.

I hit the brakes. Literally.

“Lex, what the hell?”

Ava looked shocked and someone behind me honked. Fortunately we were on a side street and the limit was thirty. But reason had vanished from my brain and something else entirely took over.

“Sorry, thought I saw something. A dog.”

Was he actually seeing someone else? Or had he just given the excuse because he couldn’t avoid the scrutiny any longer?

Forgiving the minor stroke I’d just had, Ava continued. “Kate can’t make it home this year—something about good first impressions and no vacation the first year of … whatever you call it. Pharmacisting? Drug selling? I dunno. But Ethan’s home for the weekend. I haven’t seen him in forever.”

I’d had a bit of a crush on Ethan when we were in high school. In that innocent, seeing-glorious-pecs-for-the-first-time kind of way. I could remember seeing him in board shorts by the pool. Funny, the image didn’t do anything for me anymore.

I tried to push the Dylan news out of my mind as we neared the Cameron house. Even if I’d had an hour to think it over I probably would have only succeeded in getting myself more and more worked up rather than actually landing on anything helpful.

We pulled up to hugs. Ava had come by her good hugging skills honestly.

“Lex, honey, you look terrific.” Christine was short and shared the same coloring that Ethan and Kate had—sandy brown hair and blue eyes. Dylan and Ava took after their father. “Glad to see you bounce back.” The last time I’d visited had been shortly after Jake had dumped me, just before heading to New York. I’d seen better days.

Christine wrapped one slender arm around my shoulders, took the cookies from me with the other.

“What am I, chopped liver?” Ava called from behind me.

“I love you too.” Christine tossed over her shoulder. “I’ll love you even more if you stop bringing your laundry home.”

Until noon we helped Ava’s mom prep for dinner. Paul made a few appearances to check on the turkey. I tried not to think of what Dylan had said about his father. It shifted the way I saw him. “She won’t let me at anything.” He winked conspiratorially while Christine swatted him in the shoulder.

“That’s because the last time you made cranberry sauce, you put salt in place of the sugar.”

“An honest mistake,” he protested mildly. He grabbed a spoonful of pumpkin pie filling before Christine could stop him.

No matter his faults, I still marveled at the way they interacted with each other, with Ava. They were so sweet. This was the family I’d always wanted. And I guessed that in a way, I had them.

Just as Christine opened her mouth to comment, the door opened.

“Saved by the bell!” Paul exclaimed. “Son, your timing is impeccable.”

My ears perked up until I heard Ethan’s smooth voice coming from the foyer.

“Glad to help, Dad. I’ll collect later.”

Ethan came into the kitchen, a gallon of cider in one hand. He leaned down to envelope his mom in a one-armed hug before sliding the jug into the fridge.

Ava had had enough of helping for now, and Christine assured me she was fine. Ava, Ethan, and I went to the living room, curled up on the sofa and arm chairs. Ava put on some music, Ethan opened a beer, and we caught up. He showed us pictures of some of the insane houses he’d sold, a few to B list celebrities. “Watch out,” I threatened, “you keep hanging with that crowd, you might end up on TMZ.” He laughed. This was family.

After a while I heard new voices in the kitchen, and Dylan materialized in the doorframe. He must’ve come through the back by the pool. Our eyes met, held.

“Hey, bro.” Ethan raised a beer but didn’t get up. “I thought you were going to be playing rugby this winter. Don’t you have to work out for that?”

“I missed you too, asshole.” Dylan’s grin was slower than usual to come, but when it did it was real. I felt a little pang because it was the first I’d seen him smile like that in days. And it wasn’t at me. “You know the season doesn’t start for months. And I go to the gym.”

He grabbed the beer out of his brother’s hand and dropped himself into the empty chair.

“So how’s the cheerleading squad this year?” Ethan didn’t mince words.

Ava was in on it too. “Yeah, D, why isn’t Marcia coming for dinner?” Her eyes were bright with mischief.

“Marcia?” Ethan turned to Ava, who nodded in confirmation. They were both clearly content to leave Dylan out of the conversation entirely. “Sounds hot. I like her already.” This experience of siblings good-naturedly ganging up on one another was one of the things I’d missed out on as an only child. But it was hard to appreciate it given the topic of conversation. I didn’t have anything to add besides glaring at Dylan until he melted into the ground, so I sipped my cider, trying to look impassive.

“She is hot. And she dropped him off here today.” Ava played her trump card, sharing a victorious smile with Ethan. Despite her dark and his fair, you could see the resemblance in that look alone.

Dylan looked uncomfortable at their provocation. His long body was relaxed, one ankle crossed over his knee and his arms dangling off the overstuffed rests. But he didn’t look directly at me when he answered. “It’s no big deal.”

There was a block of ice in the pit of my stomach that refused to move. Part of me wanted to run out the front door and not look back. I hated feeling this way.

My thought train was interrupted when Christine called us for dinner.

Dinner was better than I expected. There were jokes and laughter, some goodhearted ribbing. The dynamic between the Camerons had always impressed me, but I’d started to take it for granted. What was it Dylan had said that day in the car? You can’t choose your family. They may not have chosen one another, but God they looked comfortable. In that moment I saw exactly why Dylan had done what he had for his father, to protect his mother and siblings. While it was hard to say with certainty, I sensed that any one of them would’ve gone to the wall for the others.

The Camerons were real family. For the first time in more than fifteen years, I felt out of place.

A couple of times Dylan reached over to touch my leg, like he was trying to communicate something, but I ignored it.

I had no idea if Dylan and I would turn into anything serious. And what if I told Ava and it fractured our relationship? What if it didn’t, but Dylan and I broke up? This was his family. I wouldn’t have anywhere to go.

When the pumpkin pie was done I excused myself to use the washroom.

Bracing my hands on either side of the sink, I tried to calm down. The thoughts had been racing through my mind with increasing velocity despite the warm mood at the table.

I heard a soft knock at the door. “Hey, are you OK?”

Taking a deep breath I pulled open the door and looked up at him.

He stepped toward me and pulled the door gently closed behind me. “Listen, about what Ava said—about Marcia …”

“I’m not jealous, Dylan.” I was totally jealous.

“Nothing’s going on. But I wanted another chance to talk.”

I waited though I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. He’d apologize for running off, despite knowing the ground rules we’d established weeks ago, and ask if we could move forward.

“OK, let’s talk.” I gave him the opening and he took it.

“This sneaking around, I don’t get it,” he stated. “I’ve been trying for weeks to understand why you think this is the only way and my brain’s starting to hurt from the effort. And frankly, I’m starting to wonder if it’s worth it.”

I blinked a couple of times. This was not the apology I’d expected. My brain tried to catch up as he continued.

“Let’s just tell them. Tonight. Right now.”

“We can’t, Dylan. I can’t.” His family was the only real family I’d had. I wasn’t willing to risk my relationship with Ava, or with his family, for something I couldn’t count on.

He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Do you know what I think the real issue is? It’s that you’re afraid to care about someone. You give me crap for trying to live up to people’s expectations instead of doing my own thing, but you do exactly the same thing.”

“What?” My voice was louder than I’d intended.

“You’ve built up these defenses and you won’t let anyone in because you’re afraid to look weak. And I get why, Lex, I do. But somewhere along the way you’ve got to trust me on this.”

Dylan’s eyes were conflicted as they held mine for endless minutes. I wanted to give him what he was asking for, but couldn’t. My chest tightened with every second he looked at me asking for something I had the power to grant but wouldn’t.

It was as if both of us realized this was different. That neither of us was willing to concede. And if we couldn’t agree on this …

He shook his head. “It’s pretty straightforward. I care about you. I … I care a lot. But I can’t be with you and not be with you. I’m not ready to lie to my family and friends, to sneak around because you’re afraid to be seen with me.”

He turned and left, pulling the door shut behind him. And when he did, it felt like part of me went with him.

Goodbye, Dylan.

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