Chapter 14: The Jump
Parker had been right about Mom being none too pleased seeing us walk up the pathway together. Strands of hair hung from her face and were sticking out of her usual tame and tidy ponytail, and her cheeks were bright pink. The door flew open before we even walked through it. I didn’t even have a chance for me to put my house key into the lock.
“Nina, I have called you five times,” she said. Her eyes moved to Parker, then narrowed and flitted back towards me. “It is almost ten thirty. Where on Earth have you been?”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, tucking a lock of hair nervously behind my ear. My face felt hot, like it always felt whenever I told a lie. I thought I had begun mastering the art of lying, but apparently it had only been a temporary boost of confidence. Being here on my front doorstep with a chilly breeze running along my arms and facing my furious looking mother wasn’t exactly giving me much confidence. “There was…” My eyes wandered up to Parker’s, signaling for help, but he seemed to be in his own stressful trance. “...a change of plans.”
Parker’s head snapped up at this remark, and he seemed to come back down to Earth. He sent a sympathetic smile towards my mother and sheepishly scratched the back of his neck. If I hadn’t known he was only pretending, I would’ve believed him, too. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Gregory. Nina was with Harrison, but I called her up to discuss…” He trailed off, now looking to me for help, but I was at a loss for words and on-the-spot ideas. “...this week’s agenda for the Senior Buddy Project.”
Mom’s face softened a bit, but her posture still stayed rigid with her shoulders squared back and her arms tightly wound into one another. “Senior Buddy Project,” she repeated, raising her eyebrows at the both of us. I swallowed and nodded, deciding that now would probably be the perfect time to jump in.
“We’re making a high school photo album,” I chimed in. “And we needed to buy crafts and really important materials to add into the scrapbook.”
She nodded her head, carefully letting her arms fall to her sides before moving her hands into her back jean pockets. “Crafts. That would explain why you were at the mall.”
A panic rose inside of me. Had she been at the mall? Had she seen me? Or worse, had Harrison had another slip of the tongue? I almost confessed right then and there to every single lie I had been telling her recently, but then she continued.
“Your father gave me a call and said he saw you there. That makes sense now, because there’s a crafts store just on the second floor up the escalator.” She nudged her chin down to my leg, the full cast now removed and only a thin layer of gauze on my ankle. The crutches were gone, and walking was more bearable. “I’m just glad you didn’t trip again.”
I forced myself to laugh, yet my insides were secretly shaking. Each time that I was about to get caught in my tangled web of lies, it was like I was getting pricked in the finger with a needle. The whole two weeks I had been keeping up this facade of normal routine was a series of pricks all over me.
“Me too,” I mumbled, my heart pounding. Mom turned to glance at Parker again before she opened the door wider, stepping aside.
“Come in, Parker,” she said, and she sounded so earnest that I felt the lies burning up inside of me, begging to be undone and set free.
“Yikes,” Parker said as soon as he stepped into my bedroom. He seemed to tower above my wooden bookshelf and white dresser. It was strange, seeing a boy in here who wasn’t Harrison. Different.
“What?” I asked, looking around my room for what could have possibly startled him. Was it the floral theme that seemed off putting? Or perhaps it was the fact that I hadn’t exactly had time to make my bed this morning, so the pillows were strewn all over the place and the bed sheets were tangled and wrinkled?
“What is that?” he asked, pointing directly towards the purple octopus that lay just near the edge of the bed, close to falling. I rushed over to it, placing it against my headboard where it belonged.
“A stuffed animal.”
“A stuffed animal with unnecessarily ginormous eyes, you mean,” he corrected. I frowned at him, placing a hand atop the purple octopus’ head. “Who gave that to you, your grandma?”
“Harrison, so quit bashing on it or I’ll banish you from my room.”
He wandered over to my desk, which was currently cluttered with notebooks, and turned on my silver lamp, plopping down into my chair. “Ah, the guy who punched me in the face at my house,” he reminisced, and I rolled my eyes. “What a nice fellow.”
“He is.” Folding my arms and sitting down carefully onto my bed, I made sure to keep a fair amount of distance between the two of us. It was odd enough that he was in my house and my bedroom. Parker was like a fish out of water against my bedroom walls and decor. He belonged elsewhere, just not here. But then I remembered that he was here for a reason. “Are you going to tell me who that man was that left your house?”
His mischievous smirk faded away and his eyes grew grim. Grabbing a pen from my desk, he began to tap it against the wood. “That man was my mom’s lawyer,” he said softly. “He’s been coming by at random hours going over divorce paperwork with my mom while Richel and I aren’t home. My mom thinks she’s so clever, going behind our backs and thinking we’re never going to find out. But I’ve seen them whenever I come home late and Richel is already asleep. Lots of talking in quiet voices. Lots of signing dotted lines.” He paused, settling the pen back down beside my lamp. “It just makes it all more real… that this divorce between them is really going to happen. Before, it was sort of hanging in the air. But now with all of this paperwork being done behind closed doors, it makes everything seem so much more finalized.”
I hugged my knees up to my chest. “Why won’t you just tell Richel? It would be better for her to hear it from you then to walk in one day and see your mom and her lawyer sitting in the kitchen discussing the divorce. Do you really want Richel to find out through eavesdropping?”
“I don’t know anymore. I just hate seeing Richel get upset over our dad. She misses him so much, and she’s always talking to me about how great everything is going to be once he comes back home. How do you tell someone that their dad isn’t ever going to come back?” Parker ran a hand through his scalp, clenching his fingers around a fistful of hair. “She’s going to have a meltdown.”
“She’s going to have a meltdown regardless. What she needs is for you to be there for her when it happens. She doesn’t know it now because she’s doesn’t know anything, not until you tell her the truth.” His eyes crinkled in deep thought as the pen tapping came to a halt. I hoped so, for his own sake and Richel’s. “She’s been waiting on this false hope for him to come back and he won’t. He’s not coming back.” I felt my voice break a bit and found my advice a little too similar. Like Parker’s father, my own was never coming back, either. He would only come back in flashes, only when he felt like he was needed. Never because he needed us.
“As if things weren’t broken enough,” he chuckled to himself, standing up and leaning his head back to look up at the ceiling. “Our whole family is broken now. Every picture in a photo album, every framed family photo taken hanging on our walls… stained, Nina.”
It was as if Parker was no longer the Parker I knew. He looked forlorn sitting on my tiny chair, his knees engulfing the seat and his broad shoulders nearly covering my desk. Gone was the tough and rebellious Parker, and in its place was someone who was about to lose a person he thought he could count on. People left and disappointed you. It didn’t matter how old or young you were, they dissolved into thin air and reappeared, as if your life was a magic show for them to perform in.
Before I knew it, I was getting up from my bed and wrapping my arms around him, tucking my head into his chest. I wished someone had hugged me like this when I was younger, when I had hoped my dad would come back home regardless of what anyone else told me. I wished someone had given me advice and listened to me so I understood that people sometimes left. It was just their nature, to leave behind and venture onto bigger things. It only hurt if the people that left you were the ones you loved the most, and for Parker it was his dad.
Parker’s arms were slack at first, probably stunned by my sudden embrace. But he soon wound his arms around me as well, one of his hands tangling its way into my hair. I hugged him tight, hoping he understood that through this hug I was letting him know that everything was going to be okay, even if his dad never came back. It was alright to let yourself feel broken. It was strange, thinking that people could break other people, as if everyone was a piece of china.
The bang at my window made Parker and I jump apart, and both our heads whipped around. My eyes widened. Harrison had been in the midst of knocking, but now his knuckles were frozen in midair. His eyes were hard and cold as he slowly stepped away from the window. I felt a danger rising in my throat.
“Oh God,” I whispered, already rushing to the window to open it. Parker stayed silent. I shoved the window open. Harrison stood outside wearing a hoodie and PJ bottoms.
“I’ll come back later. It looks like you’re busy.” He emphasized the last word, leaving it up to me to read the connotation. I felt my face harden.
“I wasn’t busy,” I hissed, leaning against the window sill on my elbows. “Why are you here, anyway? It’s late.”
“Why is he here?” he asked loudly, craning his head past me to shoot Parker a dirty look. I felt Parker taking giant steps forward, ready to rumble. He hovered just above my shoulder, sticking his head out the window to look right at Harrison.
“Like she said, we weren’t busy. We were talking about matters that don’t include you.” I shoved his rib with my elbow, signaling for him to shut up. I couldn’t make out Harrison’s expression in the dark, but I wish he would explain to me why he was so angry. He didn’t actually expect for him to be the only boy to enter my room. Parker and I were just friends.
Harrison’s eyes were flitting back and forth between Parker and I, his mouth turned down in a frown. It was surprisingly irritating me. “Parker was just leaving,” I said quietly, turning to Parker and looking at him long enough to implicate that now was a good time to scoot. He placed a hand lightly on top of my head, ruffling my hair one last time before exiting my room, not even bothering to shoot Harrison a final glare. Once Parker shut the door behind him, I let out a breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding. When I turned back around, Harrison was standing there with his arms hanging loosely at his sides. Realizing I had no other choice, I slid the window all the way up and climbed out, lifting my knees and swinging my legs.
Now that we were both on the ground, I noticed how cold the night air had actually grown. The blades of grass were tickling my ankles, and nearly everyone’s porch lights were turned off in the cul de sac. “What time is it?” I asked through chattering teeth, rubbing my hands against my arms.
“Almost eleven thirty.” He stared at me for a moment, then shrugged off the hoodie he wore from basketball and moved forward, inches away from my face, to pull the neck over my head. I shimmied into the sleeves, pulling them tightly over my knuckles and fingers, digging my fingertips into what body heat still lay in the cloth. Even in the silhouettes of the nearby branches shadowing over his face, his eyes stood out to me: a bright brown focused directly on me. Who knew a pair of eyes could make you feel so alive… even afraid.
“Let’s go to the roof,” he suddenly blurted out. I raised my eyebrows at him in surprise, then whipped around to look at my still open bedroom window, calling me back inside to escape the frosty air biting at my cheeks and numb lips. Mom was surely in her room by now, reading a book before bed. Ten minutes before midnight, she would turn out the lights. She stopped giving goodnights a long time ago.
I buried my chin into the collar, never wanting to take it off. “I don’t know…” I trailed off, but the offer was tempting. When was the last time we had truly talked one-on-one without the world going haywire around us? A quick trip to the school roof wouldn’t be a crime, even if it was a school night. I ran to my window, sliding it back down as quietly as possible, only letting a soft thump of the frame hitting the sill sound. Harrison grinned, grabbing my hand as we raced down the sidewalk, him in his PJs and me with only socks covering my bare feet.
It shouldn’t have in any way been a sign to go running off into the night to the high school roof. I should have declined, climbed back into bed, and gotten the sleep I was sure I needed. But I didn’t want to, even if it meant gaining a few eye bags.
The trouble with having a boy as a best friend comes down to a long list of reasons. One, they enjoy making you feel short because, a majority of the time, they were taller than you. Even if you wore heels, they towered above you and slung an arm with ease around your shoulder with a haughty smirk upon their face. Two, they vacuumed all of the food inside of your refrigerator whenever they came over to your house. And three, they liked to physically brag about how much stronger they were than you.
“Harrison,” I warned, putting my hands in front of myself. “Don’t.”
“Come on. Just one jump,” he coaxed. “It’s not even across to the other side!”
“We’ve done it a thousand times!”
The roof of the school didn’t exactly have even concrete. The ground had its own flaws: cracks and peeling paint, a few pieces of litter here and there. But the biggest flaw of all was the Jump. Harrison had been the one who’d found the roof in the first place when he’d wandered off like the adventurer he was during freshman year orientation. I’d gotten worried sick because he’d disappeared, leaving me to fend off the crowd of prepubescent bodies and overly chipper student council leaders. It was only once I’d gotten a text message from him an hour later when he told me he’d gotten stuck in a hole.
The hole was what we called the Jump, and it was a giant gaping empty space smack dab in the center of the roof. The school had attempted to undergo construction for a skylight, but failed when the Melway mayor declined the request after stating that having a skylight in a school was “unnecessary and possibly hazardous to students who easily sunburned.” Therefore, the construction stayed unfinished, an in its place was an unfortunate looking hole in the ground the size of a small swimming pool. You would have thought that school faculty or even the construction crew would place plaster over it, or at least board it up. But the mayor had the crew shoved out of the school in the blink of an eye, and the hole became a forgotten patch of empty concrete.
Until Harrison found himself inside of it.
“Nina, you’ve done it before,” he said now, his eyes shining. “Come on. One jump. We can easily climb out of it.”
I frowned, peeking into the hole. During the day, the hole didn’t seem so scary. The day I had pulled him out of it a year ago, I’d been able to see clearly what was inside of it: gray, hollow concrete. Now, at night, the hole seemed like it held secrets, like the bottom of an ocean. “You’re going in with me though, right?” I asked.
He nodded, taking my hand in his. I felt my heart lurch into my throat with the feeling of his warm palm against my own, and in one single leap, we jumped. My hair flung itself into the air and a strong breeze flew up my shirt. We landed on the ground with a thump, the kind that vibrated through the soles of my feet all the way up to my knees.
We both laughed, hunched down on our legs, breathing hard. “It never gets old,” he said.
“Ever,” I confirmed, tucking a strand of hair behind my ear before collapsing onto my butt.
“You okay?” His brows knitted together as he crouched down beside me, leaning his back against the wall.
“Yeah, that jump always just takes its toll out of me.” I placed my head between my knees to make the blood stop rushing. “Why do you like doing that?” I tilted my head to the right to look right at him.
He smiled. “I think it’s the fact that we’re jumping into the unknown. I mean, we both know what’s down here: absolutely nothing. But in the dark, it feels different with you.”
I found myself gnawing nervously on my bottom lip as soon as the words left his mouth. Different with you. What did that actually mean? Did I look different in the dark? Did I act differently in the dark? What was it about the night that made things feel different?
“The runway competition starts this week, right?” he asked, breaking me out of my nervous trance. I nodded. “You nervous?”
“Yes,” I admitted for the first time out loud. “So nervous. I keep imagining myself tripping and falling on my face. It seems terrifying to walk down a stage with hundreds of eyes watching you and expecting you to walk with grace. Do I look graceful to you?”
He bumped his shoulder playfully against mine. “Sure you do. You gracefully do your homework, and you gracefully know how to water plants.”
“You’re unbelievable,” I laughed, shaking my head. “I just don’t want to disappoint anyone.”
“I thought you were doing this contest for yourself.”
“I am,” I said, but even I was becoming unsure. I had become so lost in the idea of improvement and impressing everyone that I had forgotten the true reason behind this competition as a whole. I wanted to create my own spotlight. That had been the original purpose of joining this entire competition: to stop feeling like an ant beside my mother, to stop feeling invisible in front of others, and to, essentially, become pretty. Yet now, I realized that my intentions had changed entirely. I wanted to stop feeling so empty. I wanted to stop comparing myself to unrealistic ideals and expectations of beauty. I had gone into this pageant blind and come out wide eyed.
“Then stop worrying about what other people are going to think of you when you walk down that runway. The only opinion that should matter is your own.”
“It’s easier to say out loud versus putting it into action,” I replied, fiddling with my thumbs. “I just wish that I wasn’t so…”
“So…?” he asked, waiting for me to fill in the blank.
“So insecure,” I said, emphasizing the word with such ferocity that I felt a rush of relief flood through me. “I wish I could stop comparing myself to my mom and I wish I could stop feeling so insignificant sometimes. Richel has made me over into this idea of pretty. I’m stuck inside this box where I’m expected to drink a certain amount of water and look a certain way and wear certain clothes so that others can think I’m pretty. And it’s exciting and new but also terrifying and restricting. I’m starting to think that maybe my idea of pretty is different than everyone else’s.” I paused to let the words sink into me. All of it was one hundred percent true. “I think I need to start taking a step back to remind myself that I am pretty for other reasons than the reasons in that box.”
Harrison sat there quietly, staring at me and listening. I wasn’t sure he was grasping what I was even saying, but that part didn’t really matter. Sometimes the loneliest of people, the ones who were hurting the most, simply needed an ear to listen to them. An actual person, a beating heart, physical eye contact, to have them right there in front of you letting you know that you weren’t alone.
“Do you think that’s crazy?” I whispered, focusing hard on the lines engraved on my palms. I felt anxious with the truth spilling out of me, like water flowing through a crack in a fountain. I couldn’t help it.
“I think you’re human,” he said, placing a hand on top of mine and squeezing my fingers. “I think that if you have a different idea of who you want to be than who people expect you to be, then you should embrace that. I don’t think it’s crazy, Nina.”
Tears pricked at the corners of my eyes as I leaned my head slowly on his shoulder, relieved with his response. “Thanks.”
And then I abruptly felt Harrison’s palm sliding up the back of my neck, pulling me towards him until my cheek was pressed against his and his lips were pressed against mine. It felt like I was walking in a dream, a dream I had dreamt about a thousand times. A dream I had wished on nearly every star and clock for since I was thirteen. Only when the thought of Leslie entered my head did I use both of my hands to push him away and pull my lips off of his. My hands were shaking and I could hear my heart pounding through my ears, my blood pulse striking higher than usual. I stood up quickly, stumbling away from him.
He abruptly stood up too, taking rapid steps towards me as I continued to walk backwards. It was a strange little dance that I was unfamiliar with, since I had never once felt the need to physically push myself away from him before. It had always been making sure I never got too close and trying not let his arm around me affect me. Now, though, I couldn’t help but feel affected.
“Nina…” he said, and I swallowed hard, a large lump growing in my throat. He reached out for my hand, his fingertips brushing against my palm.
“Why did you do that?” I asked, my voice escalating quickly. “You can’t just go around kissing people you’ve never kissed before!”
“We’ve kissed,” he said, and my eyes widened.
“Back in the Eighth Grade when we shared a drink, indirectly.”
My mouth immediately turned downwards and my eyes narrowed in fury at him. “Now isn’t the best time to be making jokes, Harrison. You can’t do that. You can’t… you can’t kiss me.”
“Why not?” He took both of my hands into his, despite the fact that my palms felt clammy and my fingers were growing cold. “Why can’t I kiss someone I’ve known for a long time and want to kiss?”
“You’ve never wanted to kiss me before.”
His hopeful expression faded. “I’ve always wanted to kiss you, Nina.”
“Stop saying that!” I yelled at him, snatching my hands out of his grip. The insides of my stomach were trembling. The whole world seemed to be trembling. “You’ve never wanted to kiss me. You’ve never even liked me or thought about me in that way.”
“How would you know that?” he asked, his stare turning cold. “Do you know what runs through my mind whenever we’re together, Nina? Are you a mind reader, a psychic? Do you even remember what happened last summer?”
“Last summer, when we were in your living room eating pizza. You had your hair up in a ponytail because it was stuffy inside your house and the fan was acting up. I told you that I liked you.”
My brain felt like an air ventilation system until the memory clicked. “You told me that you wished your girlfriends were like me,” I spat. “That’s not exactly the same thing, much less a proper way to tell anyone you like them!”
“I was nervous!” he shot back back. “I’ve been feeling this way for a long time, and all those girls…” He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I dated all of them thinking that it could erase what I was feeling for you.”
“Don’t,” I whispered. “You have a girlfriend. Is she another distraction, too?”
“No. No, Leslie and I… we’ve been having problems from the start. You know that.”
“Therefore it makes it completely acceptable to kiss me despite still being in a relationship?” I let out a bitter laugh, tilting my head up to look at the sky. Bunches and bunches of stars twinkled up in the sky. Everything outside of this hole was peaceful and quiet, yet I could feel a storm building up inside of me. The old Nina would have jumped into Harrison’s arms in the blink of an eye. She would have been floating on Cloud 9. Somewhere inside me were these emotions and more, yet the new Nina was done with settling for what was right in front of her. The new Nina wanted proper answers.
“Harrison, I don’t want to be with you if you’re still with someone else. It’s not right. It’s not fair for Leslie, for anyone. If you really expect me to be happy about this, then you’re not the boy I thought I knew,” I said fiercely before climbing myself out of that hell hole and running back home until I felt like my lungs were on fire.