I don't own Tivo or Starbucks or the SAT.

(…)

(…)

Chapter eighteen: Homecoming horror

"Hey."

I glanced up, surprised to find Tristam in the kitchen, heating up some soup on the stove. "Hey," I said back. "Didn't expect to see you here." These days, Tristam was out more often than he was home; when he wasn't at work, he was usually at Ana's.

Tristam grinned. "Where there's free food…"

I laughed easily and meandered into the kitchen. The soup smelled amazing. "Cilantro," I moaned, practically drooling. "Yum."

"Get your own," Tristam said immediately.

I hopped up onto the counter and proceeded to pout. Experience told me that if I pouted long enough, he would eventually share his food with me. But today I found it harder than usual to pout. Life was just too good.

"What's with your face?"

I blinked in shock at the question. "What?" I asked, and my hands shot up to my cheeks. "Am I breaking out?"

"No. But these days, every time I see you, you're doing this weird thing with your face. It's like where your mouth makes a little boat."

I rolled my eyes and dropped my hands. "I'm pretty sure it's called a smile, Trist."

He gave me a peculiar look. "No, that can't be it. Because that would mean that my angsty little sister is actually having a good time at school."

"I am not angsty!" I said indignantly.

"Oh but you were. And now you're not. And that leads me to examine the variables in your life which might have led to this change. And all I see is Ben. Lots and lots of Ben."

"I'll have you know that I have a lot of great things going on in my life. Unlike some Turner siblings, I happen to find joy in life in more than just my romantic conquests."

"So Ben is your romantic conquest now? Do tell."

"Lies!" I shrieked immediately. "Lies and slander! You're twisting my words."

"Don't need any help from me," he grumbled. "You want soup, or what?"

"Tsch," I responded sarcastically. "Of course I want soup."

"So really, what's going on with you? You seem like a different kid than a few months ago." Tristam removed two bowls from the cupboard and started filling one with soup.

I shrugged, suddenly feeling very fidgety. "Not really. I mean, I can't think of any objective measure of change, or anything. I still hate strangers. But I guess that I'm at least somewhat more capable of interacting with them now. And I still have less friends than I have fingers on one hand." It hurt a little to admit, especially with all the nice thoughts I'd been having lately about how well I was progressing and how much happier and sweeter life was now. But essentially everything I was saying was true.

"No," Tristam denied. "Something's definitely different." He brought the bowls over to the table. Were it not for the smell of that broth, I probably would have cut the conversation short and retreated to the safety of my room. But I was a slave to my stomach, as always, so I followed him to the table. "You seem happy, Page."

I shrugged. "I guess. I mean…yeah. I'm happy." I thought about grasping for Ben as I flew through the air on the trampoline, and about the thrill of ditching the musical with him. I thought about how he'd been going out of his way to spend all his free time with me. And I thought about the feel of his hand around mine in the creek the day before. Suddenly I was smiling too much to eat my soup without it spilling back out of my mouth.

Tristam just laughed. "Well, I think you're wrong. Whatever it is, it's changing you. In a good way."

I shrugged it off and avoided making eye contact. I felt uncomfortable, self-conscious.

"Speaking of changing in a good way," Trist said, mercifully changing the topic, "I applied to a school."

I dropped my spoon into my bowl with a loud clatter and stared, dumb-founded, at my brother. "What? You did?"

"Yeah," Tristam said to his soup, but I could see the little grin he was trying to hide. "It's just community college. Nothing glamorous. But maybe later I can transfer to a four-year school. And…I got a job. At a bank."

I blinked, momentarily stunned. "W-wha? Whoa. Trist. That's…a lot. Oh my god."

He grinned, seemingly half-pained, half-pleased. He looked almost as embarrassed as proud. Maybe more.

"A bank?"

"Yeah. It's not exactly my dream job, but it's about as much money as I can make with no degree."

"Wow." I swallowed hard, feeling like the earth's rotation had sped up without me and I was about to go flying into outer space. "That's amazing. Congratulations."

He shrugged, and took a long swig of his water.

I cleared my throat a little. "Trist, this is all wonderful. But what changed? I mean, that's a lot of news at once."

"It's Ana. She's really been pushing me, and now with the proposal, it's just…it's time. I want to give her what she wants. I don't want her to marry some underachieving asshole, so…"

"Trist," I said softly. "That's not who you are."

He shrugged again, and I winced. I couldn't stand the idea that that's what Ana thought of him. And I couldn't stand him changing himself for someone so shallow. Or maybe I just couldn't stand him changing at all. "So when are you going to ask that nice girl to marry you?" I asked awkwardly.

He chuckled nervously. "Our eight month anniversary is next week, so I thought I would do it then."

Jesus. Eight months. I guessed that people had gotten engaged after less time, but to me it seemed like he was rushing headlong into making an extremely new relationship extremely permanent. It wasn't like him. I eyed him over my bowl of soup, wondering at his motives.

Was he rushing into it because he sensed that things were going badly between them? Like how idiotic teenage girls decide to get pregnant to tie down their boyfriends? Or was he just so head-over-heels nutty in love that he just couldn't bear to wait another eight months? Or…

"Trist?" I asked hesitantly.

The look in his eyes made me think he already knew what I was going to say.

"Are you maybe rushing a little because you hope…that dad…"

He cringed and for almost a full minute we sat in silence. "Is that stupid?" he asked in a meek voice. A voice I wasn't used to hearing from my big brother. "I mean, I want to marry her anyway, eventually. I just thought that maybe I could do it before…"

"No," I breathed automatically. "No, it's not stupid. I know he wants…" I trailed off. I didn't know what to say. I hadn't spoken to my father in months. I couldn't presume to know what he wanted. "He wants to see you happy."

"Well, I guess he has what he wants, then," he said hollowly. "A houseful of strangely happy children."

Right. Whether he knows it or not.

(…)

"So Andrew has been chasing after you pretty hard lately," Ben said conversationally. We were supposedly watching TV, but he insisted on checking over his math homework while we watched. It was incredible how he could throw out an assertion like that while elbow-deep in calculus.

"Is that what he's doing?" I grumbled, and fast-forwarded through a lengthy stream of commercials. Tivo is my one true love.

"You going to hook up with him?"

I was sitting on the floor with my back pressed to the couch, and Ben was lounging behind me with his homework on his lap. I had to twist to look up at him. I wrinkled my brow and gave him a glare. "Yeah, because I made this list of all of the things I would do if I somehow overcame my ridiculous inability to connect with other humans and, as it turns out, jumping your sketchy friend was right at the top."

Ben didn't look up at me, but he smiled and I think I even got half a laugh out of him. "You say that now but he probably won't stop until you give in. And eventually they all do." His eyes flickered over to me but quickly returned to his notebook.

The sentiment reminded me of Macy. I watched his fingers as he scribbled something on the math-filled page. "I can pretty much guarantee that I'm more stubborn than he is," I assured him, unsure of why exactly he needed assurance.

One corner of his mouth lifted and he flipped his page over nonchalantly. "Good to know." Suddenly he closed the notebook and tossed it aside on the couch. "Homecoming this weekend," he commented, and his normal, blasé tone was a little off.

I shrugged. "Yeah, I guess."

"Rachel and I broke up just before Homecoming. So…"

He looked pretty occupied watching the commercials flash by. I waited for him to continue but when he didn't I turned back around. I clicked play and brought my knees up to my chest. I wasn't sure what he wanted me to say. "Yeah, that's awkward timing," I commented lamely

"You have any thrilling plans for the weekend?" he asked, and I saw him fidgeting from the corner of my eye.

I snorted. "Do I ever? I think I've made up my mind to attempt to bake snickerdoodles, but that's about as far as I've gotten. And that definitely doesn't fall into the realm of 'thrilling.'"

"Well…what about Homecoming?"

I balanced the TV remote on my knee. Again with the Homecoming. What is the deal? It's like I was lacking the Homecoming-obsession gene that was active in all adolescents my age. "What about it?"

Ben sat up straighter and I spun in tiny increments to face him, carefully balancing the remote. I looked up at him but he was just sitting there, stubbornly looking away from me. "Would you want to go?"

"Would I want to?" I repeated. "Under what circumstance? Are you posing a hypothetical?"

Ben turned and stared at me. His face was completely impassive, as if he was waiting for a punch line. Seconds ticked by and I realized that I was missing something. I fidgeted. Still Ben said nothing. I started spinning the remote around its axis on my kneecap, trying to distract myself from the silence and Ben's intense and unfounded glare. "What?" I finally asked.

"Why are you being such a bitch?" Ben snapped.

I blinked a few times, shocked, as hurt began to seep in. I searched his eyes for some clue as to what the hell he was talking about. The remote tumbled to the floor. "W-what?"

Ben sighed and seemed to deflate. His posture went weak and he slumped back against the couch. "Oh. You're not. That's almost worse." He ran a hand through his hair and shoved himself to his feet. "Never mind," he grumbled.

I watched in bewilderment as he crossed my living room in a couple strides. He seemed to be leaving. I sprang to my feet and chased after him. "What? Wait, Ben, what was that?"

"That was you being a dense, oblivious idiot. I'll see you tomorrow." He reached my front door and within seconds he was gone and the house was empty around me.

I felt like some unknowable cosmic joke had been played on me. "What the hell just happened?" I asked the empty house.

The more I thought about it, the crazier my thoughts became, so I resigned myself to dense, oblivious idiocy and returned to my ever-faithful tivo.

(…)

I made a pass at a girl today and realized that the girl was so completely oblivious to my advances that she could not possibly have ever thought of me in that capacity at all. I shouldn't be surprised. This particular girl is socially denser than fucking lead. But she's not dumb, and she's not unemotional. Which means that it's simply how she feels about me.

Normally I wouldn't be bitching about this to a useless guidance counselor such as yourself, but all of this has gotten me thinking about how useless human interaction is, and about how hopeless it is to try to connect with people. And about how people aren't really worth connecting with in the first place. At the end of the day, they're more trouble than they're worth and you're left where you started, still trying to look out for number one, but now there's external reasons to feel shitty, in addition to the standard internal crappiness of the human condition.

So here's what I'm getting at. Page and I never got a straight answer from you. Why did you make us do this project? Even I have to admit that we were more compatible than we thought. But why do you care? Why do you care who we're friends with? What did you expect us to get from this stupid project?

Whatever it is, I don't think it's working.

(…)

Ben semi-avoided me the next day, and I was happy to give him his space. Whatever hormonal mysteries he was working through, I didn't think I was equipped to deal with them. Better to just sit this one out.

That being said, I can't say that I wasn't a little disappointed that night as I made myself dinner alone, and resigned myself to the fact that this would be a day with zero interaction with him at all. He hadn't even sat with me at lunch for what had become our daily sessions of SAT cramming.

I was distracted from my distress, however, when my phone rang.

I saw that the number was my mother's office, and braced myself. "'Ello?" I said, in my friendliest "let's not fight" tone.

"Page?" My mom called, almost yelling into the receiver.

"Yeah," I said, unsure if she was expecting someone else to pick up my cell phone. "What's up, mom?"

"Are you at home?"

"Yup. Just me and a quesadilla the size of my head."

She sighed, but held her tongue on the subject of my eating habits. It was much appreciated. "I need you to do me a favor."

Why am I not surprised? "What is it?"

"In my office, there's a huge stack of briefs on my desk. I need you to bring them to me at work."

I paused, for a moment considering the possibility that there was a large stack of underwear sitting on my mother's desk, before I realized that she meant legal briefs. I decided not to share that little gem of idiocy with her. "But don't you have the car?"

"So take your bike. It's barely two miles."

"Nooo," I moaned. My bike was a nightmare. A frigid, stiff, brittle hunk of metal that sat in the garage stewing in malevolence and rust and waiting for the next opportunity it got to throw me into a sewer ditch. It was cold and unwieldy and, in all probability, actually possessed by the devil. There's a reason behind my very rational fear of that bike, but that's a story for another day. "That evil machine hates me."

"Page, really, I don't have time for this."

I wanted to make a snappy comment about how it seemed to me that what she really didn't have time for was forgetting her important papers at home, but I refrained. I admitted defeat and told her I'd be there as soon as possible, with the briefs.

I found the papers easily enough; it was the only conspicuous pile in my mother's otherwise immaculate home office. I shoved them into my backpack and zipped it as I wandered out to the garage.

There it sat. All flaky, dark blue paint and hard plastic and malice. I thought it even looked a little hungry. For my blood, probably.

"Fuck that," I said aloud, and closed the garage door. And locked it. Just in case.

In favor of mechanized locomotion, I darted upstairs and changed into running clothes and shoes. I threw on my backpack and headed out. At first I was just happy to be running, as always, but the addition of approximately ten million sheets of paper in my backpack was throwing me off and making my back ache. But, being the ingenious innovator that I am, I flipped the backpack around and carried it like one of those big pregnancy belly simulators. Which at least made my back ache in the opposite direction, and made the rest of the run bearable. Even though it made me look like an enormous dork.

The working stiffs in the elevator gave me some weird looks, but I can't really blame them. You don't walk into a sleek and modern corporate office expecting to see an abnormally short teenage girl in running leggings wearing a backpack backwards. I tolerated their uncomfortable glances all the way up to the seventeenth floor, and marched into my mother's office.

She was on a call, and gave me the universal one-finger-up gesture of "I don't have time for you right now."

I silently deposited the stack of papers on her desk and was about to slip out without a word. Which I would have considered an unexpected success. But my mom finished her call just as I got my hand on the doorknob.

"Thanks for bringing those by," she said, as she started to rifle through them.

"Sure," I said awkwardly.

She glanced up, noticing the way I was edging toward the door again.

"Are you going to go see Ben?"

"Hrmm?" I mumbled incoherently. "No. Erm. Not today."

"But you do still see him? Do you two…hang out?" She said the phrase "hang out" tentatively, as if she wasn't sure if she was using the colloquialism properly. Anyone who said that I come from a family of nerds would not be lying.

I lifted one shoulder. "Yeah, pretty much every day."

"Really?" she said, and her surprise surprised me. "I assumed that since the project ended, you weren't seeing much of each other anymore."

"What do you mean? The project didn't end."

She stopped fiddling with her papers and actually made eye contact with me. "Oh? I just assumed. Since your counselor stopped calling. I thought it hadn't worked out."

"What? Juarez hasn't been calling?"

"No. He called once a week for a few weeks, but I haven't heard from him since."

I pondered through that, unsure of what this meant. Why wouldn't Mr. Juarez keep checking up on us? "I guess," I mumbled, thinking aloud, "that he just trusted that we were doing what we said we were." Or maybe he knew that Ben's mother's reports were all bullshit anyway.

"Well, I'm glad to hear it. Ben seems like a nice young man."

It was hard not to scoff. Ben was a lot of things, but I'm not sure I would describe him as a nice young man. "He's…" I trailed off, unsure of what to say.

"Does that mean that you're still a peer mediator?" mom asked suddenly, and the interest in her tone made me wary.

"Yeah. I actually had a mediation last week."

"That's great," mom said, with more enthusiasm than I'd heard from her in a long time. Well, positive enthusiasm, anyway. "That will look good on your college resume." Her words were pointed. I got the message. This was about as subtle as my mom got.

"Yeah," I sighed. "Oh, I guess I forgot to tell you. Apparently, I'm taking the SAT next week."

"What?" she said sharply. "Since when?"

"Since last week. Ben's been helping me study. Well, 'helping' is a word that connotes some level of kindness. He's been more like a drill sergeant than a nurturer."

"Well that's great, Page!" My mother's face lit up. The little wrinkles around her eyes made me realize that I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen her smile. And that thought made me really sad. But now she almost glowed. "I think that's fantastic."

"We'll see. It won't be so fantastic if the scores say I have the intellect of a manatee."

Mom pursed her lips together in a more-familiar frustrated expression. "You're a bright girl, Page. You just haven't applied yourself to the admissions process. But I'm thrilled that you're taking the SAT."

Thrilled. Sure. Whoopee. I just shrugged again and shifted towards the door.

"Page," she said suddenly, as if she'd almost forgotten.

I looked up, chagrined to be caught in my attempted exit. "Hmm?"

"Do you want to do something together tomorrow? I'll take you shopping."

My jaw would have hit the floor if it wasn't attached to the rest of my head. Was this happening? Surely I would snap out of it and my mom would be degrading me again and railing me about spending time with my father and my evident lack of humanity. "Y-yeah," I stammered, before I'd consciously formulated a response. "Sure."

"Great," she said, and she sounded relieved. I guessed this was as weird for her as it was for me. "Great," she repeated. "Tomorrow morning, then."

I agreed, and slipped out of her office before any more cracks could form in the fabric of reality.

I was halfway back to my house, doing a zombie-shuffle instead of my intended jog, when I remembered what my mom had told me about Mr. Juarez.

I pulled my phone out of the little front pocket of my backpack and called Ben.

He answered on the sixth ring, just when I'd been sure it would go to voicemail.

"Hey," he said, but I could barely hear him over the noise in the background.

"Hello?" I called. There was yelling and music and the layering of multiple voices and crashes and other unidentifiable noises all on top of each other.

"What's up?" he called.

"Are you in a warzone?" I yelled.

"Hold on."

I waited for half a minute, listening as the din slowly faded.

"Can you hear me now?" he asked.

"Much better."

"So what's up?"

"Just a shocking bit of intelligence gleaned from behind enemy lines. I was talking to my mom today, and apparently Juarez hasn't been calling our parents to check up on us at all. Not for weeks."

"Huh," he said, without the level of intrigue I'd expected.

"Doesn't this boggle your mind? I mean, Juarez was so cutthroat about us doing this assignment with one-hundred percent compliance, but now he doesn't even check up on us once a week? What does that mean?"

"It probably just means that Juarez's fingers got too fat to dial a phone. I mean, he still collects our journals, so I don't think he's forgotten about the assignment, or somehow developed a deep-seated trust in us."

I felt so discouraged. Deflated. "Yeah. I guess you're right."

"I'm always right." he responded automatically.

I ignored that. "So what are you doing? Where are you?"

"Some Homecoming pre-party. I thought it was pretty fucking stupid, getting drunk at seven o'clock, but Nicole wanted to go. It's getting kind of crazy. I'm going to be fucking pissed if I end up dragging someone's ass to the emergency room because they can't hold their alcohol."

My skin went cold. I was about to ask who the fuck Nicole was, but stopped myself at the last second by biting my tongue. Hard.

I let silence linger for a few seconds. "Well have fun," I said finally. "At Homecoming. With…whoever that person is." Shit. I shouldn't have said that.

"Yeah," he mumbled, not sounding all that much more enthusiastic about it than I felt. "What are you doing tonight?"

"Oh, friends. Things. Plans. You know." Lies. Blatant and unconvincing lies.

He laughed, and I got the feeling that it was more at me than with me. "Have fun with your plans, then."

"Yep. Plans."

He hesitated. "Okay. Bye."

I wanted to say, "I hope Nicole doesn't put out at all. And if she does, I hope she's really bad at it. I hope that her breath smells like sardines and her vagina is lined with sandpaper." But instead, I just said "Yep," again and hung up.

Fuck my life.

I walked home in a funk, hating that conversation, but hating the shitty, lonely night in front of me even more. Maybe I would call Dee. Maybe we could actually have fun together without her mooning over her ex.

But all thoughts of Dee vanished when I rounded the corner into my neighborhood and saw that there was someone sitting on my front porch. I paused, literally stopping in my tracks. Who the hell was that? What if it was some stranger, waiting to kidnap me? What if it was one half of a robbery team, and as soon as he saw me, he would alert his buddy inside the house and they would take off with all my stuff?

But the longer I stood there, the more I became convinced that, despite all logic and reason, the figure sitting on my step was Andrew.

I wasn't sure if that was a more or less attractive option than the kidnapper theory.

I jogged up to my house and, sure enough, Andrew stood up to greet me. And not only that, but he was wearing black slacks and a white button-down and a tie. Like, a literal tie. Around his neck. It was blue. Up was down. Down was up. The world no longer made any kind of sense. If randomness took on physical form, it would look like my life.

"Wha?" I said, the very picture of articulation.

"Hey," he said happily. "Sorry. I came by, but no one was here. So I just thought I'd wait."

Actually Nina, my dad's nurse, was probably there. But I wasn't about to correct him. "What's up?" I asked warily.

"Come to Homecoming with me."

Oy vey. This again. "Andrew-"

"No, hear me out," he insisted. "I'm not some evil fiend, despite what you may think. I just want to go with you to Homecoming. That is all. Come out with me. It'll be fun."

For a moment I actually considered it. If I went with him, would Ben see us together? Would he care? Would he feel anything at all if he saw me dancing with his friend? Despite the fact that no force of nature on this planet could get me to dance in public sober. But all those bitter thoughts of turnabout and the inflicting of jealousy was shattered when I realized that if Ben could see me, it would mean that I could see him. And his date. And all of their activities. And I'd probably have to be carried out of the school dance in a bodybag, because I would die of jealousy.

"I hate to be the bad guy," I said, "and I really do feel bad turning you down over and over, but I just can't. I'm sorry. Please, please just let it go."

He sighed, and his face soured. "Whatever." And although I felt intensely guilty, I thought with a tiny glimmer of hope that maybe that would be the last I saw of Andrew. "Well, if you're not going to Homecoming, do you want to just hang out?"

"Guh?"

"I mean, do you have other plans?"

I hesitated a split second too long but still couldn't think of a convincing lie. "No, not really."

"Well, do you want to just watch a movie or something?"

"Uh…well, my friend Dee is coming over. Just…uh…also for movies. And…general hanging out." I wanted, badly, to bury my face in my hands, but somehow resisted.

"Cool, I'd love to meet her."

I had nothing to say to that. And since I couldn't think fast enough on my feet, I ended up inviting Andrew in and excusing myself to the bathroom to make a very fast and very frantic SOS call to Dee, who promised to come over as soon as possible. Tristam was out, probably at Ana's for the night. Thank god. I never would have heard the end of it if he was here to see that I had not one but two different boys visiting me at the house now.

Andrew and I busied ourselves picking a movie to watch until Dee arrived, which was mercifully soon. Bless her.

We settled on the couch with a vast array of snack foods, covering the essential sweet-to-salty spectrum, and, my hand to god, we actually had a really good time. I made everyone quesadillas. We laughed at the movie and made snarky comments about the acting and the plotholes and, at one point, probably set a world record for three people simultaneously throwing M&Ms in the air and catching them in their mouths.

It was a good time. And if maybe Andrew seemed to get just a few inches closer to me on the couch with each passing hour, then it was probably just because of the relaxed atmosphere. And if his hand landed on the couch next to my leg, it was probably an accident. And if, at two in the morning, he still seemed reluctant to leave…well, we can just blame that one on the sparkling pleasure of being in my company.

Right?

(…)

Is it just me, or is avocado basically the best thing in the world? You put it on frigging anything (seriously, anything - sushi, a sandwich, an eggroll, an omelet) and all of a sudden you're eating the world's most delicious anything ever. It's like pixie dust in the form of an ugly, slimy fruit. It's magic. Why don't people talk about this more?

I had avocado in my quesadillas tonight. It was so good, it almost made me cry.

(…)

I anxiously drummed the fingers of one hand on my knee while the other held the phone up to my ear. I bit my lip.

"Emily Turner," my mother asserted in greeting.

"Hi mom," I said meekly.

"Page?" she said, obviously a little surprised.

I felt something go sour in my stomach. She'd forgotten. "Um," I stammered, thrown. "It's eleven o'clock. Are we still going shopping this morning?" It wasn't unusual for my mom to go into the office on a Saturday. But she'd said she wanted to go shopping in the morning. And the morning was pretty much over.

She was silent for just a second too long, before saying, "Of course. I just got caught up with some last-minute things at work. I'll be home soon."

I pursed my lips together. "Okay. Bye."

She hung up and I stared at the phone warily.

Why was I upset about this? I didn't even want to hang out with my mom. Spending time with her only ever resulted in ulcer-worthy guilt trips and uninvited lectures. I should count myself lucky if she bailed on me. It was a bullet dodged.

So why did that uncomfortable feeling in my stomach spread up through my chest?

I shook it off and went downstairs to fix myself some lunch. The kitchen was woefully low on eligible meal ideas. I puttered around for a while before I settled on a boring turkey sandwich, convincing myself that if my mom did get around to taking me to the mall, I'd talk her into buying me a smoothie. I turned on the TV, literally waiting by the phone, as pathetic as that is.

It was two o'clock before my mom called.

"It looks like I'm stuck here at the office, Page," she said. "Maybe some other time."

"Okay, mom," I replied automatically.

There was a long pause before my mom forced herself to say, "I'm sorry."

"No problem," I said, half meaning it and half really not. "Bye."

I lowered the phone and considered my options. I was tempted to go back to bed and pretend that the existence of the outside world had all just been a terrible dream. But I had my shopping mojo going, and now I wanted to follow through.

I called Macy, but the thing that answered her phone sounded more like a swamp monster than my friend. "Mmuh?" she moaned.

"Macy? Did I wake you up?"

"Yes," she groaned, and hung up on me.

I pursed my lips to one side, for a moment contemplating mercy. Nope. I called her again, and she sounded a little more intelligible when she picked up this time. "What the fuck do you want, hoe?"

"Jeez, you are grumpy today."

"I'm in hell. Leave me alone."

"I can't!" I said quickly, before she could hang up on me again. "We have to go shopping!"

This caught her interest. "Shopping?" she repeated.

"Yep. Preceded by Starbucks. My treat."

Macy groaned again. "Pick me up in half an hour."

I grinned and called Dee. She was much more cheerful (and coherent), and pretty soon Dee was picking me up in her dad's old station wagon.

"Something is wrong with Macy," I warned her as we drove to pick up our red-headed companion.

"Something more than usual?"

I laughed and described the monstrous sounds Macy had made when I called her.

The "something wrong" turned out to be a massive hangover. Macy came out of her house wearing her comfiest oversized sweater and sunglasses almost as big as her head. She fell into the backseat of Dee's car and buried her face in her hands.

"Have fun last night?" Dee asked cheerfully.

"It was disaster. I drank so much," Macy complained. "But I looked awesome, and I got to second base with Nathan Fillmore before I threw up everywhere and he took me home."

"Classy," Dee teased.

Macy cleared her throat, and sat up. She was looking at me. "You really didn't go," she said, and the disbelief in her voice was a little confusing.

I raised an eyebrow. "Yeah. I told you I didn't want to go."

"But Ben was there. And he had a date."

I turned around and became too absorbed in watching the passing cars to make eye contact with Macy again. "So?"

"So why didn't you-"

"I'm going to get a milkshake the size of my face," I interrupted. "And I'm thinking that a soft pretzel sounds pretty awesome."

"Maybe we should stick to shoe shopping," Dee said. "I'm having kind of a fat day. And that will free us up in the oversized-pretzel department."

"Solid plan." Good old Dee. Always good for a change of topic.

But Macy would not be deterred, despite our best efforts. "Don't you want to hear about the dance? I've got so much dirt on Ben, the cheating bastard."

"Ben was not cheating," I groaned. "How many times do I have to tell you that we're not together before you believe me?"

"Right, right, that's why you always do homework together, and you hang out every single day after school, and you have big impassioned fights."

"We have big, impassioned fights because drama follows Ben like a fucking duckling."

"That, or the sexual tension."

"Macy!"

"What? It had to be said."

"It didn't, really," I grumbled, and tried not to include Ben and sex in the same thought.

"Anyway, if I was you I would be dying to hear about his Homecoming exploits. Don't you want to know?"

"That is the last thing in the entire world that I want to know," I promised. "The very last. And if you give me one single unwanted detail, I'm going to tell you that you look fat in everything you try on today. And maybe you'll know that I'm only saying it in retribution. But there will always be a splinter of doubt."

Macy stared at me in the rearview mirror, aghast. "You wouldn't."

"Oh, but I would. Whole shopping trip, down the drain."

"Fine," she grumbled dejectedly.

I felt pretty pleased with my victory, but I paid for it in turn. There are few things Macy hates worse than being denied the chance to spread gossip. And it made her even crankier than she had been.

We walked, arm in arm, into the first department store and as soon as Macy saw the big red signs advertising their seasonal sale, she started bitching. "Didn't they have the biggest sale of the season last month? How can one season have two biggest sales? Do they know what the word 'biggest' means?"

"Maybe they tied," Dee suggested helpfully.

"A shopping 'season' is a completely arbitrary term," I supplied helpfully. "One season could be half an hour long, if they wanted, and they'd still make big, obnoxious signs about it and the sales ladies would still cram their intrusive services down your throat."

Macy's crankiness, although abrasive, ended up being a really good distraction from Ben and from Homecoming and from my mom bailing on me. And in the end, I walked away with a truly enormous smoothie and a new dress.

So sometimes there really is a silver lining.

(…)

The cupcake stared up at me. It was at the peak of its softness. I could tell just by looking at it. It called to me. I could almost hear its sugary little voice, crying to me from the depths of its sweet, sweet icing. What's that, little cupcake? You want me to show you to a nice new home in my stomach? Well, who am I to refuse a cupcake so pretty and delicious? I reached out for it.

"Don't touch that. I'm saving it."

I withdrew my hand, as if pulling it back from a hot stovetop. How the hell had he known? He hadn't even turned around.

I narrowed my eyes at him, but he stayed focused on the papers on the table in front of him. I contemplated the cupcake. It was just sitting there on its tiny paper plate, innocently resting on my kitchen counter, ten feet away from where Ben worked at the kitchen table with his back to me. He'd gotten it in his last class of the day, when some generous asshole had brought cupcakes for the whole class, to celebrate his birthday. So really, Ben didn't have any more right to it than I did. He didn't earn it. He didn't pay for it. He was just in the right place at the right time. I edged closer to it.

"Page, seriously, I am going to eat it. Leave it alone."

"But it's been sitting there all afternoon!" I cried. "This is injustice! Didn't anyone teach you that you have a finite amount of time to eat cupcakes before they become public domain? It's called The Cupcake Rule. And everybody who engages in civilized, cupcake-eating society knows about it."

Ben sighed and turned around. "You remember that time when you were four, and your brother told you that if you ate things with eggs in them, the eggs would hatch inside your stomach and chickens would eat you from the inside out? And, because you were a particularly stupid four-year-old, you believed him?"

I nodded solemnly, ignoring the insult. Why the hell had I told him that story? "I didn't realize until I was eight that he just said it so that I wouldn't eat the brownies mom made for his birthday party."

"Right," Ben agreed. "Well The Cupcake Rule is exactly the same. It's something your brother told you so that he could eat your cupcakes."

"It's not," I denied. "I've seen The Cupcake Rule in action. As soon as you turn your back on a cupcake, it's fair game. A cupcake, much like a great wealth of gold or jewels, requires constant vigilance. It's use it or lose it. Eat it or beat it. Digest it or divest of it. Consume it or-"

"You are such a nerd, I can't even talk to you," he interrupted, and went back to studying. "Don't eat my cupcake."

I plopped back into the chair across from him, cupcake-less, and Ben slid the flash cards toward me. He'd actually hand-made them for me. There were about sixty of them, and each represented a word he felt I could not conceivably live another day of my wretched life without knowing.

Ben's efforts to help me ace the SAT were tireless on his part and tiring on mine. I was a pretty good student, but I wasn't accustomed to the hardcore study habits of Ben Whiteside.

I flipped through the cards. Word after unfamiliar word faced me. I was fairly certain that he'd slipped a few made-up words in there for his sick, twisted amusement. Abrogate? Abstemious? Plaudit? That last one didn't even sound real.

"This is so useless," I groused. "There's absolutely no reason for me to know these words."

"Sure there is," Ben contradicted, and lifted his arms high above his head in his I'm-officially-tired-of-studying stretch. "For example, I can tell you that I think you're winsome and pulchritudinous, and you have no idea whether or not I'm insulting you because you're too indolent to study."

"Those words weren't on my list," I grumbled and halfheartedly threw a few cards at him. "…But they sound bad."

Ben laughed and stood. "Got anything to eat?"

"Almost never."

"I'm starving," Ben informed me, and helped himself to the contents of my refrigerator. I wanted to make a comment about his cupcake, but I restrained myself. This concept of saving food for later was beyond me. "So seriously, Page, why didn't you start gearing up for college before this? Why did you put everything off?"

I pursed my lips to one side and tried to think of a convenient lie. But nothing came. So I continued on our recent vein of moderately-inappropriate truths. "It just didn't seem like it was a good time for it." It was vague and noncommittal, but I knew it would be all Ben needed to put the pieces together.

For a few seconds he continued to rummage through my fridge, but then he paused and met my eyes. "Your dad," he surmised.

I settled back in my chair and pulled my legs up to my chest. I tried to be casual as I looked away.

"You were giving yourself time for your life to fall apart."

I thought that would end the conversation. With any normal person, that would be all that needed to be said for them to understand, and to leave it alone. But Ben was no normal person, and I constantly underestimated his stubbornness.

"Page, that's fucked up!"

I blinked in surprise at his uncouth assessment.

"Maybe the world will end when your dad dies but maybe it won't. At least give yourself a chance to have a life after he's gone. Don't just lie down in the grave beside him."

No one had ever spoken to me so bluntly about my father's impending death. No one had ever even called it that. No one had called me out on my issues. And it wasn't Ben's place to start. It made me furious.

"Fuck you, Ben. You may be a super genius or what the fuck ever but you don't understand me."

Ben's eyes went wide in enraged shock. "Fuck me?" he demanded, in a tone that made me want to curl up and surrender. He slammed the fridge shut and it rocked a little from the force. "I'm apparently the only one who gives a shit about you. I'm the only one who cares if your future dies with your father. Forgive me if I'm not willing to be meek and proprietary and dance around the issue just so that we don't have to talk about a touchy subject."

"That touchy subject is my father," I said grimly, "and it's my future, not yours. And you can't bully me into changing my mind. Did you ever think for even a second that maybe you really don't understand what my life is like? Maybe you just can't understand what it's like to actually want your parents to stay alive."

Ben's expression soured.

I'd known it was a low blow the second the words left my lips. But there was no taking it back now. I watched his jaw tense and waited with baited breath for whatever would come next.

"Let's just call this what it is," he said after a long moment. "You're not being pragmatic or anticipating the future. You're not bringing an umbrella because rain is in the forecast. You're just being masochistic. You hate yourself for surviving when he can't. You've decided that if he can't have a future, then neither can you."

It was hard to breathe. I almost expected to literally see red. "Get out," I said coldly.

He sighed and the aggressive expression on his face faded into a calm frustration. He came closer and started to say something but I cut him off.

"I'm serious. Get out of my house."

He groaned and flopped down in the seat next to me. I started to get up but he stopped me with just a hand on my shoulder. "Can't we just have a friendly argument without it exploding into something damaging?"

"That was the farthest thing from friendly."

"Sorry if I'm the only one in your life who cares about you enough to tell you the truth. Sorry if I want your life to be more than an empty sacrifice."

"You don't get to decide what I do with my life."

"Obviously, because if I did, then the matter would be settled and you'd be going off to college with me and we wouldn't be having this stupid argument."

I wouldn't understand until later exactly what it was in that sentence that touched me so much, but I felt undeniably pacified. And strangely warm and happy. "You started it," I said with all the sourness I could muster, which wasn't all that much.

"And I'd start it again."

"Please don't." To my disappointment, I just couldn't be angry anymore. "You're an ass," I said emptily.

"So I've been told."

(…)

I don't have very many memories of my grandparents. My dad's parents, that is; I never knew my mom's. When I was a kid, I would see them every once in a while, and they would take me out for ice cream and shit like that. They hated my dad, their own son, but I guess they felt responsible for what a horrible piece of shit he is, and all the awful crap he did to me and my mom. They usually just came by and picked me up, maybe once a month, and took me to get pizza or to an aquarium or other stereotypical childhood activities. But one time was different. I was nine or ten. They picked me up after dinner and we drove for hours. I asked where we were going, but all they would say was that it was a surprise. It was the first time I'd ever been out of the city. I remember thinking how foreign and ridiculous the countryside looked. How empty.

Eventually we came to the right piece of nowhere and turned onto a dirt road. Our destination was a flat, empty plot of land. They took out a blanket and cookies and an old telescope. There was a meteor shower that night, and they spent hours telling me about the names of stars and where they were and how they moved across the sky. The night was black as ink and the stars were falling out of the sky but I spent most of the night staring up at the moon, gigantic in the darkness, brighter than I'd ever seen it. And I couldn't stop thinking about how sad it looked.

I've never been able to shake that association. The moon just seems lonely. The stars are billions of miles away, and we have no idea what kind of life they might support or who else might be looking at them. But the moon is very simply a big, desolate rock, perpetually falling towards earth, but always missing, spinning forever around us while we take it for granted.

Shit. I've got to lighten up on the weed. It's making me sentimental.

Anyway, that was the last time I ever saw them. They disappeared after that. At first I wondered where they'd gone. I thought maybe my dad had actually killed them. But looking back, that seems unlikely. Just the illogical assumptions of a child trying to make sense of his shitty life. More likely, they had just had enough of my father, and when they finally accepted that they didn't like me much more than they liked him, they split. And I can't blame them.

I got into another fight with my dad tonight. It was bad. And I don't know why, but it made me think of them. I wonder where they are now.

(…)

(…)

A/N: I was particularly proud of "digest it or divest of it"

Hope you enjoyed chapter 18! Please review! The next chapter brings super extra drama, guaranteed, and a return of Ben the Asshole. Admit it. You missed him.

The end of this chapter marked page 199 of Evolution, all together. Can you believe it? Think of how many productive things I could have done with my life if I'd never started this story! Worth it. Thanks for reading!

Review responses:

Mustangchic: Dream sequences are some of my favorite things to write. I pretty much just think of a metaphor for what's going on inside their messed up little heads and then consider myself really clever. Thanks so much for your review!

Kat: No I love you more! Poor Ben indeed. Page is kind of an idiot. In a good way. …Hopefully. Hope you like the chapter. Lots of 3!

Nalene: Ha! As amazing as Call Me Maybe is, I feel pretty strongly that that's not how life works. So I'm really glad you like my taking-it-slow-even-though-it's-really-super-aggravating approach. Your review totally made my day. Thanks so much!

Mylittleprincess: Thanks so much!

InSuspense: Sorry to make you go through so much checking in vain. But updating once a month is actually really good for me, sadly enough. Hope you like it!

Hello: Your wish is my command!

OnePromise: First of all, no one has ever called this a "book" before and reading that kind of made my ego swell up like a balloon. So thanks for that. And as weird as this is, I kind of feel like I'm stalking Page sometimes. And then I feel kind of like a creeper. Especially for those kissing scenes you were talking about. Spoiler As always, thanks for the review!