There was a ringing in my ears, a pounding in my skull, and a sting in my throat. I barked a hoarse cough and decided that I really should have worn a jacket over my shirt.
Lights were being shut off in all the stores on the street, and I still just sat silently and solitarily on the curb. I blew on my hands and rubbed them together; my dad must have forgotten about me. Again. I shouldn't have been surprised though. This would only be the third time this week.
Soft footsteps suddenly came to my attention and I swiveled around, hair smacking my face violently, to gaze upon my unexpected company.
"Hey," my co-worker and classmate, Ben, said mildly as he took a seat next to me.
Daunted by his closeness, I shifted slightly away. "Hey," I repeated, frowning as I saw the air puff out of my mouth in a cloud of white. Oh yes, I really did regret not wearing a jacket.
"Why are you still out here? Didn't your shift end fifteen minutes ago?" he asked, staring at me inquisitively.
"Yeah," I mumbled, scratching my arm nervously. I usually was not that shy of a person, or at least not around people I know pretty well. However, Ben was an exception. This probably was a result of developing a crush on him. In my defense though: it was not my fault.
As my one best friend Andy says, "You just can't help these things, babe. You just gotta suck it up and deal with it." She really does have her eloquent moments, I assure you.
He continued to look at me expectantly, so I sighed and expounded, "My dad probably forgot to pick me up, but he usually has his cell phone off around now, so I don't really have much of a choice but to wait for him."
"There's no other way you can reach him?" Ben asked, furrowing his eyebrows.
I shrugged and shook my bangs away from my face, "Unfortunately, no. But don't worry about me, kid. This is the third time this week; I'm used to it by now."
And there I go again. Always adding unnecessary bite to my words, being sarcastic, snapping or poking fun at him for no reason, or sometimes just ignoring him. Andy would always point out in amusement how crushes made me act like an elementary school boy; it's a sad and sorry truth.
Ben rolled his eyes and put on a garish falsetto, "Well, how could I not worry about you, sweetie? You're just soooo cute!"
I cringed at the unpleasant noise, but I felt my stomach churning restlessly despite how idiotic he was acting. Annoyed, I berated myself mentally, 'He doesn't even look attractive when he's doing stuff like that, man. Stop being stupid.'
He caught my grimace, which was both because of how ugly the sound he just made was and because of my warring thoughts, and he let out a laugh.
I grunted in response and swatted at his arm before quickly withdrawing and huddling into myself. "Damn, it's freezing," I growled irritably, both at the cold and at how much of an imbecile I was being.
He frowned as he glanced at my bare arms, which I instantly started to rub under his inspection. "Aren't you cold?" he questioned, nodding pointedly at my goosebumps.
"Well, no, I'm all cozy and warm," I snapped, then softening my voice slightly (and only slightly), I continued, "Did you not just hear me complain about how freezing it is?"
Ben laughed awkwardly at asking a question with such an obvious answer and rubbed his neck sheepishly, "Hah, sorry. That was a stupid question."
I waved off his unnecessary apology and replied with an easy, "No worries."
I really did feel bad for this kid, having me crushing on him. It makes me wonder why he still talked to me at all. I act mean towards him and impolite... Why does he even initiate conversations with me? This thought awakened butterflies in my belly and, try as I might to quench the feeling and the rush of "what if's" swarming my mind, both of them refused to die.
"Hey," Ben spoke up after a moment of silence, shocking me back to life. I probably would have blushed a rosy red if my skin wasn't dark. But, I did feel my cheeks warming up, so I guess I really was flushing pink under my yellow facade.
I shot him an odd look and returned warily, "Hey...?"
"I could give you my hoodie; I'm not really cold anyway," he suggested.
"Would you really do that?" I asked gratefully, coughing a bit as I focused on talking to him without looking at the ground.
He pulled a face and scooted away a little, and I ignored the sense of disappointment lurking in the back of my head. "Nah, I change my mind. I don't want you coughing all over it."
My head immediately snapped back up and I sent him a glare and a swift punch as I threatened, "You will give me your jacket, or you will get coal for Christmas."
Ben blinked at me in surprise before erupting into hysterics. Shoulders shaking, he finally said after a couple of minutes once he was calm, "Oh my God, I can't believe you just sounded so vicious...while demanding that I give you my jacket and trying to intimidate me by saying that I'd get coal for Christmas."
Apparently saying it out loud made the situation all the more hilarious, and he suffered another fit of chuckles. "Oh no, I don't think I could bear having coal for Christmas. Take my jacket. Quick!" he mocked.
"Oh, shut up," I muttered embarrassedly, taking his hoodie and struggling to put it on as a result of being so flustered.
Ben didn't bother to hide his laughter at my expense but, before I could snap at him to shut his trap, I felt his hand on my shoulder as he attempted to assist me with donning his sweatshirt.
Instantly becoming tense, I could only sit stiffly as his fingers brushed mine as he guided my hands and arms into the sleeves. I gulped nervously and cleared my throat when I still felt him behind me after the hoodie was safely on.
He rushed back to his former spot, and I did not hesitate to kick myself in the ass for being so stupid and ruining a potential moment. As my mind began forming visions of what exactly could have happened, I bit my lip and delivered an even harsher kick.
We were silent for a few more moments. I had no idea what to say what with those racing, crazing "what if's" again. And I was too scared and too caught up in my own thoughts to even consider why Ben was keeping silent, too.
Eventually he piped up again and flashed me a small smile, as the silence was becoming steadily more awkward, "Comfortable?"
I burrowed more into the hood of his sweatshirt to hide my own giddy smile. 'I think I just may steal this...', I thought. It was incredibly warm and toasty for so light of a garment, but the main reason behind me wanting to pilfer his hoodie was because of its scent. It smelled just like Ben, a musky sort of natural appeal, with a hint of an unfamiliar deodorant or cologne of some kind.
Snuggling deeper into its warmth and inhaling an even bigger whiff, I beamed as I thought, 'This feels so intimate, almost as if I'm his girlfriend or something.' I groaned at my wandering, dreamy, betraying mind.
Then I heard, "...Was that a good groan or a bad groan?"
And I remembered who I was with and threw my head back to glance at the sky and mouth 'Why me?'
Not even thinking about it, I glared and snapped, "Bad. You stink. Like poop."
He chuckled in shock again and shook his head, "Ouch."
I felt bad for telling such a horrible and harsh lie and quickly amended with, "Uh, joke. You actually smell rather tasty."
At this, I had to refrain from smacking my own forehead. 'Tasty?!'
He laughed again, and I would have relished at the fact that it was I who was making him laugh, except for the matter of what I had said to make him laugh weighing me down.
"Tasty, huh?" he said after a while, "Wow, ah, hm... I don't think I've ever gotten that before."
"I was at a loss for a fitting adjective," I mumbled lamely.
He grinned and shook his head, "No, it's cool. I'm very glad to know that you find me tasty-smelling."
"Well," I said dryly, "that's a relief."
He nodded exuberantly, and I rolled my eyes.
"Freak," I coughed.
"Hey, I'm going to take my hoodie back if you're just going to get your germs all over it," he warned.
I pulled back and wrapped his sweatshirt more tightly around myself and yelped, "No!"
He raised an eyebrow, as well as his hands, almost as if in surrender, "Whoa. Getting a little attached to it, are we?"
"Mine," I said childishly, smiling at him innocently.
He shook his head in amusement but said nothing to stake claim over his hoodie.
I took out my phone to check the time, and my eyes bulged at seeing that it had already been twenty minutes since Ben had come outside to sit with me.
"Let me see your phone," he said as I was about to put it back, grabbing it from my hand before I could even verbalize my consent.
I paused as I heard him pressing random buttons and drawled sarcastically, "Oh, yes, Ben, go ahead and look through all my contacts and messages and pictures and whatnot. I don't mind at all."
He looked up to grin at me before returning to whatever he was doing with my phone.
"Oh," I said at that thought, "And my phone's name is Maxwell. Just thought I'd let you know."
"Maxwell," he murmured distractedly, not glancing up from said phone.
I leaned over to try and peek at the screen. "What are you doing?" I asked suspiciously.
Ben tilted it so the content he was viewing evaded my vision; he smiled guilelessly up at me for a second (but only a second) before proceeding with whatever he was doing with my phone.
After a moment of a couple more fruitless attempts, I started at the sound of ringing.
"Ben, what are you doing?" I yelled, snatching my phone back and staring hard at the screen.
It read, "Calling... Benjamin!" Blinking in bemusement, it took a couple of seconds for what Ben had done to sink in.
Rolling my eyes, I handed my phone back to him and sighed, "You scared me for a second. I thought you were just calling some random person."
"No, of course not, I just gave you my number since I knew you were dying to ask," he joked.
I laughed shortly after a pause, in which I actually took his words to heart before I realized that he wasn't serious.
He cocked his head to the side and inquired curiously, "So if your phone's name is Maxwell, what's your laptop's name? You did say that you just got a MacBook, right?"
I swelled at the fact that he remembered something that I had said, "Yeah, I did. I even got a student discount since our Spanish class is Dual Enrollment." I trailed off, "I actually have not been able to name him yet. But I was thinking something along the lines of Sherman, Dirk, Sheldon, Wilbur, or Conrad..."
"You should name him Mr. T. Or wait, no... Captain Apple," he suggested seriously, but the corner of his mouth twitched upwards and betrayed his mirth.
"Captain Conrad Apple?" I compromised, "He'd need a first name, you know. And I think Captain Conrad goes pretty nicely together. Alliteration, anyone?"
He snorted at my lame joke, "You're a nerd."
My mouth opened to protest before I considered what he had said, "Eh, true."
"Captain Conrad Apple... When do I get to meet my kid?"
I choked on air, "What?"
"Well, I did just come up with half of his name, so wouldn't that make me his daddy?" Ben rationalized, eyes twinkling.
"Yeah, but I came up with the other half. So if you want to look at it that way, it's our child," I said slowly, trying to calm my fast-beating heart.
"All right, when do I get to see our darling boy?" he questioned, using another unpleasant yet humorous voice.
"When you stop talking like that," I answered sardonically.
"You know you like it," he went on in the same voice, nudging my side and raising his eyebrows suggestively.
I burst into laughter and jumped as my phone began to ring.
"Hello?" I asked, still silently laughing, into the phone.
"Hello? Hello?" my dad shouted on the other line.
"Yeah, Dad, I'm here," I responded.
"Oh. I'm stuck in traffic right now. There was a car accident on the highway," my dad apologized.
"All right. I'm just waiting outside the store," I informed him, secretly happy that he hadn't forgotten about me.
"Are you waiting outside there in the cold, in the dark, all by yourself?" he demanded.
"No, dad," I said, "Ben's here to keep me company."
"Oh, okay," it sounded as if he was about to ask who exactly Ben was but he instead went on with "Okay, you're breaking up. I'm going to go now; I'll be there soon. Bye. Love you."
"Love you too, daddy," I told him, hanging up Maxwell and sticking him in my purse.
Ben piped up as soon as I put down my bag again, "What did he say?"
I stretched my arms up above my head and yawned then replied, "He said that he was stuck in traffic."
"Hm," Ben mumbled, paused then questioned, "Does he work far away from here?"
I nodded and shrugged, "Yeah, but he's usually coming back home around this time anyway, and my mom is usually sleeping around now since she works later at night."
He paused again then ventured, "You know, if you tell me your address I could probably give you rides home occasionally."
"Really?" I asked, squeaking somewhat, then bowed my head slightly and let my bangs fall over my face to hide my embarrassment. "You'd do that?"
"Yeah, why not?" he said easily, leaning back on his hands.
I considered it for a moment before warning him, "I'll have to run it through my dad, though. And he's probably going to want to grill you with his own version of the Inquisition."
Ben chuckled, albeit slightly nervously then responded with something that made my breath hitch, "Well, while he's grilling me on driving you, maybe I should just ask you out on a date now, huh?"
I couldn't look at him and I let out a high-pitched, awkward giggle. 'Why was he torturing me in such a way?' , I thought miserably to myself. I could feel his eyes staring at my profile, which my bangs were now hiding.
"That wasn't a joke," he said, voice serious for once.
There was no way to run, nowhere to hide, and I was stunned speechless. What could I possibly to say to that?
Ben scratched the back of his neck roughly, irritatedly, "You could say something right about now." The frustration was obvious in his voice, but my tongue was suddenly dry and my mouth was parched.
I stared down at my feet as I willed myself to think of something to say.
Ben sighed. "Okay," he said, "okay."
I turned to look at him as he stood up, mind still blank and lips still stuck shut.
He stared down at me, "I know I'm always just joking around with you, always acting like an idiot and using stupid voices and making stupid faces, but that's not all I am. You know I'm smart, that I work hard. Just tell me if you don't like me, but I think you should at least give me a chance."
I gaped at him in astonishment, eyes wide and blinking rapidly.
He was done with my silence though, "Forget it. It's my fault for always fooling around and trying to make you laugh instead of acting like an actual sixteen-year-old."
He looked as if he was about to start walking away but then seemed to realize that I would then be left to sit here on the sidewalk alone at night, and he just turned away from me.
My phone rang after a tense silence. I wasn't sure if it had been two minutes or two hours, and I answered the call hoarsely, "Hello?"
"I'm here now," my dad said briskly.
"I'll be there in a few minutes," I returned just as briefly.
I knew what I had to do.
"Ben," I began.
"Is your dad here?" he interrupted, standing and picking up his backpack.
"Yeah, he is, but—"
"All right, I'll see you around then," he cut me off, turning away from me and starting to walk.
"Ben, wait!" I called.
He stopped, but did not turn around.
"I need to tell you something," I pleaded.
He still did not move, and I took that as a prompt to keep talking.
"I like you, too."
His head snapped up, and I bowed my own.
"I always did think that you were cute, but I think you really caught my interest the day you shimmied at me," I continued, "I've never been on a date before, never had a boyfriend, I'm the ultimate virgin. And...
"I hardly know you. Yet you give me something that makes me scared, all right? I figured that it was nothing, you know? This is probably just some silly teenage crush; and as corny as it sounds, you always seem to make my day brighter. But, I guess... I'm willing to give it a try."
I suddenly felt Ben's fingers on mine again, as he folded his hands over my own clasped ones. He searched my eyes and asked, "Are you serious?"
"Well, I know I always come off as someone who's always joking and fooling around, but I can be serious you know," I mimicked him lightly, looking at the spot between his eyes, as I couldn't stare directly in them out of uneasiness.
Ben was silent, and I feared that I had offended him. Then, he inquired, sounding extremely amused, "Are you looking at my nose?"
"I'm too scared to look you in the eye," I mumbled, not bothering to lie.
He snorted, "I dare you."
I did, and I felt my stomach twist and jump, as if I was falling from an amusement park ride. And I guess the rest of my body went along with it, because I felt happy and terrified and excited all at the same time.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" he asked, humor in his voice.
"Shut up," I muttered, glaring at him good-naturedly.
He laughed, and I laughed. And I really could get used to that sound.
Then he said, "You probably should get to your dad now."
And I nodded and agreed, and with the promise of Saturday night we began to walk in opposite directions.
I paused a couple of feet away then and swiveled around.
"Ben!" I yelled, grinning.
He stopped and faced me, "What?"
His grin matched my own.
I stood there just smiling at him for a moment before squeezing my eyes shut, wrinkling my nose, and sticking my tongue out at him.
Ben laughed in surprise, and almost stumbled.
I beamed and informed him, "Goodnight, Ben. I'm keeping your hoodie."
I turned the corner then got in my dad's car and buckled my seatbelt.
My phone vibrated and I quickly snapped it open.
Does this mean that I get to keep you?
I quickly texted back with, "Yeah, I guess so."
And I leaned against my seat with a content smile and thought, 'It's his fault if I don't get any sleep and end up failing my midterms. That jerk.'