By Wednesday, three days into our plan, there were a couple of things I had noticed.
First and foremost, Kaia had a quick tongue. She always had something to say whether it be a comeback or response. It took a while until I figured I shouldn’t take it personally. Every second word that tumbled from her mouth was sarcasm so what did I do? Fought fire with fire. It was as if the multiplication of the flames had blown the discomfort out of the water, easing the tension so it was bearable to be in each other’s presences.
The second was Hayden’s attentiveness to her sister. It was painfully obvious. As soon as she opened her mouth to speak she was his sole focus, acting like no one else existed. I had a feeling she was the girl he’d taken a particular liking to.
To say it was interesting was an understatement, but I was enjoying this new combination.
Currently, I had my arm around Kaia and we were discussing the matter that was Annaliese. I couldn’t help but realize how squeamish Kaia was; she couldn’t keep still. I guessed she was uncomfortable but she fit nicely under my arm. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to touch her with a ten foot pole if it weren’t for the pretense, but it wasn’t unbearable. She needed to relax.
“Will you quit squirming?” I had to ask, the words muttered so as not to interrupt the conversation.
Her gray blue eyes glared up at me as she flinched again. “It’s not my fault I’m ticklish and every time you move your fingers it’s on my weak spot.”
I tried not to laugh. My fingers were only barely on her side. “You must be pretty damn ticklish if-“ I moved my pointer slightly and she squirmed again “-that irks you.”
“I am. Stop it.”
“I will if you relax. You’re not going to convince Marcus if you keep flinching away from me. You’re supposed to like me, remember?” I knew this would get her to stop. Since she came to our table on Monday, her ex’s eyes had been glued on her. It was amusing to say the least, even more so when it made her all flustered.
I tested her word, moving my finger again. She bit her lip, staying still as a statue.
“It doesn’t mean I’m letting you get away with it. As soon as we’re alone I’m going to kick your butt.” She meant she would try. She was at least five feet shorter than I was about as skinny as a stick. Or a small log. She was more than skin and bones but not much.
“Too bad we don’t like each other. We’ll never be alone.”
“Too bad,” she echoed with a dirty look, and shifted her attention back to the conversation.
Hayden was protesting Zavier’s refusals to bring his girl to lunch one day this week. It wasn’t the first day this argument had been brought to the table but it would be the last. I didn’t know it at the time but after a few minutes, the girl beside me won the case with a few words.
“Look. Zavier,” she said, leaning into the conversation. I felt a sense of déjà vu. I felt like I’d seen her do that before. “They’re going to meet her one day. We all go to the same school. Would you rather it be when they are on their best behaviour or when they are drunk or acting stupid or both?”
He didn’t have anything to say to that. Hayden applauded. Landon laughed. Zavier sighed.
“Anyone up for an adventure after school?” I proposed, a sudden urge to get outside and into the heat taking over me. I needed to run, to be outside of this confined space, to be free. It felt like my claustrophobia was taking control of me except I could breathe. I desperately wanted to get out of there.
“What type of adventure?” Landon asked, an eyebrow raised. He flicked a glance at his watch which prompted me to do the same. We had ten minutes until the end of lunch.
“I don’t know or care. I just need to do something.”
“I think I have an idea,” Hayden volunteered, a smirk forming beneath the surface. “Does it have to be after school?”
“When else would it be?” Parker asked.
“You mean cut school?”
“What if we miss something?”
“What if we get caught?”
“We get in trouble. We’ve done worse.”
We snuck out to the parking lot as the bell for fifth period rang. The key was to pretend you were doing nothing wrong, something Landon and Parker were having a hard time doing. I was impressed by Kaia’s confidence. Impressed and surprised. Once we left the brick structure she strolled into the sunlight as if it were the end of school and she was going home.
Her feet got caught up in a loose brick of the path and she nearly tripped, but recovered just in time.
We piled into Hayden’s Jeep.
“First stop: the lake.”
The lake was a pathetic dried up thing at all points of the year except winter, where we had enough rain to fill it up. We were nearing the mid-February heat wave so there wasn’t a drop. You could walk across it length-ways if you wanted to. We didn’t.
The appeal of Lake Weslyn to Hayden in particular were the sheds along the shore. The timber constructions used to be boat houses in the days where there was water, but now they were kiosks or places people stored picnic equipment. Hayden always targeted the storage sheds along the edge.
He parked in the shade of the trees and we got out, crossing the grass to the tall constructions. Hayden had his black duffel bag slung around his shoulder which he dumped on the ground.
“What are we doing?” Parker asked, looking at the blank timber with a frown.
“Art,” was Hayden’s only explanation. I smirked. I couldn’t do shit with a can of spray paint but I was good for ideas.
“You’re tagging this?” Her expression was the complete opposite of her sister’s, of which was brimming with excitement.
“Tagging is lame,” Zavier explained, kicking the gravel with the toe of his shoe. “We’re going to get creative.”
“Ideas, guys. We have about an hour until the mums start getting here with their kids for their three o’clock strolls. I need ideas.”
“Not our names, dumbass. It’s fucking illegal.”
“What about a whale?” Kaia suggested, digging her phone out of her pocket. She had her head towards her phone and was scrolling through it, showing Hayden when she had found what she was looking for.
Hayden’s lips turned up. “Fuckin’ A. Did you draw that?”
“A couple of years ago. It’d look better in colour,” she shrugged. I wanted to see what it was.
“And colour it shall be,” he nodded, and got to work. After he did the outlines everyone got bored and started to wander around, poking through the sheds or going into the lake. I stayed with Hayden, doing little details when he asked for them. Nothing that could ruin the thing. I wasn’t artistic at all.
“You know you’re my best friend but you’re fucking mental.” He said it absentmindedly, as if it was just an afterthought. As if it hadn’t come out of the blue.
“Kaia. You hate her. It’s crazy.”
He shrugged. “Well I don’t get it.”
“She’s not the same girl she was when we were thirteen,” I explained, running a hand through my hair. He paused, turning to look at me. It seemed like a lightbulb had gone off in his head. “Has it occurred to you that you may not like her only because she’s not the girl you remember?”
I considered it.
When I had come back I had the expectation that everyone would be the same. Hayden was, almost. The other two were virtually the same. It was only now that Hayden brought it up that I realized it was unrealistic. I was expecting to find the thirteen year old girl I’d left behind, and when she was gone I didn’t like it. But I hadn’t tried to get along with Kaia as she was. She had quick wit and a sharp tongue but other than that, was nicer than anyone else I was friends with.
I frowned. “You may have a point.”
“I knew it,” he laughed, his arm curving in the way of the whales rib. It was shaping up to be an x-ray of a whale, able to see everything that was inside it. “Why don’t you try to leave old Kaia in the past and start fresh?” He was making a lot of sense today. That didn’t happen often. “Pretend that you’ve never met. Talk to her with no preconceptions.”
“Might as well.” I shrugged. It was worth a shot.
“That looks amazing.” Kaia was standing behind us, her hands in the pockets of her shorts. Her legs went for miles even without heels, I swear.
“I made a couple of changes,” Hayden said, putting one last finishing touch on it.
“Yeah. I didn’t put a dead body sticking out of it’s ribcage,” she laughed. “But I like it.”
“Me too,” I agreed. She gasped, being dramatic.
“Wait. Did you just agree with me?”
I rolled my eyes but didn’t take her sarcasm personally. I just nodded.
“Oh. My. God. Have I died and gone to hell?”
“Isn’t it meant to be heaven?” Hayden asked.
She shook her head, face looking serious as if she were in school. “Do you really think either of us could get into heaven? We just vandalized a shed.”
“Technically that was me,” Hayden said.
“He filled the admin office with plastic balls.”
“You did too,” I said.
“See? Heaven? Psht. We’ve got no chance.”
I saw Hayden’s point. Zavier came back in a rush, saying he had to go back to school for sixth period. He shared his class with Annaliese and didn’t want to miss it. We quickly herded in the other two and drove him back, dropping him at the gate a few minutes before sixth.
“I think it’s safe to say he’s whipped now,” Kaia admitted to no one in particular.
“To say the least,” I nodded, and everyone else agreed. We dropped Parker off at her house because she had a headache. Kaia offered to stay with her but she shook her head.
“Be nice,” she warned her, then went inside.
“What now?” Landon asked, sitting beside Kaia in the back seat. I hadn’t gotten rid of my energy so I decided I should do that.
“Let’s play a game. I need to run.” I was bouncing up and down.
“Damn, you can’t sit still,” Hayden laughed.
“Would a game of hide and seek chasy make it better?” Kaia proposed, her voice heavily mocking.
“It would, actually.”
“Let’s go to the park then,” Landon solved.
We pulled into the parking lot of the place we called the Pirate Park. It was named that way because of the pirate ship in the middle of it, made entirely out of wood with benches on top to sit on. It was a huge wooden park which we loved, perfect for hide and seek.
“Buzz not it,” I called.
Landon was too slow. He headed up to the top of the tower and started counting out loud. I sprinted, immediately feeling a release of energy. I ran around the park a few times for the fun of it, but I heard Landon was up to forty and I had ten seconds to hide. My heart beat faster as if it would be the end of the world if I was found first, so I ducked under the pirate ship into the cubby hole I’d found ages ago.
There were wooden planks boarding up underneath the ship between the bow and the rest of the playground but there was a hole in it, leading into a dark space with a low roof. I squeezed in and tucked my feet away as Landon called “FIFTY!” and took a breath. I was safe.
“What are you doing?” I jumped, hitting my head on the wooden planks above my head.
“Fuck,” I cursed under my breath, rubbing my head. “What are you doing?”
The only light coming into the underground cubby was through the gaps in the wood, so it took me a minute to locate Kaia. She was in the far corner of the cubby, cross legged and hunched over.
I crawled over to her so that Landon wouldn’t see me if he poked his head through the hole. Also, he wouldn’t be able to hear us conversing.
“Hiding. Duh. This is my spot, get lost,” she hissed. Footsteps thudded over our heads and we grew quiet, holding our breaths until they stomped off in a different direction.
“No way.” She didn’t bother arguing.
We didn’t say anything for a while, sitting in the dark and listening to Landon running around the playground.
Then I started to feel it, something I should have remembered about the cubby. The roof was too low, making me feel cramped. There wasn’t enough air down here. I started taking deep breaths, trying to get more oxygen.
I didn’t know it was possible to forget about a phobia but I had. I was an idiot. I couldn’t breathe. I started pulling at my collar but it was already use. It didn’t help.
“Jacob? You okay?”
I shook my head, not able to form any words.
She scoffed. “You’re such a wimp. You can’t even handle a child’s game.”
She was seriously dissing me for this? What the fuck? “I have claustrophobia! A fear of small, cramped spaces, in case you didn’t know.”
“A fear of small spaces is pathetic for an eighteen year old boy!” She exclaimed, sliding backwards on the dirt. “Grow up.”
“Fuck off, Kaia. You don’t know what it’s like.”
She took another backwards slide. “I don’t need to know what it’s like. You’re a pansy. There are girls I know more masculine than you.”
Ouch. If there was something that made guys mad it was questioning their masculinity or worse, downright dismissing it. “I’m not a pansy!” I huffed, being able to see her face more clearly. She didn't seem mad, she wasn’t smirking. I was confused.
“Are too! Your fifteen year old sister is less of a pansy than you.”
“She’s fourteen and no she is not!”
Suddenly, everything was light. I could feel the sun on my face and could see Kaia’s face as clear as day. Her expression turned to a small smile, a kind one I’d seen before.
“I’m sorry for calling you a pansy. And pathetic. And immasculine. I had to get you out of there somehow.”
She what? Got me out of there? I frowned. She did all of that to get me out?
She must have read my expression as she let out a small chuckle. “Distraction is the best way to stop phobias. If you’re not thinking about how you’re in a small space, you won’t be scared of it.”
That was… Nice. It surprised me. I wasn’t sure she was capable of that anymore. She proved me wrong.
“I’m not sure I should be thanking you for the amount of insults you fired at me,” I admitted with a small smile of my own. I stood up, wiping the dirt off the back of my jeans then held a hand out to help her up, out of habit.
She hesitated, her eyes finding mine. “Truce?”
What Hayden said to me earlier popped into my head. Pretend you’ve never met. She might have been different from the girl I used to know, but that might not have been a bad thing.
I nodded, and she took my hand.
“Truce.” I agreed.
Skipping school was something I’d only done once in my life, and that was in year eight. Margaret LaMarr, Audrey West’s best friend, came up to me in the halls. I was walking back to my locker from class at the beginning of break when she stopped me. I remember it clear as day, even now.
She was in her designer clothes, hair in a ponytail that was all the rage when we were in year eight. It was the time of tamagotchis and yo mama jokes, high ponytails and denim jackets. All of which she possessed. On either side of her were Audrey and Maeve, looking at me with cruel eyes and harsh smirks.
“Yo mama so fat when you stand next to her, you hear the ocean,” she said, then paused as if she’d remembered something. “Oh wait. Your mama’s dead.”
I forced myself past their laughing selves, through the doors of the main building and onto the footpath. I headed home, my eyes so blurry with tears I had to stop walking. I remember leaning against a lamp post a street away from my own, huge, painful sobs escaping my throat. That was a time I didn’t think I could live any longer. I’d been tested more than any other fourteen year old should have been tested. It was then that I became depressed.
That was the only time I’d skipped school, until now. I didn’t dignify it a good enough reason but the thought of sitting through two more hours made me want to look for a shotgun.
So I took the opportunity and left, managing to aid the vandalisation of the lake shed along with getting Jacob out of a confined space he was terrified of. I’d talked him out of it before, when we were much younger and stuck in the cleaner’s closet in primary school. It reminded me of Jacob’s younger self, and that he was still the same boy from six years ago just with a bigger ego and bigger body. It was my mother’s favourite saying ‘everyone deserves a second chance’ that made me offer up a truce.
I waited for what felt like an eternity for an answer, and when it finally came I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Truce,” he agreed, and helped me up.
“Kaia!” I’d been found. Damn it. I told Jacob to run away and moved into the full sunlight. Landon touched me on the arm and I frowned, confused.
“It’s hide and seek chasy. Meaning, you have to tag them,” he explained.
“Oh. That makes sense.”
He just laughed, setting out to walk again. “You’re it next.”
Hide and seek was more fun than we remembered, so we played until all the primary school kids came for their afternoon run around. The guys were headed to Hayden’s to play pool.
“Want to come and kick Jacob’s ass with us?” Hayden asked, heading back into town from the park.
I let out a laugh as Jacob protested from the passenger seat, punching his best friend on the arm. “Thanks, but I’d better go see if Parker is okay.”
Hayden pulled his jeep over in front of my house for the second time today and parked.
“Thanks for the afternoon, guys,” I said, opening the door and starting to get out.
“Hold up. I’ll walk you,” Jacob said, getting out as well. I had no idea why but I guessed I’d figure it out.
He met me on the footpath with a crease in his forehead. “Are we all good?”
My lips turned up at the corner. “I reckon we will be. You still bug me.”
He laughed, stopping at the bottom of the stairs to the porch. “Good, because you still annoy the shit out of me as well. But you don’t hate me?”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “I never did.”
“Good. Then can I get your number?”
I paused, laughing at the irony. “Better late then never.”
He gave me his phone and I typed it in, then gave him his phone back. “Danke schon.”
“Well. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said, and was about to walk away when the front door opened.
“Kaia, my darling.” Shit. Shit shit shit. “Who is this?” I winced, turning towards my grandmother. She was looking between Jacob and I with a raised eyebrow. I had wanted this to come at another time, when I could explain to Jacob that she had found out somehow instead of from me. I’d have to think of something to tell him later.
“You remember Jacob, Nanna,” I told her, motioning to the boy opposite me. He smiled and half waved.
“Nice to see you, Muriel,” he said, thankfully polite.
“Ah yes, I remember you. You’re mother is Claudette, yes?”
“Yes, she is.”
“And what are you doing with my grand daughter?”
His eyes were screaming help! so I scrunched up my nose. “We’re dating, Nanna.”
I moved my attention from my grandmother to Jacob, who had cocked up his eyebrow slightly, arrogantly. I shot him a look saying don’t flatter yourself, but he ignored me.
“Really?” Her lips were pursed, eyes focused as if trying to see if I was lying.
“Yes,” Jacob nodded, a toothy grin spreading across his lips. He was so full of shit, but he totally backed me up. I owed him. “As of this afternoon, actually. We were just so close before we left and when I got back, it was as if nothing had changed.”
“So that’s why you broke up with Marcus?”
“Well. I suppose we will have to have dinner then sometime. We’ll talk later, my darling. I should be off.” She kissed both of my cheeks and shook Jacob’s hand in her elderly lady-like way, before tottering off to her car. I stayed as still as if I were dead until she was out of sight, then I breathed a sigh of relief.
“It seems like you had some ulterior motives,” he lulled, crossing his arms over his chest with a cocky smirk like he had something on me.
“Whatever. You have to come to dinner with my grandma. Please?”
He paused, thinking about it. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
“Thank you!” I exclaimed, a weight off my shoulders. “But you owe me.”
Without another word he got in the car and drove off.
“Shit.” Owing him didn’t sound like something that would be at the top of my to do list. I suppose it was fair; he was going to have to endure a whole dinner with my grandmother. We may have been going to hell, but my grandmother was already there.