Chapter 2: Innocent Lamb
"A little to the left," Harrison called out. I blew a chunk of hair out of my face and took another careful step up the tree trunk, finding footing in a crook of the bark. I reached up and threw the string of softly blinking lights around a random branch of leaves. "Careful!"
"I'm fine," I replied.
"With the lights." I looked down at him, glaring. He grinned widely at me, throwing his hands up in the air. "Joking!"
Grumbling a string of curse words to myself, I carefully made my way down the tree trunk only to find myself stopping in place to take a look at Harrison. It hadn't always been like this, feeling like the ground was spinning and I was undergoing continuous lapses of deja vu whenever I saw him. Something in my gears had simply magically shifted about six months ago, when Harrison dumped Tasha Hu.
"We just started drifting," Harrison had told me over a box of pizza, half cheese for him and half pepperoni for me. We'd been sitting on the carpet floor of my living room, with my mother still back at the shop finishing up orders for wedding bouquets that were due the following morning. "She got consumed with her studies. I got busy with basketball. That was that."
I'd punched him in the arm, a horrible habit that would never truly go away due to this being how we'd met in middle school. I'd socked him in the face after he had hurt a girl's feelings in my class. I'd punched him so hard, he said he'd seen stars. Thus, I was Punches and he was Twinkles. My bravery left an impression on him, strangely enough so that for the following three and a half years we became attached at the hip. It was the most unexpected friendship, yet everything fell into place as if the events that led up to us were only inevitable.
"People don't just involuntarily drift," I'd said through a mouthful of stuffed crust.
"Sure they do. Tasha and I drifted. Rosie and I drifted. Janet and I drifted."
"If you're going to add Mary Kate and Ashley to that list, I honestly wouldn't be surprised.” He'd made a silly face at me for that, and I'd laughed.
I remember him leaning back against our couch cushion, casual as can be. "Sometimes I wish the girls I dated were kind of like you."
I stopped in mid-pizza-chew. "What?"
He shrugged his shoulders, settling his own slice back into the box. "In case you haven't noticed, you're the only girl I'm with twenty four seven because I never have to worry about our relationship having some sort of ticking bomb time limit." He'd paused, sending me a smile that caused the hairs on my arms to rise. "It's just you and me, on a road that never ends."
I swallowed my pizza bite down so quickly that I started choking a bit, having to uncap my can of Dr. Pepper and chug down a mouthful of it to clear my passageway.
"Just a thought," he'd added, trailing off absentmindedly and resuming eating his slice of pizza. I remember squirming in my seat on the floor, no longer feeling hungry or thirsty or on the verge of choking to death. It was like a spotlight had been shone upon Harrison, and now he was no longer just a boy who constantly came over to my house or to the flower shop. He wasn’t just someone who occasionally tied my shoes for me if my hands were full or knew my family better than I even did. He was something entirely different, something a little brighter and special, something that made my heart feel like it was going to shoot out of my chest and land in his hands. He could have it. It was all his.
After that, he'd never brought it up again. But I couldn't help wondering what it would be like if Harrison did ask me out. If I got the chance to become his girlfriend, to be taken out on dates, to be loved because I was Nina, not just Flora Gregory's unfortunate looking daughter.
"Hey, Punches!" Harrison shouted now, snapping me out of my thoughts. My foot slipped off the branch I had safely been kneeling upon. My knee slammed into the rough bark and I found myself falling out of the trunk, arms flailing wildly and a scream bursting out of my mouth. When I opened my eyes, however, I found myself staring up at twinkling lights and Harrison's face, right there in front of me, only inches away. His arms were wrapped around my legs and he was heaving hard.
"Jesus, Nina, you could have broken an arm!" he exclaimed, frowning down at me while a small bead of sweat slid down his temple, but I couldn't find the words to reply. Had Harrison's eyes always been that brown? How had I not noticed the small freckles along the bridge of his nose when were having that water balloon fight last summer, smashing water in each other's faces? He shook my shoulder. "Nina!"
"Could you put me down first?" I mumbled shyly. His worry faded away as he breathed a sigh of relief, placing me back down onto the ground. My knees felt wobbly, and I wasn't sure if I could stand properly, so I placed a hand on Harrison's shoulder, which felt firm and strong and warm. I felt my face heat up quick.
"Are you alright?" he asked. I couldn't look at him; if I did, nothing would be a secret anymore. His hand jerked my chin upward. "Hey."
I blinked, opening my mouth to say something, but a pair of headlights flashed from down the road. He pulled his hand back and I jumped away from him.
"She's here!" he exclaimed, smoothing down his hair, which had been gelled and combed to the side. He'd changed out of his T-shirt and basketball shorts at my place, switching into a navy blue fit sweater and dark jeans. It wasn't a shocker why Leslie had said yes and broken up with her college boyfriend for Harrison; up close, he was every girl's dream. He was the equivalent of a persistent high school sweetheart, eager to receive that yes. Harrison lived for that yes.
He jogged over to the table, clearly nervous, and adjusted the candles he'd set out. We'd turned Melway Park into a dreamy wonderland. The trees nearby held string lights wrapped around the trunk and its branches, draping over the leaves. The red picnic table set for two had dainty paper plates of sandwiches on them, complete with napkins and paper cups filled with what I knew was apple juice. If all else failed, Harrison's charm and wit could be relied on. He really could make any girl laugh, including my own mother, a grown woman.
"You're looking a little green," I teased from my spot against the tree trunk as Leslie's car slowly made its way into the parking lot. She drove an army green Jeep with the license plate CHEER247 pulled into an available parking spot. I tried not to mention how crooked she was out of the white lines, but who was I to say anything? I didn't even have my license yet.
"I just really like her," he said, watching as Leslie stepped out of the car wearing a pair of black skinny jeans and a flowy blue tank top that showed just the right amount of cleavage that sent the boys at school reeling. Leslie was tall with curvy hips and blonde ringlets that reached just below her chest. She was a princess missing the tiara.
"Right," I mumbled, kicking the toe of my sneaker against the grass. Harrison turned to me, squeezing my shoulders. He sent me a small, jittery smile.
"I owe you one," he said. "If this date goes well, you can punch me as many times as you want." He wrapped his arm around my neck and pulled my head against his chest. "Thank you, Nina. Seriously. You're the best."
I felt my lip wobbling. What a strange feeling: to receive thanks only to feel so small. Never had I felt more under appreciated then I did at this very moment. First, at the flower shop with the gossiping customers. Now here at the park with Harrison.
No one really saw me, at least not in the way I wanted to be seen. It should have been easy, becoming the girl I wanted to be. With a Beauty Pageant Goddess as a mother, I could easily march right up to her and ask her for tips or advice. But every time I felt the need to turn to her, a voice would creep in the back of my mind and remind me that I shouldn't even bother. I was Nina, with the messy ponytail, the loose T-shirts and plain jeans, the closet filled with track shorts and an array of sneakers.
Beauty? It just wasn't in the eye of my beholder.
I pulled away from Harrison's neck, ignoring the tightness forming in my throat. "The absolute best and don't you forget it," I said, speaking carefully so that my voice wouldn't catch. "I've gotta run. But good luck."
"Thanks," he said. "I put your math homework in your folder and threw the wrinkled one in your trash bin."
I nodded, waving good bye as I walked down the pathway and hopped over the small gate that would lead me back to my street. I should've fought the urge to turn around because it's practically an unwritten rule to keep walking. But I turned around, just in time to see Leslie gasping and smiling at the sight of the table and the lights. She ran into Harrison's arms. He hugged her, rocking her back and forth. It was a different side of him, a more sensitive and caring side.
I stood there for awhile, watching them, because being in love with your best friend basically makes you oblivious to any and all unwritten rules. I was on the road to stupidity.
"Name five things worse than tomatoes," Faith declared, tapping her pen against the edge of her binder. We walked down the halls, dodging the swarm of students that were trying to get to their lockers and be first in the lunch line or else dread a long wait.
"Poverty. World hunger. Child prostitution. War. Natural disasters," I immediately replied, making a sharp right turn to head into the East Wing, where my locker was located.
"Dark much?" she said, shaking her head at me. "My point is, even people swimming in a flood offering me a tomato wouldn't get me to eat it. I hate them. They should be banished for all of eternity."
Faith had a tendency to go into long, unnecessary rants. She wasn’t one to mince with words. When we finally made it to my locker, a couple was in front of it making out like there was no tomorrow, which, for them, was a light year away rather than the next two periods.
"Um," I breathed. The guy was kneading his hand into the girl's bright red hair, obviously dyed from the box at a drug store. But, of course, it was almost like I wasn't there. I cleared my throat. Still nothing.
"Excuse us!" Faith yelled, shoving her shoulder into the boy, who stumbled into the next locker. The girl pulled her lips away from the boy to shoot Faith a nasty look. Faith shot one right back at her. "Aren't you in my Health period? We've been covering the Sex Ed unit for a whole week."
The girl shrugged her shoulders, pressing up against the boy at a different locker now and kissing his neck. Faith stuck two fingers in her mouth and faked a gag.
"Have fun with that mononucleosis!" she hollered, but they were in their own world now.
I bit my lip to keep from bursting into full on laughter as I turned away to put in my locker combination. Faith and I had met last year in our Gym period, where we'd become mile buddies. She was my own personal coach, motivating me to get better mile times and to run faster. Faith was on the girl's volleyball team, softball team, and wrestling team. What was absolutely hilarious about this was that Faith was 4'11".
The words "small but mighty" came to mind.With her short jet black hair and pink cheeks, courtesy of the Irish blood flowing through her veins, she was a storm.
"I don't understand how they can keep going like that," she said, crossing her arms together. "Kissing is like a sport. You get tired."
"And when was the last time you kissed a boy?" I asked, shooting her a knowing look. Her cheeks grew pinker.
"Do not bring up Danny again because he counted. One and a half years isn't that long ago."
"The mysterious Danny from summer camp. Does he even exist?" I teased, poking her playfully in the arm.
"Oh, alright, and who was the last boy you kissed?" she asked. My smile faded and I focused on cramming my World History textbook in between two spiral notebooks. "Ahh, that's right, because you haven't had your first kiss yet." She swept her hands dramatically up to her chest, pouting. "Sweet sixteen, an innocent lamb."
"I'm not a lamb," I muttered, slamming my locker door shut. We weaved our way through the football team, who all liked to crowd around the water fountain and toss a football back and forth. No, really, they actually do this kind of stuff.
"Okay, then you're a sheep," she said. "A quiet, lonely sheep who needs to speak up more. Try upgrading to a lion, please."
"I'm going to pretend that you're not comparing me to species in the animal kingdom and we are going to sit down and continue our-"
I stopped talking when I spotted Harrison holding Leslie's hand, sitting at a table of her and her friends. Harrison, surrounded by a bunch of cheerleaders. He was living a dream come true, I was sure of it. As if he sensed what I was thinking, he looked up and made eye contact with me, waving at Faith and I. He motioned for us to come on over. My eyes widened and I shook my head in return.
"Do my eyes deceive me, or is Harrison sitting with Leslie Janice?" Faith hissed in my ear. "Isn't she a senior?"
"They're going out now," I replied as nonchalantly as possible. Faith's jaw dropped before she nodded her head.
"I'm impressed," she commented, then snorted. "Not. What is Leslie, number six now?"
I shrugged my shoulders, bugging my eyes in warning at Harrison, who was still waving us to sit with them. Leslie was now smiling up at me too, wiggling her fingers.
"She's doing the finger wiggle, Nina, now we have to go," Faith gasped, smirking and rolling her eyes.
I sighed, my shoulders slumping. "Fine."
As we squeezed our way past a handful of tables and chairs being tipped backwards, I felt my gut clench. It was bad enough knowing that Harrison was with someone else, but to spend an entire forty five minutes watching him feed Leslie a french fry and have her reject it because she already had a salad bowl?
"Nina!" Harrison cheerfully exclaimed as Faith and I took our seats at the large round table. His arm was slung around Leslie's chair, his fingers brushing just along her shoulder. As I looked around, I saw a number of faces that I'd never talked to before: Amy Rickett, Angela Jones, Olivia Smith. Cheerleaders: golden girls, tan, straight hair, curled eye lashes, flushed cheeks. The epitome of beauty. "Glad you could join us!"
He had a mischievous twinkle in his eye and I tried my best not to reach over and punch him in the shoulder. Not in front of all of these cheerleaders and their perfectly styled hair with no split ends.
"Hello to you too, Harry," Faith said sweetly, flashing him a toothy smile. Harrison narrowed his eyes at her. Faith and Harrison had a cat-dog relationship. If they were left in the same room alone together, blood would surely be spilled. If not blood, then at least shrill curse words that would shatter glass.
"Leslie, this is Felicity-" Faith bared her teeth at Harrison. "-and my best friend, Nina."
Leslie grinned at me, flashing her thousand watt smile of straight white teeth. "Harrison's best friend, huh? How is that?"
"A long story that will take up more than forty five minutes," I said. Amy, Angela, and Olivia all laughed in unison. I blinked in surprise.
"Guys!" a voice yelled, and suddenly a girl with honey highlights took the empty seat across from me. Her lunch tray held an apple and, of course, a salad bowl. It wasn't until I inhaled a whiff of watermelon and cherries and took note of the french manicure that I looked up in surprise. The girl was already looking up at me. "You."
Faith hit her elbow questioningly against mine, her subtle how-the-hell-do-you-know-this-chick move.
"Hi," I mumbled, averting my eyes to anywhere but her spidery mascara lashed ones.
"You know Richel?" Leslie asked me. I nodded weakly, and Richel was still shooting me daggers with her eyes.
"Um," I said, "sort of."
When I looked up at Richel, her gaze had softened a bit. Now she just seemed curious, as if I were an alien floating inside a tube in a science lab. "I bought lilies from their shop yesterday. She works there," Richel answered. I nodded, staying mute.
Leslie's eyes widened. "Wait," she said slowly. I could almost hear the cranks and levers in her brain shifting, doing the math and looking at the features on my face. "Are you Flora Gregory's daughter?"
Harrison looked down nervously at his tray. I knew that his knee was bobbing up and down, a habit he had whenever he knew trouble was stirring.
"Yeah," I said. Faith took a slurp from her iced milk pack.
"Wow," Leslie said, clearly appalled. "Wow."
"Yeah..." I repeated.
She let out a laugh. "That's crazy. You look so..." Everyone at the table mentally cringed, moving their gazes elsewhere as Leslie awkwardly struggled to find an appropriate word. "...different."
I swallowed. "Um."
"Not that it's bad," Leslie rushed, which only confirmed that it was bad. "You just don't look too much like your mom. Your mom is..." Again, another vocabulary stumble. "...taller."
"Leslie, did you want more ranch dressing for your salad?" Harrison finally cut in, shooting me an apologetic look. I grimaced.
Leslie looked from me to Harrison before answering, "Yeah. Sure." She got up from the table to walk over to the salad bar. Harrison followed after her, looking back at me with his brows knitted in concern. I managed a small smile.
Faith whistled. "Well, that was a complete disaster," she commented before jumping up from her seat. "I need a bathroom break intermission. Nina?"
I shook my head. "No thanks," I said, looking down at my uneaten turkey sandwich. Faith patted me on the shoulder (she wasn't one for sentimental words) before jogging off to the restroom. Amy, Angela and Olivia had started a new conversation about the new cheer routine for the football game later at seven and how someone named Jackie had better tighten up their high jumps.
“Sorry Leslie said all of those things," Richel said. I looked up at her, hesitant in replying. Today her face was decked out in glitter: glittery silver eye shadow, glitter in the blush on her cheeks, and sparkles in her lip gloss.
"It's okay," I finally said when I decided she was being genuine enough.
Richel shook her head. "Definitely not okay. She's always had trouble at putting things lightly."
"How do you know Leslie?" I asked.
"We're cousins," Richel answered, stabbing a piece of lettuce with her fork and popping it into her mouth. "I just moved here a couple of months ago."
"Ah," I said. "Cousins."
"We used to live together, but then my family and I moved up north because of my dad's job. But his company moved him back here, so now we're living in Melway again."
"Is it how you last remembered the place?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Not at all. Everything still seems new to me. Only a few spots are familiar, like the library and the park. Other than that, I don't remember a thing. We moved away when I was six."
"Are you a senior, too?"
"Yep," she sighed, adding more dressing to her salad before digging in again. "The year is halfway over."
"Crazy," I added. My eyes moved to Harrison and Leslie just behind her head. Harrison was leaning against the salad bar. He seemed so at ease with Leslie, almost like how he was with me. What exactly had he meant, all those months ago in my living room?
"I give it a month, tops," Richel said.
I blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Your crush and my cousin."
"He's not my crush, he's my best friend," I corrected. Richel raised her eyebrows at me, clearly amused.
"Nina. It is Nina, right?" she asked. I nodded. "Nina, I'm guessing this whole crushing-on-my-best-friend thing is new territory for you. But let me tell you, denial is not the way to do it."
"But I really don't like him," I lied, yet even I could hear the desperate tone leaking through my voice.
Richel put down her fork. "So if I marched up to Harrison right now and told him that you liked him, you'd be okay with it?"
My mouth flopped open and shut like a fish. Richel slowly got up from the table and took one step forward.
"Wait!" I blurted out. Richel turned back around, her lips curving into a smile. She sat back down, tapping her manicured nails against the lunch table. I swallowed. "Okay. Okay, yes, I like... I like Harrison."
She squealed, clapping her hands together. "Oh, this is going to be so much fun! We're going to-"
"We aren't going to do anything," I whispered, panicking. "Richel, you have to promise me that you won't tell anyone. Especially Harrison. Nobody knows."
Her face softened. "Nobody?"
I nodded. "Nobody. So, please. Don't tell?"
She looked at me, cocking her head to the side. "I just don't get it. Why wouldn't you want him to know, Nina?"
"Isn't it obvious?" I asked. She shot me a questioning look. I sighed, tugging at my ponytail and looking down at my plain white T-shirt. A soil stain was still on the hem from a month ago, and not even a whole bottle of Clorox could take it out.
"Obviously not to me," she said. "Aren't you curious as to how Harrison would react if he knew you liked him? He'd jump over the moon!"
I shot her a look. "Ha ha. He wouldn't." I bit another piece of my sandwich. Richel frowned at me. Faith hopped back into her seat, startling me. She flapped her lips together.
"What did I miss? Any wild confessions?" she asked. I stared at Richel with pleading eyes. Richel opened her mouth, and I felt my stomach drop.
"Nothing," she said instead. "Just finishing up lunch."
I sighed in relief. Richel sent me one last curious look before finishing up her salad.
"Relax. You look tense," Faith chuckled into my ear. I loosened my shoulders. Tense was an understatement. If a complete stranger could tell that I was hardcore crushing on Harrison, who else could possibly know?