I make my way to the shop with one of my melting sunset shirts on, hoping that if I wear it, I’ll feel like I still belong there, that I never left and that everything is the same. It’s only been a few days since I quit, I doubt Sally has replaced me. I think seeing a different girl behind the counter, seeing her look at Brandon with her chin in her hand might break me. I’m sure any girl would love to work with him, and the thought of it makes my heart race, bringing me to mindlessly contemplate if Brandon would then fall in love with the new girl, forgetting about me.
I peak through the small window on the side of the building before reluctantly going inside, seeing no new girl managing the register. When I walk through the open doors, my insides settle at the site of an empty lifeguard chair up front. A new girl could have easily taken my spot there, the spot I took from Hannah—the girl I oddly named.
I immediately spot Sally behind the counter, leaning against the wall, sipping coffee, and she immediately spots me. Last night and this morning I’ve been running over what I’m going to say in my head, constantly changing and considering not leaving the house at all. I embarrassed myself and let Sally down, which hurt me more than I expected. Maybe it’s because she saved me a position for when I turned eighteen or that she seems to know exactly what I’m going through. Either way, I don’t want to disappoint her, ever again.
I run my bottom lip between my teeth and walk forward, ready to spit out whatever can manage to climb up my throat. Before I can explain myself in an orchestra of stutters and excuses, Sally says, “Brandon told me what happened. Don’t worry, I get it. I’m leaving for the day so I need you guys to lock up, okay?”
I nod with surprise, now wondering what exactly Brandon told her.
“I gotta run. I’ll see you guys tomorrow. Oh, and no funny business while I’m not here, I don’t need you two weirding costumers out.”
I nod again, rushed this time, saying, “Of course, of course,” in my head. I watch her leave and stand in the middle of the store for a moment, convincing myself that Sally didn’t just tell me what she just told me. So he did tell her everything. Everything. What else would make her say: no funny business.
My face heats up, then, of course, Brandon makes his appearance, coming out from the back room, pulling his uniform on—just one of the many shirts in the back, he must not have worn to work one of the many shirts he already has. He smiles when he sees me, that stupid, boyish, white, charming, dimple-causing smile that wins everyone over. The smile I was locked with just last night.
“I knew you would come,” he says.
“Well, I mean, there’s not much else to do so... What did you tell her?”
“Just what happened.” He shrugs, turning away to tend to the heat press. I follow.
"Just what happened?"
“Emma, it’s Sally. I think we can trust her,” he says, playing with me. “And you heard her, no funny business, got it?”
I stop myself from blaming all of our at-work acts of romance on him, holding my tongue. I take a breath and walk away, mumbling to myself, “Why did I give in? Why, Emma?” I take my post behind the counter, trying to ignore him, pretending not to see his pretty glances.
People come and go throughout the day, and I move from the counter to the floor to the chair up front. When Brandon goes on his break, I can’t help but watch for him down by the beach. He still goes down and somehow manages to find people he knows. I’m convinced he knows everyone. I’m sure everyone loves knowing him.
After I check out a young girl and her parents, I walk up to the doors and find him sitting on the wall with Jess and a guy I don’t know. They’re eating and talking. Not wanting to eavesdrop or get caught, I return to the counter.
I’m not worried about Jess, not anymore. If Brandon was interested in her, he would have shown it by now. They seem to be just friends to him, but to her, I’m not sure. Like with Lauren and Austin, he sees her as a friend when she’s working for something more. I don’t want Jess working for something with Brandon because I’ve been working to let him in, and I am. Because of that last push from Jonas, I’m willing to fall into his arms, but not arms who’s hands are holding another’s. I will not repeat what happened with Milo.
Minutes before closing, I find myself doodling on a random pad of paper while Brandon turns off the press and finishes up a few things in the back. I would help him in the back but I don’t want to be back there with him again. Sally said no funny business, so I’m determined to obey. If I end up back there with him alone again I think I’ll give him a look and he’ll have no problem acting on it, even though he unnecessarily reminded me earlier. Brandon can get his way out of anything, I’m sure.
I look up from my doodles of flowers and shells to find Kaden standing at the counter. I shoot up from my seat and take a step back. “What are you doing here?”
“Look, I just wanted to stop by and apologize for what happened yesterday. I was out of line—it wasn’t me, not the new me, Emma.”
“You shouldn’t be here.”
He sighs, placing his hands on the counter. “I just want things to be good between us. I want to fix everything that happened last year. You don’t understand how badly I want to be close with you again. When I lost you, I lost one of my best friends, and I want you back in my life. You were always one of the good things in my life.”
I hesitate before saying, “I know what you said to Brandon, in the hallway. After that, I find it very hard to believe you. After last night—”
“God, Emma, I didn’t mean what I said to him. I was just—I was just trying to throw him off, get him out of the way. What can I say? I’m jealous. I don’t want you with other guys.”
“You need to go. I told you the first night that we can’t be together again. I meant it. I don’t want you thinking that you can win me over because I’m done with you.”
“Then why do you keep coming to my house? Why do you hang around me?”
I swallow. “Because—because of Brandon. I’m there for him, Kaden.”
“So you two are together now?”
“You should go. We’re closing up.”
He looks at me as if he can’t believe what I’m saying, as if I’m betraying him. He shakes his head and turns to leave. “Don’t bother coming over anymore. Brandon won’t be there.”
I watch with a riled stomach until he vanishes through the doors. Brandon emerges and I immediately collect myself. Not sure if he heard everything, I divert and say, “I got the keys. Are you ready to go?”
“Emma,” he says, having heard everything.
“I know that you are completely capable of handling yourself—just be careful, especially with him. I don’t trust him.”
We look at each other in silence before I finish chewing on my bottom lip. “Let’s lock up. Is everything locked and shut off in the back?”
“Yes, I took care of everything.”
“Okay, I got—” I walk off but he reels me back. “What?”
“I don’t trust him with you. The way he grabbed you—it’s unsettling, it worries me.”
“Don’t worry, okay? I know him. I know Kaden. I’ve been with him. I know how to handle him.”
Brandon nods then unexpectedly asks, “What did he do to you?”
I stiffen, even more so if possible after speaking with Kaden. “Something bad. Something that I can never forgive him for. But I’m not scared of him, he doesn’t scare me. Come on, we should actually lock up now before the sunsets.”
I turn off the lights and Brandon locks the doors behind us, pocketing the keys to open up tomorrow. We walk together down the sidewalk until we come to our unspoken decisions. There are two options. I go home and so does Brandon, or we continue on and spend some time together, likely alone. After what happened last night I could hardly fall asleep. Because of last night, I stole my mothers birth control. I should say goodnight and walk home and be a good girl. Good girls don’t go home with boys after the sun sets. Good girls don’t do the majority of the things I’ve done. “I should, um, get going.”
“I’ll walk you.”
Instead of fighting it, I give him a small smile and we head off to my Aunt’s house.
“You should tell me about yourself,” I say, walking alongside him. “You have to or else you can’t kiss me goodnight.”
Brandon smiles to himself. “Well, you already know about Berkeley. Along with a scholarship, I also have a family.”
“You know, A mother, father, younger brother who’s going to be a freshman in high school. They live in San Francisco.”
“Huh, I thought you were an alien or something. It would have been an exciting surprise.”
He glances at me, as charming as ever. “Do I have alien traits to you? Features? I’m not sure if you’re trying to tell me that my handsomeness is out of this world, or if I resemble a short, green, foreign thing.”
“It’s not the way you look, it’s your frustrating ability to make everyone love you, to always seem—I don’t know—too perfect. Maybe it’s all a disguise. Maybe you’re manipulating everyone.”
“So it’s working on you then?”
He gives me an obvious look. “My ability.”
Not letting the color spread on my cheeks, I cross my arms and hold it in. “Sorry, but no. I’m too smart to fall for your tricks.”
“You may be giving me too much credit, Emma.”
“I don’t think so, you’re definitely—”
I look forward and realize we’ve reached the house. But unfortunately, my mother is sitting with my Aunt on the porch, drinking wine. They call for me yet all I can choke up is an, “Oh God.” Brandon continues toward them, but I grab his arm. “Trust me, you don’t want to do that.”
“Is that your mother?” He asks, pointing at her on the left. I nod. “You look a lot like her.”
“Emma,” my Aunt calls, teasing me, “who’s your friend? Come say hi!”
I frantically shake my head, but a curious Brandon pulls me along until we reach the steps. My mother and Aunt stand up, leaning against the porch fence, glasses sitting dangerously on it. ”Emma,” my mother hints for me to introduce him.
“This is Brandon,” I say, a bit grumpy. “He’s my—I work with him. He’s my friend.”
Brandon subtly bends down to my ear and murmurs, “I don’t think friends do what we do.” Causing me to quickly elbow him away.
“It’s nice to meet you, Brandon,” My mom says. “I’m Emma’s mom, Val, and this is her Aunt, Wendy.”
“It’s nice to meet you both as well,” he smoothly responds as if he’s met parents too many times. “I was just walking Emma home.”
“Isn’t that sweet,” my Aunt says, rubbing salt in my wounds.
Before the torture can carry on, I grab onto Brandon so my Aunt and Mother don’t pull him in. “It’s so very kind of him, yes,” I mutter, “but Brandon has to go now.”
“Oh, well I’m sure we’ll see you again,” my mother says, knowing exactly what’s she’s doing.
Brandon waves, but before walking off, he asks for his earned kiss, but I quickly trade him more kisses later if he keeps his voice down. My cheeks flare up as we part ways—I hate how he makes me act like some love-sick little girl. I’m losing my reputation and very fast. Soon enough I’ll be back to that girl who lets the boy in her heart stomp all over it.
I won’t let anyone—Kaden, Brandon, Milo—anyone, stomp all over me ever again. That’s a promise I made to myself, and one I intend to keep.