Why do I have to be so mean to her? Well, why does she have to do that—make me angry. She knows I hate talking about it. What did she expect from me? Did she expect me to behave since Brandon is here? Did she expect me to buckle under his congratulations? I told her not to. I looked right into her eyes and asked her not to, and she did, she spit it right out as if the knife needs to be plunged in again. He won’t understand. No one ever understands why I hate talking about it, or myself in general, and that’s probably because I can’t provide a satisfying explanation.
Entering my bedroom, I quickly turn to close the door, but Brandon wedges himself in the way. Not crazy enough to shove him away or shut the door on his arm, I let go of the handle and sink into my room, letting him in. Expecting questions, I stay silent, but the moment passes.
I turn to see him holding one of my many shells in his hand.
“So you weren’t lying, you really do have shells everywhere.”
I step to him and gently take the small shell from his hand. “That would be a weird thing to lie about.”
He motions to the window sill where broken ones are left to bathe in the sun. “Been sneaking out?”
“More like sneaking in.”
Brandon is quiet for a few then asks, “Why didn’t you want me to know?”
“It’s not just you.” I set the shell back on my dresser. “I mean, Jonas didn’t even know, or Lauren. I just don’t want people to know.”
“Because when people find out they think I’m some genius. They tell me that I’m going to be the next J. K. Rowling. It’s stupid. They’re stupid for saying it. Even my mom says it. What am I supposed to do when I turn out normal? My family expects me to be some famous writer—and I hate it. I don’t want anyone to know about it because I’m not some genius. I just—don’t know.” I look him right in his eyes. “So, please just erase it from your memory or something.”
Brandon nods while slowly making his way around the room, glazing over every shell and floorboard and pillow. The sunset glows against his skin.
“What are you doing?”
He points down into the open closet. “What’s that?” He bends down to get a closer look, but I step in the way. Between my legs, he reads, “HJ, MT, KL, and EC?”
“I shouldn’t have let you in here.”
“Milo and Kaden.”
Rolling my lips together, I murmur, “Hunter.”
“EC? Emma Conway?”
He looks down at me, so I push him away. “When it comes to you, I break my own heart.”
The door suddenly pushes the rest of the way open and my Aunt peers in. With a knowing look, she says, “Dinner’s on the table,” before disappearing.
“I really don’t want to do this,” I tell him. “So, if I slip through the window, you can either follow or—”
Brandon leans down and kisses me softly. Everything inside of my body ceases to move. When he pulls away, I stay latched onto him. I think he’s with me to study me. To figure me out psychologically. He studies my room and makes mental notes to mention such bizarre things in his paper.
“I want to go somewhere far away,” I mumble. “I want to go somewhere with an empty beach where I can collect useless shells and where you can make love to me all day in the sand.”
“I’ll sit pretty and have dinner if that’s what you want to do, but I can’t promise I’ll keep my hands to myself afterward. So, let’s go.”
* * *
Lauren and I stare out at the water, sitting on the wall, letting our legs swing. We used to hang out here and eat ice cream from the shop across the street. That was the summer I met Hunter. We stopped getting ice cream after that—maybe we were too mature for ice cream cones because boys liked us, or maybe we suddenly started to worry about our figures.
“It makes me feel empty,” Lauren says.
I look up at her, not sure what to say. How do you comfort someone after an abortion?
“At least my mom didn’t freak out,” she continues. “But my Dad—we didn’t tell him. He thought we went to get our nails done. We didn’t come back with our nails done, but he didn’t notice.”
“Well, it must be nice to have your Mom with you now.”
Lauren nods. “Yeah. She and my Dad left home as soon as I confessed. My mom told my Dad that she wanted to visit me and go to the beach. My Dad was busy with work, but he figured stuff out, I guess. She’s not letting me stay here alone anymore, though.”
“I think we’ve been given too much freedom anyway,” I say, squinting due to the blaring sun. “If my mom knew half of the things I’ve done—well, she’d probably get over it because I’m going to Stanford. Somehow, no matter what I do, she always forgives me because of Stanford. I mean, if I’m going there, I must be a good kid, right?”
Lauren laughs a little. “What about you and Brandon?”
“You really want to talk about me right now?”
“It takes my mind off of things.”
I sigh. “Well, I love him.”
Lauren grabs my arm. “Really? You love him?” I nod, and she squeezes harder. “Did you tell him? Did he tell you that he loves you too?”
“No, no. I haven’t said it yet. I don’t know if I should.”
"What, why not?”
“Because summer is pretty much over. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again.”
“But you’re going to Stanford, and he’s at Berkeley! They’re so close!”
“Stop yelling,” I say, noticing a few people as they look over at her. “I just, I don’t know. I don’t know if he wants to continue what we have. I don’t know if he feels the same way as I do.”
“You don’t know if he loves you?”
I shake my head.
“I mean, he probably does. You can make any guy love you, Emma.”
“If I tell him I love him and he turns me down—”
“It’ll hurt,” she finishes. “But how do you know that’s his answer. After all you’ve done, Brandon is still here and you don’t think that’s love?”
Jumping off the wall, I try to end the conversation. “Come on; let’s go.”
I shrug. “Don’t know. Where do you wanna go?”
“Well, my parents are at my house. So, Jonas’? Maybe you can tell Brandon you love him.”
“Nice try, but Brandon’s working.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll text Jonas. Do you mind if Preston joins?”
“Nope, not at all. Are you sure you want to see him? I mean, after today...”
Lauren looks up from her phone. “I don’t know who’s it was. All I know is that Preston makes me happy, and right now I could use some happiness.”
We walk together to Jonas’ after he fails to answer Lauren’s text and her follow-up phone call. When we get there, his car is parked in the driveway, so I ring the doorbell.
“Do you think he’s with someone?” Lauren asks.
“I don’t think so. He stopped seeing Presley a while ago.”
“I’m going to look around back,” she says, leaving me and making her way around the house.
I hang out at the front door for a few moments until I hear Lauren call my name. When I follow her steps and get into the backyard, I find her standing at the edge of the pool, looking down at Jonas as he floats around on a raft. Drink in hand; he looks quite relaxed.
“You feeling okay?” He asks Lauren. “I wish you told me you were going today. I would have come to see you or—”
“Don’t worry about it. Emma didn’t know either. It was just my mom and me.”
“Well, come in and relax. The water’s great. Come on, get off your feet. I’ll get you a water? Can you drink? You know what; it’s probably best that we’re all sober.”
Lauren looks over to me. “You wanna swim?”
“Oh, no, I’ll just hang out. But I have a suit here you can use. It’s just inside by the dining table probably.”
She nods and heads in to change. I walk over to Jonas and ask, “Do you know when Brandon gets home?”
“Probably in an hour or two as usual. Why? Are you avoiding him or something?”
“No. Well, you know. Summer’s over. I leave in two weeks—”
“And you’re not sure what’s going to happen between you and Brandon, right? I thought that was figured that out when he found out about Stanford. Didn’t you two talk about being so close next semester? It’s like what? An hour, an hour and a half drive?”
I sit down at the edge of the pool and dip my legs in. The water is refreshing—I see why he’s out here.
“We haven’t spoken about it. I just asked him to forget that I’m going to Stanford and that’s all.”
Jonas attempts to sit up. ”You what?"
“You told him to forget that you’re going to Stanford. Don’t you know how that sounds? It sounds like you don’t want to see him after summer ends. Emma, you idiot.”
I kick my leg up and splash water at him. “That’s not what I meant when I told him that.”
“Does he know? Does he know that’s not what you meant?”
Bitting my cheek, I think things over. Could he really have thought that? “I won’t know until I talk to him.”
Lauren comes back out in my bikini and hurdles herself into the water, spraying Jonas and I. As we recover, she surfaces and says, “I really needed that!”
“Wait are you allowed to swim, Lauren?” I ask, and her face goes blank.
“I think I should get out.”
Jonas follows suit and dries off with her at the lounge chairs. Lauren googles to find out if she’s done any damage and I sit with my head in my hands. “I can’t swim,” she says.
“Didn’t the doctor tell you that?”
“I don’t know! I had a hard time paying attention!”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” Jonas says. “I mean, you got out, right? Should you shower or something? Is it the chemicals?”
“It just says something about not swimming for a few days because it might cause an infection. Oh god, I don’t know! What should I do?”
Pulling her down beside me, I tell her just to take a deep breath. “You were only in for a second. If something feels off later, then you should worry.”
“Preston’s on his way over. Just, when he gets here, pretend this never happened,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to know besides you two, okay?”
Preston arrives, and we find ourselves hanging around inside. Jonas puts on a movie and the two love birds are cozy on the couch. All I can think about is how Preston doesn’t know what she’s been through today, but here she is, laughing and trying to forget about it. Lauren’s a strong girl; I do not doubt that she can handle this—it’s just a complicated situation that I would hate to be in myself.
Jonas and I talk in the kitchen; hearing Lauren laugh from the couch across the room.
“At least she’s happy,” I say.
“Don’t worry. You can be happy too. Brandon should be home any minute. Then it will just be Lauren and her boyfriend, you and your boyfriend, and me and the half-eaten cheesecake in the fridge.”
I give Jonas a look, hating how he feels so left out. If any of us should be happily coupled, it should be Jonas.
“I wonder what Lauren and Preston are going to do when summer’s over.”
“Oh, they’ll be fine. They live twenty minutes from each other.”
“Really? That’s pretty lucky.”
Lauren comes over with an empty bowl of popcorn. “Do you have any more?” She asks Jonas, her cheeks flushed.
Jonas leans into the pantry to grab another packet.
“Oh, Preston told me that Kaden is at a rehabilitation center. Austin told him yesterday. Looks like your reaching out to Austin actually worked out.”
“Preston told you just now?”
A part of me settles, not only because I know Kaden is far away from me, but also because he’s safe. Austin must have reached out to their Dad, then, as I told him too. “Good. That’s good news.”
“It is. I just hope he stays in and gets well.”
Jonas pops the packet in the microwave then leans against the counter. “So how is it having your parents at the house with you?”
“Well, it’s been a little much. You know, my mom can be a little crazy sometimes.”
“That reminds me of someone,” he says, teasing her.
Lauren rolls her eyes. “I’ll be sleeping over at Emma’s tonight,” she looks to me, “if that’s still okay.”
“Totally okay. I haven’t had a sleepover in forever. You’re welcome to join us, Jonas.”
“I might just take you up on that offer.”
Lauren claps excitedly. “We’ll have to rent a movie and eat ice cream and gossip—it’s going to be great. No boyfriends, just best friends. Oh, yeah, Emma, do you have any pads I could use? I might be spotting a little. The doctor said it could last for a week or two.”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure I do.”
“Okay, thanks. Nothing like a slumber party after an abortion.”
My brows furrow.
When was the last time I used those? When was the last time I used anything?