"So how are things going at home?"
Eve heaved a great big theatrical sigh. "Better. It's like jail, you know? Maybe I can get out early for good behavior."
"With probation," I reminded her.
"There is that." Her wind-chapped face brightened into a mischievous smile. "But what about you? I'm not the one harboring a hunky houseguest."
I groaned and tilted my head back against the tree we were sitting against. It was the same tree where I'd sat with Chris barely a week ago, but so much had happened since then that it hardly seemed to matter. All I could think of now was how annoying it was when Eve talked about Jadin that way. Each time she brought it up, I had to stop myself from correcting her. Jadin wasn't 'hot.' He was elegant, graceful even, but he completely lacked the bravado that the boys around school so carefully cultivated to earn that lesser title.
"I don't know," I answered honestly, ignoring the rest. "He's just so…ambivalent." I remembered the other night when I'd accused him of that trait to his face. If it had bothered him, he wasn't trying all that hard to change it. There were times when I felt like I could tell him anything, that he'd listen without judgment. And then there were the others, when the best I could get out of him were sullen single syllables. I wanted to imagine that those latter episodes were fading, especially when we were alone, but I could never be too sure. Yet in spite of all of the rough edges, Jadin was growing on me. After talking to him about my strange visions, I'd stopped watching him suspiciously, as if he were somehow related to their appearance, and had started to see him as a person. And I liked that person. Even if he had gone into a panic-induced rage when I'd tried to take him to the mall.
I sighed loudly, wondering whether or not I was trying to cultivate a very one-sided friendship.
I immediately regretted the sound. No doubt Eve would pounce on it with her usual aplomb. I tensed, waiting, but since no comment came, I looked over. Eve wasn't even paying attention to me. She was fixated on a group of boys across the quad who were laughing and roughhousing. Tyler was one of them. I thought--for the first time since I'd done it, considering the crazy aftermath--about his ruined car and smiled fiercely. Only for a moment though; then I grabbed Eve around the shoulders in an encouraging half-hug.
"It'll be okay," I said. "Soon you won't even remember him."
"I doubt that…Alli?"
I pulled away at her beseeching tone. "No." I demanded. "Do not tell me you're taking him back again." It felt like a personal insult after all I'd gone through that night.
"No…" Eve shook her head miserably enough to make me feel badly about scolding her. "He's sent me a few texts, but I haven't answered. I really want it to be done this time, no more shame-on-me's."
"Good for you," I said, much more gently. I put my hand back on her shoulder. "You deserve better, you know. Really."
She nodded without much conviction and continued to stare. "Actually," she said after a few quiet minutes. "I wanted to tell you something about Chris."
My heartbeat immediately quickened. I was dismayed, but not surprised, to find that the emotion driving it was apprehension rather than excitement. "What about him?"
I sighed again, this time in resignation. "What kind of rumor?" I was pretty sure I already knew.
"That he's…been hanging out with some other girl. Some blond bimbo. I don't know her."
Quietly, I stared back up into the lifeless branches. Had it really been less than a week ago that I'd felt totally happy with Chris? Had circumstances changed that, or was it me who had changed? I didn't know, but I wasn't completely stupid either. I knew who had initiated the transition.
"Do you think it's true?" I asked, surprising myself with a noted lack of interest. I cared, I just doubted that I could stop it. Or maybe I was already past wanting to.
I looked back at Eve and she shrugged. "Maybe. It's probably overblown, but…" she gestured vaguely in Tyler's direction.
"Yeah," I agreed. "Thanks for telling me."
"You okay?" she pressed. "Do I need to go beat someone up?"
I smiled in gratitude. Usually that was my line to her. "Nah. It's okay. I'll try talking to him later. See where things are."
I couldn't hide from Eve. She knew me too well and she'd heard the resignation in my voice.
Now it was Eve's turn to put her arm around me. "Don't worry. It'll be okay." Her face lit with a sudden idea. "Tell you what. I'll bet I can get my mom to let you come over tomorrow. We'll curl up with hot chocolate, watch Titanic and get this all out of our systems."
The plan sounded incredibly great. I missed my friend and, more importantly, the undisturbed girl time. My mind desperately needed a break. Having to say no was almost physically painful. "I can't," I didn't try to hide my regret. "I promised the Montgomerys I'd babysit Danni."
"Ah, no, can't you bail? Just this once?"
I was shaking my head before she'd finished, but for the first time, I really wished I could opt out. "It's their anniversary. I promised."
Eve sighed and leaned her head companionably against my shoulder. "Good old Alli. Always there for everyone."
I bit my tongue hard and returned her embrace.
After the rest of the long school day, I walked warily into my house. I knew that my dad wouldn't be there to greet me; since Jadin had moved into his office, he'd started doing his work at the library. I couldn't be half as sure about Jadin. I was fairly sure he'd at least be there. He'd made up his mind to stay, but his mood was always a gamble. I never knew if he'd greet me with a warm, undeniably pretty smile, or a grimace that always made me think he was in pain. It surprised me when I walked into the living room and he didn't even look up.
His attention was entirely focused on the television. He was playing a Tetris game I'd gotten for Christmas, but had yet to try out. I watched with amusement as colorful shapes fell rapidly across the screen and his fingers manipulated the controls with uncanny dexterity. He was on level 15, but the pieces were starting to overwhelm him.
He looked so different now, sitting there on my couch. He had changed clothes, exchanging his all-black for a dark gray long sleeved t-shirt and deep blue jeans. One of his sleeves had slid upwards, revealing the barest glimpse of the tattoo I suspected was there. His long toed feet played absently with the texture of the carpet as he concentrated. I knew in that moment that I was kidding myself if I thought that Jadin had nothing to do with my apathy about Chris. In spite of everything, Jadin was magnetic. I wanted to know more about him, to be there when he finally decided to open up. I wanted to sit next to him on the couch and just talk, because everything he said surprised me. Unclear as he was, difficult as he could be, I wanted to be allowed to try and solve the puzzle. It was a curiosity that I'd long since been lacking with Chris.
Abruptly, Jadin cursed and flung the controller out of his hands; only the wrist-strap saved it from colliding with the table.
"Hey," I scolded. "Be nice."
He looked over at me, surprised.
"Sorry," an embarrassed look replaced his first expression. "I get frustrated."
I looked at the game stats. He'd managed to get into level 16 before topping out. "It looks like you did pretty well to me."
He shrugged. "I've done better. I can't beat my high score."
I giggled. I couldn't help it. It was the most mundane thing I'd ever heard him say. Finally, he sounded like a normal teenager.
"Yeah, yeah." Now that he was watching me, I waited to see what response I would get. I hoped for a smile. I got a sardonic twinkle instead. "Your mom's upstairs. On the phone, I think."
This didn't surprise me. When we had guests, Mom's schedule tended to shift drastically to at-home hours. "She'll trust you enough to leave soon."
He snorted to show his skepticism.
I crossed my arms indignantly. "Do you ever believe anything I say?"
"Sure I do. Just not the stuff you say when you're just trying to make me feel better."
"I do not," I began, but he cut me off.
"Yes, you do. You don't even realize it because it's such a habit. You can't stand to see people upset, so you say anything you think will help."
"That's not a bad habit." It was all I could say to defend myself. How could I deny that he was right? I'd done the same thing to Eve as soon as she'd showed me she was upset today.
"Not if you don't sacrifice yourself in the meantime."
"You can't have it both ways, you know. First I'm using people, now I'm not selfish enough."
"I didn't say you were using people. Just one."
I let out a large huff of air. I'd asked for it hadn't I? I'd wanted to be surprised.
"I'm sorry about that, by the way. I shouldn't have said it at all." He rubbed at his neck in what I might have interpreted as a nervous gesture except that he was openly staring at me. "Honestly, you're the least selfish person I've ever met. You're allowed a bit of self-indulgence that doesn't involve always pleasing everyone else."
My arms came uncrossed. I liked being surprised after all. "Thank you," I said, but I wondered who 'everyone else' was. My parents? I'd barely realized how deeply I was trying to please my parents until senior year hit. It came with the territory of being an only child.
"Don't mention it. Do you want to play?" he patted the couch cushion in unexpected invitation. Unexpected and unprecedented.
"Sure," I said, and knew I was smiling.
I sat down, not too close because I knew it would make him uncomfortable. I could smell the oddly unimprinted scent of his brand new clothes and saw how perfectly the color of the shirt matched his eyes.
Jadin produced a second controller, handed it to me, and flashed through menu options until he found a battle game. The screen lit up with two side-by-side matrixes and the pieces began to fall. I stared slowly, acquainting myself with the controls.
Silence settled. He didn't even have the sound-effects turned on. It wasn't totally uncomfortable though. There was none of the aggravated tension that sometimes left us with nothing to say.
Jadin had thoroughly beaten me and had started another game before he asked, "Did you sleep well?"
I looked sideways at him, trying to gauge his expression and he sent two lines to my screen as a reward for my distraction.
This wasn't the first time he'd asked me that. And, like the last time, I knew he wasn't really talking about sleep. Yesterday I'd played along, but today I left behind pretense.
"I did, actually," I answered, more seriously than such a question would usually warrant.
"No dreams?" he asked, and now I couldn't even read his tone.
"No, nothing," I said honestly. "That's not really a surprise though."
"These things usually come in bursts. This one was just worse than the others." Much worse. And so different that I almost didn't believe my own reasoning. There was no way something so intense would leave me alone so easily. "Or maybe," I began, voicing a half-formed thought, "it's just because I talked about it. It isn't as scary now that I don't have to keep it bottled up."
"Maybe," he conceded. He never turned his head.
After that, it only took a few deft moves on his part to win the second game. I blamed it on being distracted and we started again. This went on for a while, Jadin dominating every time, until I finally put the controller down.
"All right," I declared. "That's enough punishment for today."
He finally turned to me, a self-satisfied grin on his face. "You're probably right."
I smacked at him playfully. "What have you been doing, anyway? Sitting here since I left?"
"We have got to get you out of the house. Eight hours doing nothing but playing Tetris is no way to live."
"Are the other ways any better?"
"Yes," I answered firmly. His outlook still disturbed me, but I was tired of catering to it. In fact, the more he showed me his warped mindset, the more I found myself thinking about ways to change it. A new idea on how to do so wasn't hard to find. "I'll prove it."
His doubtful look was almost insulting, but he gestured for me to go on, "I'm listening."
"I'm taking you out with me tomorrow."
He barely gave me a dismissive glance before turning back to the T.V. "I'd hoped for more originality," he drawled, sounding bored. "We tried that, remember?"
"I don't mean the mall. Somewhere smaller." Momentarily forgetting his aversion, I grabbed his arm and forced him to face me. He tensed under me, but I wasn't going to let go. "I have to babysit tomorrow night. Come with me."
"I really don't think the kid's parents would appreciate having me there," he replied drily.
"They won't mind." They really wouldn't. I had a good reputation with the Montgomerys. All I had to do was blame a school project, and they'd let me vouch for any guest, male or female. Jadin didn't immediately protest, so I pushed on. "They have the sweetest little girl, Danni, she's just seven."
"Seven?" he asked, interest finally peaked.
I nodded encouragingly. "We'd have a lot of fun, just the three of us. It'd get you out of the house and give you a job for a while. Better than any Tetris game."
I knew before he answered that he was going to say yes. I could see the thoughts in his eyes, considering the options. He wouldn't even bother thinking if he were going to refuse.
"Tomorrow?" he confirmed. "At her house?"
Sadness crossed his features. It was an inexplicable emotion, but deep enough to burn. "I'll be there," he answered quietly, but resolutely.
I didn't know how else to combat his expression but with a smile of my own. I realized that I was still holding his arm, that he was still letting me do it, and let go. "Great. It'll be fun, I promise."
"Good to see you two getting along." I turned to see my mother coming down the stairs. "Good day, Alli?"
I shrugged. "Good enough."
She smiled sweetly, but I could feel her accessing gaze. I looked at Jadin, the main object of the expression and saw that he was watching her in much the same way.
"Okay…" I began, feeling the sudden tension. "Well, I've got work to do." I stood up, unwilling to go, but aware that a third person was likely to shut down all conversation anyway. "Don't change your mind while I'm gone, okay?"
Jadin smiled at me, a genuine smile even if his eyes still looked pained. "I wouldn't dream of it."
"Here, Mom," I handed her the controller I'd been using. "See if you can whip him. He could use some humility."
I picked my backpack off of the floor and headed up the stairs.
In my room, I closed my door. The people outside of it would probably interpret that as a sign that I wanted them to stay out. Really, it was an attempt to keep myself inside and focused. Truth be told, I was a little bit frustrated with my mom for interrupting. It could be a while before Jadin felt like talking again. I didn't like losing the opportunity.
I threw myself on my bed, a position that didn't leave much room for actual work. It did cause the phone in my pocket to shift uncomfortably, and all at once I remembered Chris. I needed to call him. I didn't want to. Even if it was to make up, it wouldn't be a comfortable conversation. The alternative was even worse. I didn't want to think about breaking up with him, not yet. The thought had admittedly crossed my mind, but I didn't want to jump at the slightest provocation. We hadn't even had anything huge go wrong, just a string of minor annoyances. I had to at least try to fix things. And that meant dealing with Eve's rumor, among other things. Besides, I was honest enough to admit that if I waited any longer, my opinions on the relationship were only going to grow more tainted.
I sat up and dialed his number. It was time I got caught up with things going on outside of my house.
Eventually, Chris's greeting broke through the rings. It had taken too long, but his voice was casual enough.
"Hey," I answered, keeping my own voice light. I planned to judge as little as possible. "What's going on?"
"Not much," he said, and now I could tell that his tone was too easy going. This wasn't the first time we'd communicated, but it was the first time I'd tried for a real conversation since he'd walked me home the other day. Let me know when you want me around, he'd said, which really wasn't fair. He wasn't going to be happy until Jadin was out of my house, and of course I wouldn't want to spend time with him if he was angry.
"I'm sorry it's been a while." And I was. Yet as I said it, I wondered if I really missed his presence, or if I was just being polite.
"Me too," he said, his voice relaxing slightly. "Where have you been?"
"At home, mostly." It was the wrong thing to say.
"I see," he answered, as if he could understand every complicated thing that was happening under my roof.
I could give him some help and at least let him in on what was happening inside my head. I tried to form the words to explain my confused mindset after the party. Every angle seemed silly. I couldn't think of a way to tell him that wouldn't have him laughing. I wouldn't have even blamed him except that I had someone who was willing to take me seriously. I quit trying. It wasn't going to work. It's why I hadn't said anything before now.
I changed the subject. Small talk wasn't going anywhere, so it was time to jump right to the point. "You'll never guess what Eve told me today," I said, playing it off as a shared joke.
"She said there's this crazy rumor going around about you and some girl." I smiled when I said it, emphasizing the word 'crazy' and giving him the benefit of the doubt.
"What if it were true?"
I paused, floored. I hadn't really believed it. At least the spark of anger I felt was reassuring. I must still care. "Are you kidding?"
"It's not as if you've been around much lately, Alli."
"I know," I admitted. Not that that excused things.
Chris laughed, a sound he meant to be reassuring. "Nothing's happening. Really. You know how things get exaggerated."
"Anyway," he said, effectively dropping the subject. "Any clue when you're gonna have your house back?"
At least it had taken longer than I'd thought. But if the rumor was one thing we had to work out, this was the other. "I don't know. Why does it matter so much?"
"Come on, Alli. We both know how you get," his voice was full of supercilious patience.
"What does that mean?" Suddenly, I could feel our relationship like a physical entity, a thin ledge that was rapidly receding beneath my feet.
"You found a new project to obsess over. That doesn't leave much room for me."
I didn't have to ask what he meant. "Jadin is not a project."
"All I'm saying, Alli, is that he's not your responsibility. He doesn't have to take over your life. Just because you couldn't save Katie doesn't mean you have to save everyone else."
The pain was instantaneous and intense, uncontrolled because I hadn't been expecting it. The words hadn't even been mean. I remembered the day I had handed Chris this weapon. He had asked me to tell him something about myself, something other people didn't know. It had been a secret, shared in a sweet moment. I'd trusted him like I couldn't trust him now, and he'd held me and offered comfort. And now he was throwing it in my face, this sharp-edged knowledge that had no other purpose but to wound.
"Chris," I said, as stoically as possible, "don't call me anymore." And I hung up the phone.