Chapter ten; Hyper Awareness

It feels like the longest time before Lexi responds, but in reality I don’t think its much more than thirty minutes. I keep refreshing my inbox, my pulse pounding and wondering what Lexi will think. Will she ignore me? Will she even respond?

Finally my email dings, and I swear it’s the most beautiful sound in the world. I rush to click on it, and I take a deep breath. My stomach is tight as I start reading the email.

 

As soon as I send it, my fists clench. I half-expect her to say no, to say that this friendship is over and then never respond to me again

But she doesn’t. My email dings a minute later, and I click on it, swallowing hard.

Lexi’s response is three words: We’ll see.

I don’t talk to Lexi after that . Instead, I put away my phone, I do some serious boredom channel surfing, and flail some more.

I sit on the edge of my bed for a while, just staring out the window at the leaves swirling through the air, thinking about Lexi. I hope this means we can go back to being normal . I hope we can just stay best friends, and I’ll have at least one constant left in my life.

But how do I tell? Am I just supposed to wait?

I can’t wait for Lexi, I can’t just wait and see. I get up and walk to my window, pressing a sweaty hand to the cool glass. For an instant, a pang of regret comes over me. I wish I could be there with her, laughing and debating about random things and having ice cream eating contests like we used to.

But instead? I’m stuck here. I try not to think about it.

It’s hard not to think of mom and dad while I stand there. We were such a tight-knit family back then, and now we’re nothing. It still doesn’t feel real, honestly, like this is all some elaborate dream and we’ll go back to being normal soon enough. But in my heart, I know that will never happen. It’s as if the tighter we were, the harder we were ripped apart.

I don’t want that to happen to Lexi and me.

My fists clench, and I take in a long, deep breath. I care about Lexi so I refuse to sit around and hope an email has fixed all of our problems

I don’t know what I’m doing.

One second I’m standing in my bedroom, staring at my hands and telling myself that I need to fight for Lexi before it’s too late, and the next I find myself outside, my jacket on, running down the street like an idiot.

The air is thick and misty as I run, I gulp in some fresh air, clearing my head. I try not to think about what a horrible idea this is or even what I’m going to say to her.

My legs carry me all the way there, and I slow my pace as I reach her house. This late at night it’s dark outside, really dark, but my gaze shifts to Lexi bedroom window. The darkness keeps me hidden most of the way, and slowly, the nerves sink back in.

I knock on her window, first quietly and then harder. Faster. Almost with desperation. Eventually she opens her window, a paint brush is in her hand and I can see the canvas she has been working on in the corner of her bedroom.

I don’t realize how cold it is until now, and a shiver races down my spine.

Lexi’s eyes shift from my face, to the dark sky, and then back to my face – and my breath completely catches. In only twenty-four hours, I managed to forget how beautiful she was. I shift uncomfortably on my feet as soon as the thought crosses my mind.

I can’t be thinking that.

But yet, I am.

The whole neighborhood is deathly silent, like we’re the only two people left in the world.

“Hi,” I breathe.

She stares at me, those blue eyes shimmering in the moonlight.

“Hi,” is all she says back, the paint brush still clenched in her hand. I watch as beads of red drops slip from the end of the brush and seep onto the floor below, making an almost inaudible pat, pat, pat.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper.

For a second, nothing happens. Lexi just looks at me , letting her paintbrush slip from her fingers until it clatters onto the below, the brush sending drops of red paint everywhere.

Then, as if on cue, she laughs— a total, pissed-off kind of laugh.

“Wow, that was incredibly creative and impressive, Dalton,” she says absently. “I’m glad you know how to make a girl feel so special.”

A twinge of hurt shoots through me, but I shake it off, because I deserved that

“You know I mean it.”

“Do I?”

“You do,” I say.

She glances to the floor below her for a moment. “Look, do you have anything else to say to me? Apology accepted. Whatever. Now get the hell out of here so I can work on my painting, okay?”

I grit my teeth. Not the kind of reaction I was going for.

“Lexi, please—”

She rolls her eyes, looking annoyed. “Please what?”

“Please… I don’t know. Please just don’t leave, okay? I don’t want you to… leave.” I kick myself in the ankle. I sound like such an idiot.

“And why not?” Her arms are folded across her chest, but her eyes look sharp, calculating, like there is a wrong answer to this question and she’s seeing if I pick it. I close my eyes.

“You really want to know?”

“I do.”

“Because I don’t want you to go,” I say so quietly I’m not even sure if she can hear. “I need you.” The words seem to echo around the silent neighborhood, dancing every which way as if to taunt me with their desperation.

But it’s true. It’s so freaking true. I need her, and it’s that simple. I need her there for me, I need her presence, her smile; she always knows what to say, and I need that too.

As soon as the words leave my mouth, Lexi’s lips purse into a thin line, and I can’t detect any emotion from her. God, she has a great poker face. But me? Not so much.

She climbs through the window and I see her lips, open and soft. And that hyperawareness scares the hell out of me. I’ve never noticed these things before.

Finally, Lexi opens her mouth to speak. “Interesting,” is all she says.

My heart sinks. “Interesting?”

“Interesting,” she confirms, forcing a slight nod.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

I sigh.

“What?” I mutter, because by the blankness of her face, the subtle, sharp edge to her words, I can tell she’s angry. She has reason to be angry, dammit. I was an idiot. An asshole. Look where that got me.

“What do you mean, ‘what?’”

“Are we seriously going to do this?”

“Do what?”

I laugh, annoyed, and throw my head back. “I deserved that.”

“You did.”

I kick the ground. “Dammit, Lexi! Why are we treating each other like enemies? We aren’t! We’re best friends, but we just… I just…” I close my eyes, gathering the energy to continue. “I don’t want us to turn out like this,” I finally say.

Before I even realize what’s happening, my fingers reach out and brush her arm. I feel the searing warmth of her skin, then a tingle down my spine, and something else too. I take an awkward step back, and she just sighs.

“Could you be any more obvious about it?” she says.

I open and close my mouth before saying, “Probably.”

“You’re an idiot,” she says.

I force a laugh. “I know.”

“I’m glad. I thought I was going to have to explain to you why, and you know how thick-headed you are.” Then, she smiles to herself, a distant kind of smile that I can’t possibly place. She shakes her head, and the look disappears in a flash.

“But, at least, you’re a cute idiot.”

I let a little grin slip onto my lips. “I am?”

“Unfortunately, yes, you are. It’s just about the only thing you have going for you at this point.”

“Not true.”

“So true.”

“I have missed you too,” she suddenly says, her eyes so big and genuine. “But I also miss us. Us… before.”

“I know.” I find myself nodding. “Me too.” Then, “Think we can go back to being friends?”

She hesitates . A look crosses her eyes— a glimmer of something that looks like… regret?— but it’s gone the second it comes.

“Yeah,” she finally breathes, turning her head back to the window. “I… I can do that, I think.”

“Good,” I say. “That sounds… nice. Being best friends again is nice. But promise me you won’t try anything?”

“Like what?” A devilish look flashes across her face.

“You know the answer to that,” I say, my lips curling. It feels good to be smiling with her again, like a weight I didn’t even know I was holding has been lifted off my chest.

“I don’t,” she says, feigning innocence, but I can see the faint trace of a grin on her lips. “Enlighten me, Dalton.”

I awkwardly shake my head and she gives a triumphant smile.

“So,” I say, holding out my hand. “Friends?”

For an instant , she just stares at my outstretched hand , and I feel more coolness rush all around me. I can even taste the dew in the air, feel the softness to the night sky.

“Okay. Friends,” Lexi says after a while, and she shakes my hands.

She starts to turn away after that, whether to go to sleep or return to working on the painting I do not know. I start to turn back, too, shoving my freezing hands into my pockets, but before I can move Lexi spins back around.

Without a moment’s hesitation she leans into me, her lips hovering a millimeter from my ear, whispering, “We can be friends for now. But Dalton, if you think this means I won’t fight for you with every last breath I have, you’re in for a hell of a surprise.”

Then she lets her hand slip from my arm, spins back around, and dissapears inside.

I stand there for the longest time, just staring at the spot where she was standing. Her touch sends a tingling sensation up my arm, her words making my heart pound harder and harder. I feel it all, but I don’t know what to do as I turn to go home.

Then, through the darkness, I smile.

Chapter nine; Deadly, blue eyes

I let out a sigh as I walk home. I take a deep breath. Each step I take seems to fall in rhythm with my pounding heart – step, beat, step, beat. The air is thick all around me and I feel my mind slowly fade out. I keep walking fast until I reach my house, step inside and slam the door shut.

The only thing I can think of as I stomp into my bedroom is Lexi and I can feel how my eyes are stinging with tears. I feel like screaming and pounding on my walls until this all goes away, until Erin ends up being real and Lexi and I can stay best friends and not..

Not this. Anything but this.

Lexi is in love with me and I turned her down.

Oh shit. That really happened, didn’t it? And she just walked away like I had just punched her in the face. But I can’t love Lexi, right? We’re friends, best friends, but aren’t the kind to date. We wouldn’t date. We can’t date.

I’ve only ever truly cared for four people in the world; my mom, my dad, Lexi, and Erin. Now two of them are gone and one I just about gone to me. Lexi is the only person left. I care about her and I love her. Like a friend, I tell myself.

Just like a friend.

I also feel like an idiot because Erin isn’t real and instead I’ve been talking to Zack. Flirting with Zack. I can’t even think of it without feeling angry and sick to my stomach so I push the thought away.

The next day is Saturday, and I spent it eating way too much chips, filming another vlog that I never publish, and going over my conversation with Lexi in my head again and again.

I don’t sleep at all that night or the next, and soon Saturday drags into Sunday which brings me right back to Monday. Before I know it, I’m standing outside my high school, hoping like hell I won’t run into Lexi – but at the same time feeling a desperate need to see her.

As soon as I burst through the door, I rush over to my locker, keeping my head down and not meeting anyone’s gaze. I glance around the hallway as I pull open my locker and when there’s no Lexi in sight, I let out a deep breath.

Thank god.

I shove all of my binders into my locker, grab my books and start heading to class. I still haven’t talked to her since Friday but I really don’t know what to say either.

Then I turn a corner, and run into Lexi, who also seems to be trying to slip past me. My book connects with her arm and forces her to slow down, then stop.

So we stand there, eyes on each other. Lexi looks angry, and me entirely terrified.

Just our luck

“Oh sorry”, I mumble, staggering back. Once I’ve regained my balance, I try to move past her again, hoping like hell to avoid conversation.

“Yeah”, is all Lexi says. In that instant I have an overpowering urge to keep on walking and get the hell out of here, but as I look at her, at the sadness in her eyes, I know I can’t just leave her.

“You okay?” I finally say, withholding a sigh – That was a mistake. So a mistake but I realize it too late.

“Oh fine”, she says. “My brother just severely screwed with my best friend and I also made a fool out of myself in front of him. So yeah, I’m splendid

“Lexi, I’m sorry”, I say because I can’t think of anything better. “I was an idiot before”

“You don’t say?”

“Please, what do you want me to do? I really am sorry and you didn’t embarrass yourself. It’s my fault. I just… I’m just…”

“You’re just what?” her hands are on her hips now, and it looks like she’s ready to walk out on me. Or punch me.

“I’m just confused”, I say, exasperated. “I don’t know what to do, Lexi. I’m lost. You caught me by surprise, is all”

“Well, I’m sorry I ‘caught you by surprise’ and made you feel so lost”

“You know that’s not how I meant it”

“And you know I don’t care! Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to class”

At that, she whirls around and starts walking in the opposite direction down the hall. I follow her, and I can smell her vanilla shampoo unmistakably as I’m catching up to her.

“Lexi…” I grab for her arm, but she shakes off my grip, giving me a disgusted look.

“No, leave me alone, Sutherland”

“Lexi, c’mon, please”

“Please what?” she says sharply. “Please stop loving you? Please stop ignoring my feelings and pretend none of this happened? Because guess what, Dalton, it did and this is one thing you’re going to have to face on your own”

“Lexi!” I say. “I’m not asking you to stop loving me. I just want us… to be normal”, I say.

She steps closer. “Just ask yourself this, Dalton”, Lexi says, dropping her voice to a hushed whisper. “Will you ever be able to stop loving your mom? Because it’s the same thing with you and me.”

Before I can react, she turns back around and for an instant all I see is her black velvet hair and the flash of deadly serious blue in her eyes.

“Wait”, I choke out. But she’s already scurrying down the hall where she disappears out of sight.

As soon as school is out, I don’t wait for her as normal. Instead I run like a coward until I’m almost home and only then slow down to a walking pace.

Sure, Lexi and I have fought before. Actually, we’ve fought a lot. Whether it be which color M&M is the best (blue, obviously), if one of us is better at Call of Duty than the other, screaming is not a rarity between us. But this fight… this one was different. It was too sad and desperate and felt more like the end of something than a true fight.

I just hope ‘something’ isn’t our friendship.

I walk through the door while wondering why I can’t even figure out if I love Lexi. I need her like I need to breathe, like I need a way to express myself. I can be myself around her, no judgment and she can do the same for me. I’ve never smiled more than when I’m with her, even when I talked to Erin, I still couldn’t stop smiling around Lexi.

Is that what love is? What Lexi and I have? I have no freaking idea how to tell.

“Dalton!” my zombie of a dad growls from the living room as soon as he sees me.

“Dinner is ready! Hurry up”.

Translation: “I’m hungry so go make me some damn macaroni and cheese while I sit and watch this TV show for the millionth time. I’ve had a tough day of doing nothing”

I sigh, close my eyes and stumble into the kitchen. Sure enough, there’s no dinner ready.

“Make me something good”, he says from behind me.

“Of course”, I answer, “Because what else would a son be for other than to serve as his father’s slave?”

“You should be nice to me, you know”, he says. “My money is the only reason you’re alive”

“Your money?” I laugh to myself as I continue to stir in the pot, “You mean mom’s life insurance?”

He doesn’t respond to that, and a glimmer of satisfaction races through me. I hate how he never mentions mom. All he does is watch TV, sleep and ignore me. He wasn’t always like this. He used to be an okay dad, with a well-paying lawyer job and a smile that never left his face.

I haven’t seen that smile in so long.

I give him an annoyed look as I make up a couple of plates for us. Even now, dad doesn’t really look at me, he never does. It’s like the sight of his own son is too much ‘work’ for him to undergo.

I bring him a plate when it’s done before I sit at the table. I’ve decided that on today of all days, I’m not getting into it with him.

We eat in peace, neither of us saying a word – thank god – until dad finally throws his spoon against the bowl. “This sucks”, he says and pushes the bowl away.

I roll my eyes. “That’s interesting because you seem to like the exact same thing just fine last time”

“I was being nice”, he says.

“Wow, so generous of you”, I mutter. “If that’s the case, then maybe you can try being a normal grown up for once and – I don’t know – make your own dinner”

“Are you calling me lazy?” he sputters as I get up to leave.

“No, I’m just calling you useless. There’s a difference”, I say and leave.

I don’t like that this is what dad and I have become, this empty, lifeless trading of insults, but what else is there?

I sink onto my bed with a sigh.

I have no one now – not my dad, not my mom, not even Lexi – and it’s all my fault. For a minute, I just sit there and think about Lexi, who is probably off and making new friends and totally forgetting about me.

I can’t push her away, not over something this stupid.

Then, it hits me.

I need to fix this.

Right away.

Chapter eight; Remember when we?

I’m not sure how long I stand there before suddenly reacting. I burst through the coffee shop door, sprint down the sidewalk and finally catch up to her. I grab her arm and pull her back, breathing heavily.“Wait”, I say. She tries to fight my grip. “Lexi, stop”

“Let go off me!” she shouts, jerking away from me and nearly taking out a little girl passing on her left side.

“I told you to forget about it. What more do you want from me? Do you want my dignity too? Because that’s just about up for sale at this point”, she spins around to face me, her eyes wild and sad at the same time.

It hurts to see her like this – like, physically hurts. She looks at me, exasperated. Lexi, the strong one who always keeps me in balance – exasperated.

“Well?” she says when I don’t respond.

My jaw is still totally slack.

“Aren’t you going to say something? I just told you I love you and you have zero freaking reaction?”

I’m consciously aware of my hand on her arm, my skin touching her skin. She is warm and shaking, rattled in a way I’ve never seen her before. I have no idea what to say, what to do. I feel so pathetic all of a sudden because she just told me the biggest thing you could probably tell a person and I can’t even find the word to respond.

I instantly let go off her.

“You didn’t do it? You didn’t make that account?”, I finally ask like a blundering idiot, too scared to meet her gaze to focus on anything but the slight tremble in my toes.

“I didn’t”, she says slowly, watching me as if I am about to pull a knife on her.

I nod.

Lexi sighs then, and I watch as she turns her head to look into nothingness.

“What?” I ask.

She shakes her head.

I step forward. “Lexi”, I say. “Tell me”.

She hesitates, but she does. “Remember when we were thirteen and we decided to prank our English teacher?” she says softly, still staring ahead of her – at anything but my face.

“So we snuck into his classroom while he was stuffing his face with doughnuts or whatever in the teacher’s lounge, and we super-glued his markers together?

We felt so cool and untouchable at the time, like we’d just reached the holy grail of pranks, and when he yelled about it to the class the next day, we were giggling like idiots in the back, thinking we were the baddest kids this school has ever seen”. She says it with such fondness, with the same twinkle in her from last night, like she is telling me another story from the magical world we’ll never quite reach.

I force a smile. “That teacher was a grumpy old geezer”, I say

Lexi smiles. “Oh yes, he totally was. Remember his oversized moustache? Man, did that dude need to shave…” she pauses, gathering herself.

“And do you remember our freshman year, when that jerk Matt beat you out as the JV basketball point guard, and so we spent the whole night plotting how we could commit the perfect murder so you could get on the team like you deserved, and we laughed and laughed until it was morning and we went to school without sleeping?”

“And”, she says more quietly, and steps towards me, her body just inches from mine, “Do you remember last year when we went to the national park to go camping because your mom wanted us ‘to have some fun for once’, and we sat on that bench in the middle of the night, looking out at the city lights and hearing the sound of laughter all around us? You touched my arm and joked to me how romantic it would be if we weren’t best friends.”

“Do you remember that?”

“Yes”, I say, “of course…”

She nods and drops her chin.

“Those”, Lexi says, “Were the moments I realized I was in love with you. I mean, I thought it was just a weird screwed-up platonic love at first, because I’m not the person who is pathetic enough to fall for her own best friend, I’m just not, but the more I thought about it, about you, I knew I loved you. Like, for real”

She looks up and meets my gaze.

I can’t turn away.

My heart rate keeps slowing and then speeding up again and I don’t even know what to do.

“This is why I never dated anyone, why I told you I was too busy to bother to date. I just knew I couldn’t tell you. Or maybe I could, maybe I should have, but I was too afraid.”

I stand there, still trying to process everything. Finally, I manage to say, “How does Zack fit into all of this? I mean come on, your freaking brother?”

I want to accuse her, it’s right there on my tongue but I bite it back.

“I knew about the vlog myself, long before Zack did, I guess”, she starts. “You left the whole thing open and more times than not logged into it from my computer. It would have been impossible not to know”, there is a faint smile on her lips.

“So there I was with love I didn’t know what to do with and a blog I wasn’t supposed to know about. So I followed it and pretended never to know. It was stupid”, she stops talking and we both stand there silently. I want to ask about her brother again, but I don’t press it.

Lexi lets out a small sigh. “I noticed how this girl Erin popped up one day and I shouldn’t have done it, but I became obsessed with reading every bit of dialog between the two of you. It hurt like crazy to know of you two and I was so scared”, she stops talking again, taking a step back.

I feel my blood getting hotter and hotter. How am I supposed to feel about that? My best friend jealous over someone who turned out to be no-one? I hear her voice again and force myself to look at her.

“So today when I got home, I found a note on my bedroom door in Zack’s handwriting. It asked me to check his computer, which I did… and what I saw was Erin’s account and I found out about the meeting. I tried to get there to stop it….” she sighs.

I still try to process things. Erin is gone and Lexi loves me. My best friend loves me. Am I supposed to feel shocked? Happy? Scared? I sure as hell feel none of those things, mostly straight up confusion, although my heart won’t stop beating and my mouth refuses to work. And, in the back of my mind I wonder: do I love her back?

But I don’t know

I just don’t know

“What do you want me to say?” I look up at her. She’s almost as tall as I am, her long dark hair a major contrast to my dirty blond and usually there is a perfect smile to go along with it.

I love that smile

It’s just a line now, though – a twisted, sad line

Her eyes level with mine. Her breathing sound somewhat pained as she whispers, “I want you to tell me if you’ll give this a shot”

“Give what a shot?” I dumbly ask, but I already know the answer

“Just go on one date with me”, she says. “Like we never met before, and just… see. Try to be together – as a real couple”

I look at her, but I don’t speak. I realize then that it would be so easy to say yes, to tell her I’d love to try this, to tell her what the hell and go for it because I don’t want to see her go and because what if I do love her and don’t know it? But somehow, I can’t find the courage to say it.

I still feel so sick, so empty and tired, and I have no idea if I will ever be able to process all of this.

“Dalton, please just answer me”, Lexi says. “I’ve waited years for you. Just give me a response”

I take a deep breath, my jaw clenching. What am I supposed to say? Yes? No? Maybe? I’ll think about it? All of the answers feel wrong, and I realize that there is no way out of this but the truth.

“No”, I finally say, turning away from her.

“I’m sorry, but no”

All at once, Lexi’s face slips, and she shakes her head a little. “Thought so”, she says quietly, in a way that’s so serious and empty at the same time that I feel I’ve done something horrible, horrible wrong. Then, she turns, brushes past me, and walks down the street until she disappears out of sight.

I almost don’t see the tears in her eyes

Chapter seven; At long last

I type up the email as I stand in our driveway. I’m too excited to wait, though. I write the e-mail jokingly, but really, I’m nervous.

I half expect her not to show again, to stop responding to my e-mail and for all this whatever-it-is between us to come to an end, just like that.

I don’t want that. Hell, I’d rather have anything but that. Erin and Lexi are the two constants in my life, the two who I can depend on and lean and not worry about being weird in front of or saying stupid things. And to lose either of them is like for my whole world to split apart – like it did when I lost mom.

I Sigh. My therapist, if she knew about Erin, (and if I was still her client – dad deemed her “unfit” after a few weeks, but we both know it was just because he didn’t see the point of spending that kind of money on me since I should just “snap out of it”) would probably say this whole internet love for Erin is just me reverting back to my childlike state.

That I am trying so desperately to fill the void mom’s death left in my heart with the first positive thing I found, and that ended up being Erin. And yes, I did read about that on the internet. Is there anything google can’t advice you on?

But Erin is no longer just a filler, she’s mine. She stole a piece of my heart, a piece of me, and that sure isn’t a filler. That’s real.

Another minute passes before my phone finally vibrates. I pounce on it and open up Erin’s response.

I don’t respond after that, just smile to myself as I run inside to change and get ready.

It’s the same place as yesterday but today the walk feels impossibly long. But as I continue to walk, I realize I honestly have no idea what I’m expecting. For Erin not so show? For her to end up to be a serial killer? For her to decide she doesn’t like me and what the hell was she thinking wanting to meet with me and for me to never see or hear from her again?

I arrive there early, and I know I would be, but still I take a glance around me – no Erin in sight. I take a seat at the same chair as last time.

I can’t help but wonder what I will do if she shows up? Will I work up the courage to tell her how I really feel? If I do, will she reject me? Or say yes and we make out for hours and hours? (That would be the preferred reaction) Or worse, what if she doesn’t react at all?

Then suddenly my phone vibrates again and I hold my breath.

I smile now, because above all the anxiety I realize this is really happening. I’m about to meet the girl I’ve been thinking about for longer than I can remember.

Now my whole body is on overload, and I can feel my skin tingling with anticipation. Holy crap. It’s happening. My eyes glued to the door, trying to remain calm. But I can’t. I mean, she’s here. OH MY GOD SHE’S HERE!

In less than a minute, l’ll meet Erin Ziegler for the first time.

Just like that, there’s a sound at the coffee shop door. A burst of energy jolts through me and I lean forward, my fists anxiously clenching and unclenching.

The door rattles again, and this time it swings open a sliver, then a little more, until it’s finally open all the way. I wait, and my heart seems to leap in my throat.

Someone steps inside.

I stop.

I see… Zack?

Lexi’s brother is walking towards me?

My heart sinks. Why is Zack here? And where the hell is Erin?

“Hey”, he says as he approaches, and there’s a small smirk on his face. Weird. Maybe he’s just randomly here to have coffee.. or meet someone else?

“Hey?”, I frown as he sits down across from me. I have no idea whats going on. “I’m actually expecting someone…”, I say, entirely confused.

‘You really have no clue?” Zack almost laughs before pushing his phone towards me on the table. My heart rate slows, and then races again. I see Erin’s last message sent to me.

But how could Zack have Erin’s message?

Unless…

Oh my god…

“I’m Erin Ziegler”, he says with a smug look on his face.

As soon as the words leave his mouth, my mind explodes. I feel my insides go cold, and my whole stomach tightens. Erin isn’t real? I’ve been falling for a made-up human this whole time? Lexi’s jerk brother? Oh god oh god oh fucking hell. Somehow, this is even more pathetic than falling for a sixty-year-old-creeper.

“So you did this all… why? As a joke? Does Lexi know?” I stand up, my hands shaking. This cannot be real. My one last chance at love, gone in an instant.

I had my heart set on Erin, and this is what I get? A slap in the face?

“Hey, you’re the moron who’s not seeing how my sister’s been in love with you for ages now and who’s instead willing to chase around some made up girl that you haven’t even met”, he blurts out and stands up as well.

“That’s just fucked up”, I start, my hands running through my hair. This can’t be happening. And Zack? I can’t even process what he is saying about his sister’s affections towards me.

It is at that moment that he door swings open again and Lexi walks in. her cheeks red and her chest heaving as if she has been running. She looks between Zack and me with bewilderment. Did she know? Has she known all along?

I feel anger bubbling up inside of me. I thought she was my friend.

I leave a smug looking Zack behind as I close the distance between me and Lexi. I give her a hard stare.

“You’re my best friend”, I stammer. “I thought I trusted you”

“Dalton, that’s not-“

“Not what?” I shake my head and taste bile in my mouth. All I want to do is leave, run away and keep screaming and crying until I wake up from this nightmare.

Lexi takes one last breath, reaches out, and brushes the tips of her fingers against my arm.

Our eyes lock hard – and we stare at each other for the longest time before she finally whispers, her eyes misting with tears. “I didn’t make Erin up, I didn’t know until…”, she stammers incoherently before finally;

“I just need you to know.. wanted to say that.. that I love you”

So when your best friend tells you she loves you, you can do one of three things;

  • You can tell her you love her too and then make out with her passionately.
  • You can run away
  • Or you can just stare at her for what feels like a century without speaking a word like a senseless idiot and only create more awkwardness for everyone

Guess which reaction is mine? You betcha. #3. I think it’s a solid five minutes of me gawking, not knowing how to respond and nothing happens.

That awkward.

I think I hear Zack laughing somewhere behind me. My heart is hammering now, and I swear my tongue is refusing to work because as much as I try to open my mouth and speak, no words will come out.

Lexi is in love with me.

What the hell?

“You know what? Forget it” Lexi says when I don’t react, shaking her head. “Forget I ever said something”

“No wait, Lexi”, I say and reach blindly for her arm, as if I could possibly make this anymore awkward – apparently, I can.

She pushes past my grip. “No, no…” she turns around to exit the shop.

I call after her, but she’s already getting the hell out of here like I should have done long ago. My whole body screams at me to just do something and freaking fix this already, but I can’t.

And now I stand in the coffee shop, with Zack approaching me and then gives me a thump with his shoulder as he brushes past. “Smooth going, asshole”, he says.

Somehow, this is not how I pictured the meet-up going.

Chapter six; Hypotheticals

I reach for the old coffee shop door, take one final hard breath as I pull it open, and step inside. My heart is pounding furiously, my mind racing with the possibilities.

And… Nothing.

I scan the shop with my hands clenched, but aside from a bored looking barista, the place is empty. My stomach drops a little and I can feel the disappointment creep in already. I mean, I’m a few minutes early, but I still hoped that I could see her right away.

That I didn’t have to worry or wait any longer.

Sighing, I sit down, my gaze on the front door. She’ll be here any minute, I tell myself.  I am trying to will my body to relax, to breathe easily but my feverish mind is making it impossible. Will her face light up when she sees me? Will she run at me and jump into my arms, or just awkwardly walk over, nod and sit down? And what am I supposed to say to her anyway?

“Oh hey Erin, you have never even met me before but I’m in love with you?” does not sound like the greatest plan. Then there is of course my back up plan; “uh…hi”, which is also not very smooth.

A moment of despair is coming over me. God, what am I even doing here? It is so much easier to talk through the internet than in real life. She’ll immediately realize what a desperate freak I am and then I can kiss goodbye to all hope that I’ll ever be with her.

Did I rush it?

No, I tell myself. She suggested meeting up. Not you. Clearly she’s interested.

I take yet another breath. Okay – It’s okay.

I wait

After a while I pull out my phone and start wasting my time on random apps and memes, as well as by constantly refreshing my vlog page for no real reason. Where is Erin? She didn’t strike me as someone to be late to something like this.

Finally, forty minutes after she was supposed to get here, when I’m just about ready to call it quits, she messages me through our chat room.

My heart sinks a little further as I read it. I close my eyes, defeat slipping in. I feel like a pouty five year old thinking this, but I want her here. Now – not tomorrow.

I stare at my phone for a while after she logs off, re-reading the conversation again and again.

Tomorrow I meet Erin Ziegler.

For real this time. It has to be.

When I get home, aside from commenting once again on my dad’s lack of contribution to the family, I run upstairs, slam my bedroom door shut, pull out my camera and begin filming. I try not to be upset about Erin, but the sadness just pours out of me.

My words come out in a jumbled mess. I sit on my bed and talk about losing someone you care about and death and hopelessness and the next thing I know I’m staring into the camera, my heart pounding and my eyes fighting tears while I talk about mom.

“I remember when I was in third grade and my mom took Lexi and me to the park”. I say. “It was a normal day – the sun was out, there was a nice breeze, and kids all around us were running and laughing and playing on the slides. Lexi squealed about how incredible awesome the place looked and ran to the playground.

I turned to mom before following her, though, not wanting to abandon her. Mom told me to go on, that we had the whole afternoon and that she would be there waiting. So I raced after Lexi and we laughed and played and it was a great day, full of life, and more importantly, full of my best friend.

But after a while, I remember turning back to look at mom. She was watching me, her eyes trained on me and a huge smile on her face. I asked if she was coming too.”

I shake my head and grit my teeth. What am I even doing? Filming this? Spilling out all my emotions into a freaking camera? God, I really am hopeless. Maybe dad is right, maybe I am a waste of space. Shouldn’t I be past the crying stage? Shouldn’t I have moved on by now?

I take another hard breath

I don’t know whether I should be or not

I just know that I’m not

“She just smiled and shook her head like she knew something I didn’t and said; I love you, Dalton. Now go play with Lexi. I’m always going to be with you, watching and smiling from here. And when I’m not here here, I’m still going to be with you. In here, ‘she said poking at the ribs near her heart. At that time, I had no idea what she was talking about, but I still remember it”

I tap my heart.

Then, hands shaking, I reach out and turn off the camera. I know I won’t ever publish the vlog though. As stupid as it sounds, sometimes I just need to let out what I’m feeling. I usually ramble like this to Lexi, who hugs and comforts me and makes me feel all warm again, but talking to my best friend about love?

That’s just weird.

Right?

Strangely, though, after sitting there for a while, I feel kind of… good. Relieved, even. Like for the first time in the months since my mom’s death, I feel a bit of closure.

I make a decision and get up from bed.

The stars are out as I walk a couple of blocks down the road to Lexi’s house. I walk slowly, letting the cool air brush against my skin. A shiver races up my spine, but it’s a nice shiver. A calming one.

I should be freaking out now, with that video I made and my meeting with Erin tomorrow, but I feel oddly calm.

When I reach the end of Lexi’s street, I stop. I know her house like it’s my own home, and maybe in a way, it is my own. I’m sure I’ve spent more nights here in the last year than I have in my own bed even though her brother’s a jerk and we don’t get along. Hell, I’m here so much that the Flaherty’s even nicknamed their guest room ‘Dalton’s room’.

After a second, I turn my gaze to the small garden area where I asked Lexi to meet me. She sits on a bench, her long, slender legs stretched out before her, her gaze already on me. She’s dressed in a loose fitting shirt and cut off denim shorts. Moonlight pours down on her raven hair, giving it a silvery glow.

I let out a breath.

If I weren’t her best friend, I’d think she looks really, well… attractive.

I push the thought away as soon as it pops into my head.

“Hey.” I say slowly, walking up to her

“Hey”, she tilts her head to the side when she gets a closer look at me. “You okay?” she asks, frowning.

“Wh-“Automatically, I reach for my face, trying to figure out what she’s talking about. Then I remember the pink around my eyes.

“Oh. That”, I say. I shake my head. “That’s… nothing to worry about”

“You sure?”

“Yeah” I’m not sure if she has decided to drop the subject yet so I take a step forward to sit down next to her instead.

For a minute we just stare up at the stars together. Its perfect outside, and the combination of the fresh air and Lexi’s presence almost makes me forget – about my mom, about my dad, about Erin. I shift to get more comfortable and my side and thigh presses against hers. A shock of warm electricity flows through me at the contact, and I feel my muscles tense up.

When I realize what’s happening, though, I mutter an Oh” and jerk away.

She grimaces. “You’re really smooth, Dalton”, she says and laughs to herself – a distant, sad kind of laugh.

“Correction: I’m wonderful”

“Correction: you’re an idiot”

“Correction: you suck at corrections”

She rolls her eyes and I grin and give her a shove with my elbow, which causes her hand to slip out of her pocket. A photograph falls to the ground and I lean down to pick it up. I recognize it. Well the people in it, that is.

It’s of her grandparents who usually visits during the summer.

Lexi gives a smile. “My grandpa always promised me I could spend a week there whenever I want”, she says while pulling the photograph out of my hand.

“You know, I’m thinking that in some weeks when I get my driver’s license I can drive down there and stay for a week with a company of some boy I like, just us and the beach and wind and the water”.

She says it like she’s telling me about a magical promise land.

“Oh?” I ask, quirking my eyebrow. “Is there a guy in your life I should know about?” I give her another playful nudge against her shoulder.

Lexi scoffs. “Just this idiot one, unfortunately”

“Uh-huh. Now that I do not believe”

“You don’t?”

“I don’t”

“Maybe you’re right”, she breathes.

I shift closer to her. “Lexi, you look really weird… what’s wrong?”

She just sighs, ignoring me. Then, “what if I told you I had my sights set on one guy in particular?”

“Then I’d ask you who”

She shakes her head, smiling a little. “But let’s say you can’t ask me, or I can’t tell you, or something like that… and what if I was afraid to tell him?”

I frown. “Who are you talking about? If you tell me I can hel-“

“It’s a hypothetical”, she cuts in. “Just answer the question”

I give her a dubious look. “Well, in my experience, hypotheticals are always real… but I guess I’d tell you go for it. It’s always better to try and fail than not to try at all. And what’s the worse than can happen? The guy will turn you down and turn out to be a douche. He’ll miss out and you will find someone better”, I say, meaning it.

“You really think anyone who turns me down is a douche?’ she says quietly.

Of course”, I say, then frown again. “Why?”

“No reason. But okay”, she says, nods, and goes back to studying the photograph like she’s hiding something on her features.

“I think I’ll do that”, she finally says. “If this weren’t hypothetical, that is”

“Now are you going to tell me who this guy is”, I eventually ask

“It’s no one, I told you”

“Yeah, suuuuuure”

She smiles and lets out an exaggerated breath of air. “All right fine, you caught me. The guy I’m secretly crushing on is that doughboy from the Pillsbury commercials.

“I KNEW IT”, I shout too loudly, and she shoves my arm playfully and we laugh and laugh.

Until all hurtful memories melt away and all that there is left is Lexi and I.

Chapter five; No-thing

The next day, after classes are over, Lexi and I are hanging out at her place. I had suggested coming to her place as a desperate attempt not to freak out about Erin and the meet-up. Her parents run an accessory store and sometimes work late and tonight Lexi has decided to cook them dinner. I accompany her in the kitchen and give myself the role of overseeing her culinary skills.

I realize I am being quiet and a bit “off” because I am being distracted by my upcoming meeting so I clear my voice.

“So Lexi…” I say but then my voice trails off.

“So Dalton”, Lexi says. Her lips are pursed into a small smirk.

“I haven’t heard much from you this week. What’s going on in your life?”

I hesitate before plastering on a casual smile and give her a shrug. “Just fighting crime. Saving the world. Rescuing small puppies from burning buildings. The usual”

She rolls her eyes as she continues to stir the mac and cheese. “Wow. You’re a really extraordinary person, Dalton”

“The truth it, I do it for the children”, I say

She lets laughter escape her lips. “That’s amazing. I’m glad I have someone to count on when my life’s in danger”

“Always”, I say. “Just let me know when you are in danger. But I should warn you. You might need to leave a message since being an incredible sexy superhero is a very tedious and time-consuming gig so you never know when I’ll be free”. I say while suppressing a smile.

Lexi shakes her head as she pours the mac and cheese into a serving bowl.

We move to the dinner table after Lexi fixes us a couple of plates and for a while we just chat about anything and nothing, tell silly jokes as always and insult each other the best we can.

I look away for a moment, lost in thoughts and wondering what it would be like sharing a meal with Erin. It’s enough to bring a faint smile to my features.

After a while, I sense Lexi’s gaze on me. I turn my head to look at her, but she jerks away as soon as our gaze locks like she’s been slapped.

“What?” I ask

She swallows her food slowly. “Nothing”

“It’s not nothing”, I say, leaning closer in over the table while examining her closely. I’m almost wondering if she’s sick so I put my hand to her forehead to check her temperature.

“Why do you look so weird?”

Lexi doesn’t answer but instead pushes my hand away.

I stare at her, frowning. This is weird. Really weird.

“Nothing”, she says too sharply. “No-thing”

“Okay”, I say. I don’t believe her, but I don’t press it either

We don’t talk much after that, just finish eating and converse briefly about my nightly vigils as a superhero and all the hot girls I attract.

After a while Lexi asks me what I’m doing tomorrow and if I want to come over and study. “I’ll cook again. After all, a superhero must eat”, she offers

I’m almost tempted to tell her all about Erin and how I finally get to meet her tomorrow, but instead I just shrug and say, “I’m busy”

I swear she doesn’t believe me.

School next day goes painfully slow. First Calculus, then Physics, then History – it’s like they’re trying to kill me.

I can’t concentrate at all during class, either. All I can think about is Erin and OMG I’M MEETING HER AFTER SCHOOL! And AAHHHH YES I NEED THIS and that’s pretty much it.

It’s not like this is abnormal though, well the boredom that is, because the classes here doesn’t interest me much anyway – well except for English. I’m the complete, shameless English nerd.

My mom used to make fun of me for constantly correcting her grammar and even pulling “Knock Knock. Who’s there? To. To who? Jeez, Mom, don’t you know anything? It’s to whom!” joke on her. Truth is, I’m mostly into English just so I can criticize people’s grammar and ‘lack of eloquent word choice’ whenever possible.

Finally, after what feels like a century, the last class ends and I dart out the door. My pulse quickens. Holy shit! I finally get to meet Erin.

“Where are you going?” Lexi calls after me, but I just wave my hand and answers, “A meeting”.

Technically it isn’t a lie, although it isn’t much by way of honestly either. But really, I’m not exactly thrilled by the idea of Lexi knowing about Erin. I don’t know why, I just want to keep it, like my vlog separate from her.

Then one hour later I stand before the coffee shop where we are going to meet up and all of my emotions seem to crash down on me at once. I’m really doing this! I’m not sure if I should feel over the top excited or completely anxious – both I decide.

Again I repeat: holy shit

I straighten up, take a breath and then with my eyes locked on the coffee shop door, I start walking to the girl of my dreams.

Chapter four; Knight in shining armor

So I guess it is kinda pathetic that I am fretting because I haven’t heard from Erin since yesterday. Since she said she wanted to talk to me. All kinds of scenarios have been going through my head.

What if she’s sick of me? What if she found out who I am and she’s like “no thanks, not that dork” What if she’s abducted by aliens? No but seriously, I am trying to stay cool.

But since I am not cool, I sit down and send her an e-mail.

She doesn’t respond. I sit there staring at the screen, my hands clenching and I keep refreshing my inbox. Was saying that a mistake? Was I too serious? Too forthcoming? Oh god what if I screwed it up? Oh shit shit shit. I bury my face in my hands until finally, I hear the chime.

I read it with a pit in my stomach.

When I finish reading, I feel energy coursing through my body. My head pounds and a smile breaks across my lips. Even if we are just joking around, it makes me happy to think of the possibility to see Erin.

It’s tempting to daydream but instead the little pop from our chat room alerts me that Erin has changed from our delayed e-mails to instant talk. I’m so totally cool with that!

My heart seriously skips a beat. I feel like I could suddenly run around the house screaming and dancing and muppet-flailing like a boss.

Instead I just sit there, on the edge of my seat, grinning like an idiot to my computer. Of course I want to – I’ve been wanting to for months now.

The rest of the day goes by in a whiz. I go to school and Lexi and I get together to do homework. In-between it all we make fun out our physics teacher Albert Einstein-esque hair and probably eat more laffy taffy than anyone should.

I also slip in a few more emails with Erin while Lexi’s in the bathroom. We have agreed to meet up at a nearby coffee shop – a different one than Smackbucks.

Three days away now

I of course have not told my dad about the meet-up nor do I plan to. I’d rather risk getting abducted by some creeper who has pretended to be Erin Ziegler this whole time than admit to him I have feelings for someone I met over the internet.

Wednesday snails by. I don’t talk much to Erin or Lexi and definitely not my dad. I just go to school, do my homework and film my next vlog. I have hardly slept at all, though. I spend most of in a day dream in front of the computer or TV while thinking about what Erin looks like and I wonder how our meeting will go.

Will she be as funny face to face as she is online? Will I be charmed by her even more in person?

When I go to bed, I imagine what her laugh sounds like in real life and whether her mouth is always curled into a smile like I imagine it is. A large part of me is scared too. Not scared about Erin being a fifty year old man (okay, well kind of that too) but scared of what she’ll think of me.

I’m scared she’ll decide I’m actually a loser dorky kid. Scared she’ll leave me and never want to be a part of my life again. It is so easy to talk to her online but I realize it could be so much different in person.

I lay there with my eyes closed, a sigh escaping my lips. Perhaps everything isn’t easy but it sure as hell going to take a lot to stop me from chasing her around like a love sick puppy.

Because, as I lay there, I realize that for the first time since mom died, I truly love someone.