I never tell anyone about how I told Josh off over what happened with Erin. I don't think anyone approve of it, and besides, all I did was give him my personal opinion. In the end, it's up to Erin to decide what she wants.
As it is, she chooses to stop talking to him. He tries to get her to take him back, many times, as she details to me and Alex, but she doesn't give in. During this period, she becomes fairly close to me and Alex, updating us every so often. Erin grows on me a little, and the three of us even go out together once or twice. When we do, though, it's still mostly to reflect a lot on Josh.
After a while, when Josh fades from the picture and gives up trying, Erin regains her confidence and returns to the comfort of her old friends. She stops seeing me and Alex so often, and becomes the same old Erin she always had been, cheerful and carefree.
It surprises me, but I miss her a little. While we don't have a lot in common, we do agree when it comes to matters on Josh. Probably a little too much.
I start focusing on the upcoming move, meeting my brothers regularly, once in a while talking to my mother and making rough plans.
Somewhere at around the end of May, I am in the kitchen of Alex's house that afternoon, helping Mrs. Caruso, when the doorbell rings out. I don't think much of it, figuring it is probably one of the neighbors or a friend of Justin's or Carrie's. Then a second later, Justin's voice yells, "Clare! Someone here to see you!"
I pause in the middle of slicing carrots, grimacing. It's probably one of my brothers. School is ending very soon, and we're pretty edgy about leaving.
"Go on," Mrs. Caruso urges me, a broad smile on her face. "You should have a break."
"OK, thanks. I'll be back." I pad out to the foyer, betting that it's Rob. But it isn't. A lanky figure stands in the open doorway, covered in black, his curly hair edging against the sky. Shades peer at me, reflecting my own reflection – a strange-shaped face, their gray eyes looking like a deer's caught in headlights. He pulls his shades down slowly, and a tentative smile crosses his face. My heart seems to jump and sink at the same time.
"Hey, Clare," he murmurs.
"Is this a bad time?"
"Oh, uh …. " I can't help it. I can't think. It's been weeks since the last time we've talked, since the last time I slammed him outside of school. I can't believe that he actually came to see me. I hadn't expected him to, after the way I'd treated him.
"I was hoping we could talk," he suggests. "Just for a little while?"
I stare up at him, looking into the sea-green eyes that have always been my favorite. They still are, I can't deny that. No matter what, he's always as beautiful as when I saw him for the very first time.
The first time - that's right, Clare. I have to remember that night, the gang, the attack. Maybe Josh didn't actually throw any punches, but he was still a part of the whole picture. At the very least, his doing nothing had shown that he'd agreed with it.
"Yeah," I answer after a long time. "OK. Let's take a walk." I move past him out the door, brushing against his arm. I cross the Caruso's front lawn, and he follows me, ambling, his long legs easily keeping up. We turn down the sidewalk, walking together slowly, side by side.
It's been a long time since I've been out for something as simple as an aimless walk. Ever since I came to the Carusos, my wanderlust has died. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I've been busy, had things on my mind. I'm going to be moving miles away to a different town soon, anyway. That should be enough to satisfy my wanderlust forever. It's amazing how we get what we wish for sometimes.
I stare ahead, looking at people and objects don't matter – a girl in sweats, two boys talking over some cards, a stop sign, a dented-in fence. The sky is bright and riddled with filmy clouds. The sun is bare on us, too hot. Callville is much warmer in the summer than Delcott. I don't look forward to that.
"So, it's been a while, huh?" Josh remarks, throwing me a glance. His eyes gleam in the light.
"Been up to anything?"
"You know I'm moving."
He goes quiet for a few seconds. I half-expect him to show some annoyance, but he doesn't. He finally seems to be cool about it. "When?"
"In a couple of days. Once school ends. My mom's coming over to pick me and my brother up."
"Yeah. It'll be pretty easy. We don't have much stuff. We left all our furniture behind in the old house, and the new people threw it all out." That memory makes me grit my teeth a little. "Yeah … all we have is our clothes and personal stuff, really."
"Hmm," he goes, stretching the sound. He folds his arms, eyes me again. "So it's really happening."
"Are you … happy?"
"To be moving."
"No. Do you think I am?"
"It's hard for me to tell."
I stop walking, and he does the same. We turn to face each other. "It's just something I have to do," I remind him. "No point thinking about it, right?"
He stares at me, seeming to mull over that. In the end, he just smiles and says, "Right." He doesn't want to argue, I think.
A silence follows, but only a small one. He sighs, his eyes softening down. "I miss you, Clare," he tells me. "I miss this. Our talks."
"Yeah. Me too." It's the truth.
"I'm sorry about everything, you know. I really am."
I bite my lip. I don't believe he's really sorry. He may be sorry that things soured between him and Erin, and maybe between him and me. But I don't think he gets what's wrong. I don't think he understands that he has a problem.
"Why can't it go back to the way it was?" he asks me. "It can, can't it?"
"Josh, I'm going away."
"I know. That's why …. Well, don't you think we should spend some time together before you go?"
I raise one brow at him, and he goes on, "You know, go out, do something, hang around, whatever."
Is he asking me out? It almost sounds like he is. In the past, I would have been wary, what with the fact that Erin was his girlfriend and all. But now she's not his girlfriend anymore, and I feel sure that there is something running underneath his words.
A chance. An invitation. Finally, he's letting me in. We could actually be something. It's what I've been wanting for such a long time.
"So what do you say?" he asks me again, head tilting.
I gaze up at him, wavering. Right now, with him before me, standing close, his eyes on mine, I do feel something. A small flicker of everything from the past – that despair, the fantasy of being in his arms, of having him kiss me again. I do still want him.
But then I think about Erin. I think about many things, small things – how he didn't try to stay away from me even though he had a girlfriend, how he called her up while we were on the road trip and lied to her, how he never told her that he and I had kissed. I think about the gang, and the last fight – the physical proofs of that one are gone from his face, but I still remember how Erin had looked that night, her eyes swollen from tears, the shakiness in her hands, how sorry I'd felt for her.
And then I realize something, something a lot more important than any of that. Josh already had his chance with me. If he'd really liked me, he could have broken up with Erin and given it a shot with me. It would have been harsh, but at least it would have been honest. When she dumped him, he fought hard to get her back, until he finally got it that it was a lost cause. And now that it is a lost cause, he's here, talking to me.
Well, I will not be that. I will not be his second choice.
"No, Josh," I reply. "I can't."
"What?" He seems genuinely surprised.
"It's no point. There isn't a lot of time left."
He stares at me, his eyes wide. He's hurt, but I know I'm doing the right thing. I let out a sigh, looking at the ground for a moment. "I would like to see your grandparents one more time before I leave, though. If ... that's alright with you."
He pauses, swallows first. "Yeah. Sure."
"How about tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow. Tomorrow is fine."
"Great." I glance back at Alex's house. "Well, anyway, I have to get back. I'm supposed to be helping Mrs. Caruso. I'll see you tomorrow."
He doesn't answer for a minute. "OK."
"I'll come by in the evening." And I take off then, just like that, leaving him alone there on the sidewalk.
I bring a pie for Mr. and Mrs. Grier the next evening. I come after dinner, not wanting to stay for too long, not wanting to have to sit at the same table with Josh for half an hour, forced to make unsure conversation.
Mr. and Mrs. Grier are happy to see me. Mrs. Grier is impressed by the fact that I baked the apple pie for them myself – Mrs. Caruso did help a little, but they don't need to know that.
Mr. Grier has stopped with the puzzles, and is reading a book instead, a non-fiction one about World War One.
"Mr. Grier, I heard you were sick some time back?" I ask him.
"Oh, that? Oh, it was nothing. I'm fine now."
"If you'd eat what I tell you to," Mrs. Grier injects. "You wouldn't be so weak."
"Weak?" His mouth drops in insulted horror.
"Yes. We're old, you know. We can't just eat what we like or do what we like. Otherwise, we're going to just fall apart. And then what would happen to Josh? Hmm??"
In the corner, Josh rolls his eyes, but I can't help thinking that Mrs. Grier has a point. I wonder if he really appreciates that they're still around. If he does, why does he do stupid criminal things? It seems like they don't know, but they'd be crushed if they did. He should be smart enough to know that.
"So Josh tells me you're moving, Clare," Mrs. Grier says, handing me a glass of lemonade and a huge slice of the pie I brought. "Where are you moving to?"
"This place called Callville, where my grandmother stays."
"Really? That's nice. That's good. You should be with your family. You should stick together."
It's a cliché thing to say, kind of obvious, not necessarily true, but then I start thinking about my mother and her crazy stunts, and how my brothers and I have been separated for the past few months, and I think I agree with her. Maybe the Conroys aren't perfect, but I'd at least like to still have a house with them, something to come back to, rather than this scattered pattern. I do think we should stick together.
"You're right," I tell Mrs. Grier, smiling. She sits down next to me on the couch, patting my arm.
"Josh, what are you doing standing over there? Sit down. Eat Clare's pie."
Obediently, he goes to an armchair across from us, taking a place. He accepts pie from his grandmother, taking a taste. His eyes meet mine as he swallows. He starts to nod. "Not bad."
"It's a pity," Mrs. Grier comments. "If you were still going to be around, I could try to teach you to make a lot more things. Pecan! Can you do pecan?"
"No," I reply, amused. "But I can promise to learn."
"You should. I think you have potential, Clare."
"Yes. To be a good cook. Like me. Why, if you become really good, you could even go professional."
I laugh lightly. "That's something I never considered."Josh clears his throat then, and the two of us glance at each other. "Well," I go, but can't come up with anything else. I pretend to be distracted by my pie, but eventually, I finish it, and it seems like there's nothing else for me to do. Mr. Grier is reading his book, mumbling quietly, Mrs. Grier is telling him repeatedly to not make any sound at all, and Josh is staring at me, all the time.
"Excuse me." I get to my feet hurriedly, taking my plate and glass to the kitchen. I wash up quickly, emerge, then point to the door. "Well, uh, I should get going. I really can't stay. I've got … stuff to do. You know, for the move."
"Oh," Mrs. Grier goes. "Are you sure you can't stay any longer?"
"Oh, gosh." She comes up, giving me a hug. "Well, alright, dear. Oh, I just can't believe that I'm never going to see you again!"
"I know," I respond, allowing Mr. Grier a hug too. "Well, if I do come back, I'll visit you guys, OK?"
"Alright. You do that. Give us a call if you ever feel like talking, dear."
"I'll see you out, Clare," Josh declares, and the next thing I know, he's leading me out in the midst of a lot of goodbyes. We break into the empty hallway outside, and he shuts the door firmly behind us.
All of a sudden, quiet descends, interrupted only by the buzzing of the lights above our heads. Josh looks down at me, one side of his mouth curving upward. "You want a ride back?"
"I can manage."
"You know how Toledo is."
"It's still early."
I pull my brows together. What makes it dangerous, Josh, is people like you. I shake my head, feeling resigned. "I'll be fine." I start walking, but he runs up, and I can't help halting.
"So this is really it?" he goes, his face shadowing.
"Yeah. I guess so."
"This is the last time I'm going to see you?"
"I'm sure we'll see each other again someday, Josh. Maybe we'll go to the same college or something. You never know." But it's not what I'm hoping for anymore, not as badly as I used to.
"Yeah," he says. "Maybe."
I nod, wondering if he expects anything else. He moves forward then, arms going around me in a goodbye hug. I don't resist. I can't. Wrapped in his strong warmth - it's too familiar.
I raise my hands, clutching his shoulders. Why am I doing this again? Why am I not letting myself be with him?
Because I have mixed feelings about it. Yes, Josh has a good side, a wonderful, sweet, caring side, but he also has something else in him – something hard and dangerous and unfair. It scares me. Plus he hasn't always treated Erin in the best way. How do I know he won't do the same to me? Maybe he won't, but I don't want to take the chance. I don't want to risk liking him more, risk getting really hurt.
I start to pull back, but Josh uses the space to kiss me all of a sudden. I neither draw away nor return it. He holds his mouth to mine for a long time, holding me close. When he stops, I pull my feet back quickly.
Don't think about it. Don't think about returning that kiss. Don't think about pushing to see where it will go.
"I have to go," I whisper.
He nods, no words. I turn away, moving down the hall, my steps quickening as I pass each door. I get into the elevator, press the button. He's still staring at me. I stare back, and when the doors start to close, I almost want to stop them.
But I don't. They shut, I let them, and it's the last I see of Josh.