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The Big Hill

By Way_Out_There All Rights Reserved ©

Romance

Chapter 1

“Do you ever wonder—”

“No.”

Mary shot Sebastian an annoyed look that was only half-real. Sebastian had been in the business of cutting her off for years now, and it felt natural to have him interrupting her. It was something that she could remember, something that she could trust. He had been far more polite for the last few days than he had been in the years that he had actually lived in Salinas, and Mary didn’t like it. “The least that you can do is let me finish my sentence,” she told him.

“The questions that you ask get weird, though.”

Mary tried to keep her tone even as she told him, “I know. And that’s why we’re friends.” It was a nice night. There was no reason to ruin it. Not when Sebastian was drifting away from her, not when he would be leaving for LA again in two days.

“The answer would have been no,” Sebastian decided.

“Oh, so you never wonder? About anything?”

He sighed, and that was familiar too. “I try not to think about infinity, or the universe, or the meaning of life. At least, not late at night, on a hill, in the stars, when I could have an existential crisis. I’m trying to keep them to a minimum, and I don’t understand why you do that to yourself.”

“I do it because I enjoy considering the finer things of life. Seriously, don’t you think—”

“No.”

“Seb!”

“Mary.”

Mary fell silent, and the two of them stared up at the sky. The stars twinkled quietly. Mary wondered how many of them were just satellites or space junk. She wondered if the stars looked the same from anywhere else in the world. If she stayed in California but went north, would they be different? And if she was on the same line of latitude, but happened to be in India, would the stars be the same there?

Somewhere in the distance, probably at the highway that was at the bottom of the west side of the hill, a car honked. Mary pulled the blanket tightly around her shoulders, tried to ward off the cold and the memory that she had college apps submitted already and that someone would be looking through them soon enough.

“Hey. Don’t forget to share.”

Mary was hugely relieved that he had actually spoken. “People who are in college should get their own damn blankets.” Stupid Mary, she thought to herself, wondering just why she had a ridiculously large amount of fun trying to push Sebastian over the edge.

He didn’t fall, though. “High schoolers should defer to their elders.”

“Hang on. I’m a senior, and you’re a freshman, so does that mean—”

“No. Blanket, please.”

Mary pulled the corner of the blanket even more taut, though Sebastian held onto the other end, giving her a dirty look. Mary gave him an offended face. “People who don’t get chills up their backs from thinking too much shouldn’t get to use the blanket!”

“So now your metaphorical chills are more important than my real ones?”

“Yes. Shut up.”

Mary scooted closer to him. Their shoulders had been pressed together already, and he had to angle himself so that she could get closer to him. Their hips brushed against each other, and Mary stayed there. His shoulder was slightly behind hers. If he just lifted his arm, he’d have his arm around her. It was a stupid thing to think about, but Mary couldn’t help but humor herself, just for a little bit. They used to do this kind of thing all the time, but when they had turned thirteen and fourteen—when Mary’s mother started to look at him all angry—when they no longer lived in adjacent apartments—well, it was different somehow.

“Tell me more about college.”

Sebastian sighed. “Do I have to?”

“What did you expect? IF you didn’t want to talk about UCLA, you shouldn’t’ve come back.” Mary winced even before she finished speaking. “Wait—don’t listen to that. Please. Keep visiting.” Salinas was hours from LA, but not at the point where it was impossible to make the drive every once in awhile. Mary wanted her best friend to keep on coming home.

“No, you’re right,” Sebastian said. “I don’t know—I don’t know what I expected.”

Sebastian never knew what to expect, same as Mary, but Mary had always been better at hiding it. People always seemed to think that Mary was good at thinking on her feet, but she knew that really, she just did whatever she wanted, no matter how stupid it was. Just not around Sebastian. “It must be weird being back for the first time. You shouldn’t worry about it.”

“Well, you were just about ten times nicer than my mom.”

“Is she being weird?”

“She’s always—” Sebastian stopped himself. He had always had so much more respect for his mother than Mary had for hers, and that was why he would always be a better person than her. “It’s fine. Classes are fine, too. I’m taking a lot of classes that seem useless—”

“You said this yesterday, Sebby.”

He snorted. “After a while, I just repeat the same speech over and over.”

“I know. And that’s what I don’t want you to do here. It’s the Big Hill, remember? We have to tell the truth up here.” This was where Mary had told him about all of her crushes and about the teachers that she disliked, that lacrosse was the stupidest game she had ever played by she was good at it so she had to keep going, that APUSH might have looked good on apps but she hated everything about it. This was where Sebastian had told her that he liked girls and boys and maybe even other people, that even though his mother hated going to church he wanted to do it more often, that his father called him every year on Christmas and he never told his mother. They had made a promise to stay honest up here, where it felt like they were closer to the stars than to the rest of the world.

“What do you want me to say, Mary?”

Mary hated how tired he sounded. “Do you like campus?”

“It’s not bad. Kind of pretty.”

“What about LA?”

“It’s fine—”

“Seb!”

“Okay! Okay! It’s kind of awful! It’s hot and smoggy and I have to walk everywhere! But it’s college, Mary! I like learning and I love the idea of getting a good job someday!”

Mary laughed, freaking out completely. Old Sebastian, high school Sebastian, he had needed to be pushed. But college Sebastian—maybe he hated that, hated her. Maybe he was happy where he was and maybe he had decided that he didn’t want to talk to anyone about what he actually felt. Sebastian wasn’t hers anymore. He was new and different and for the first time in her life, he felt older than her. She looked down the hill to where the road snaked along the bottom. Car lights flickered on one end and glided forward, but the road was otherwise clear. “Still working for that law degree?”

“Yeah.”

“Hoping for CSLS?”

“If I can manage it. I’ve got at least three years, though.”

“Lawyer or judge?”

“Being a judge takes a long time.”

“You have it.” Sebastian had wanted to be a judge for years, he had told her that on the Big Hill the week before he left for college. He deserved to get what he wanted for once.

“I don’t know.” Tyler pulled on the blanket and then looked at her.

In that one look, Mary knew that it was over. You’re such a kid, his eyes said, what do you mean, I have time? What time? What world? You think that we still can get what we want, Jesus, you’re so young

“How’s Alexis?” Mary asked, her eyes and cheeks burning.

“She’s fine. We went out again. You?”

Stories pressed through Mary’s mouth to the tip of her tongue, about Elias Williams and Josh Donahue and Ricky Ramirez but her throat closed up and she couldn’t tell him because her stories about Trig and high-school boyfriends and lacrosse practices were stupid. Mary didn’t want Sebastian to think that she was stupid! She was mature, she was good enough for everyone else—why couldn’t seh be enough for him?!

“Have you gotten any letters back?”

You’re not my advisoryou’re not my motheryou’re supposed to be my friend, my boyfriendwhy is it different now?! Mary felt like straws were floating through the air and she was trying to snatch the right one, only they were all identical and some were holograms and Mary was falling, too.

Was it weird to want to go back to high school when she hadn’t even left yet?

“Nothing yet. But I’ve got apps at all the UCs,” Mary answered, her voice cracking, “scholarship requests, too.”

“Avoid that student debt,” Sebastian joked with a grimace. “I mean, Jesus.”

Mary laughed. “I know.” Wrong move. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”

Sebastian noticed her screw-up, too. “You haven’t tried.”

His voice was flat, and Mary could feel everything breaking apart. “True.”

“Still hoping for the ocean?”

Mary gestured as best she could from under the blanket. The grass around him was dead, the trees were bare and skeletal. If you weren’t a farmer or a coyote, the Salinas Valley wasn’t meant for you. “Of course.” It was on the Big Hill that Mary had told him she wanted to live by the ocean, that living in a desert when the Pacific was only two hours away seemed a bit strange. She was surprised that he remembered. He had better things to think about. “Of course.”

“I don’t suppose that you’d consider UCLA.”

Mary’s heart jumped at the fact that he had asked. She could say yes, and in the fall she could join him—they’d be friends—it would all end with the kiss that everyone had been predicting for years—

I’m an idiot.

“I’ve thought about it. But I think that I want to go north. Maybe see some winter. Up by Oregon, I guess.” If by some miracle, Mary got a scholarship to an out-of-state school, she’d be gone before anyone knew it.

Not really, actually. Mary wanted to follow the wind, she wanted to be brave and free—but what were the chances that she’d ever manage that? All she was ever going to be was a coward.

Anyway, a UC was all that she would ever be able to afford, and even that was a stretch.

“I wish you luck,” Sebastian told her.

“Aw, thanks, Sebby.”

He sighed again, and for a moment, all was right with the world. But then he stood up, and the blanket dropped down. Mary shuddered as the cold hit her. Her thin shirt wasn’t enough to keep it away.

“I’ve gotta get home. We’re driving to Monterey tomorrow, to see Mom’s family.”

“Okay. We have to see each other again this weekend, though.”

“I’ll call if we don’t,” Sebastian said.

Liar. “Seb. We have to see each other again this weekend.”

He managed to hold her gaze. “Okay.”

“Have fun tomorrow. Good luck handling it.”

“Thanks.”

Mary tied the blanket like a cape and darted forward, enveloping Sebastian in a hug. “I’ll miss you.”

“You too. Stay safe, Mary.”

“I love you,” Mary chirped, drawing back and darting down the hill.

“You too,” he called after her.

They always said it to each other, because it was the truth. Only, after a while, it started meaning different things to Mary. That would always be the problem. The magic of the Big Hill was already broken, too—he was lying to her, and she was going to lie to him, and maybe they’d always be lying to themselves. Mary was never, ever going to tell him exactly what he meant to her. She’d rather be his friend on and on, into forever.

I wish you luck.

He was smart. He was ready for life. A little bit of luck was really all that he needed. If Mary could be the one to give it to him, she’d do it.

Don’t I deserve a little luck too?

The breeze picked up, and Mary wanted to laugh. Luck wasn’t ever going to be real for her. There was just blind chance and then there were the moments that Mary would actually take a chance or work for something. She just had to chase after the wind.

She made her way towards her mother’s car at the base of the hill, the life she was going to have somewhere far in the distance, the stars still twinkling overhead.

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