A whine rose up in my throat before I could stop it. Beth gave me a funny look out of the corner of my eye.
He spotted Beth first and raised his hand in the air as a hello. At mid-wave, Wyatt saw me and froze. I watched, helpless, as he crossed the street, eyes wide and confused. "Beth, I thought you said you were with a girl named Melissa," he said, obviously trying to not look at me.
Beth shrugged like she had no clue what he was talking about. "That's what she told me her name was, Wy."
He looked at me, eyebrows drawn together with confusion. "Why would you say that?" He asked me.
"Because she knew I was your sister," Beth said, standing. She sent me a sly look before walking away. "Anyway, I'm going to go make a phone call over by the seesaw. Don't mind me."
I glared at her retreating figure. How could she leave me alone with him? She was obviously only biased for her little brother. What about my feelings? Ugh. "Hi, Andy," Wyatt said, taking the seat Beth had left unoccupied.
"Hi," was all I said, feeling a mixture of forgotten anger and remorse flood back into my body all at once. I missed him, I missed his laugh, his smile, and his ugly, smelly sneakers—but at the same time, I was still so angry it was nearly blinding.
"So. Um. How did your math final go?" He asked finally.
Talk about awkward. "I passed. I got a ninety-two percent in the class."
He broke out in a huge grin, and my heart did that annoying flip-flop again. "Wow! That's great, Andy. I'm really proud of you."
I didn't say anything. This wasn't right; even when I hadn't known him and had been easily annoyed by his persistence to talk to me, we'd never felt awkward. Letting out a deep breath, I knew that if I didn't do something now, things would never be the same. As mad as I was, I cared about him too much to let the silence keep up. "Look," I said at last, "are we going to fix this, or not?"
A ghost of a smile flickered onto his features. Immediately, it fell back, replaced with an apologetic expression. "You know I'm sorry. I didn't…I didn't mean it. I mean, I was just trying to help you. I had no idea you were so sensitive about…money."
It was starting to cool down. The sun would be setting in a few hours, blessing us with a comfortably warm night.
"I know," I said quietly, surprising him. "I've always just been one of those annoyingly independent people who hate relying on others. When I thought about you treating me differently because you could afford all these things that I couldn't, I just got so angry."
Exhaling, I continued. "I know you were afraid to say things around me. Afraid to talk about life after high school or afraid to mention luxuries you have and I don't. I could tell, but I guess I was just hoping I was wrong."
"It doesn't mean I think of you any differently!" Wyatt protested, running a hand through his hair. "I mean, yeah, I spent a lot of our time together trying to keep you comfortable. I like you a lot, but you're really easy to upset, if you haven't noticed."
I harrumphed, crossing my arms. He laughed, looking half-amused and half-exasperated. "See? You're already mad at me."
"I've been mad at you for nearly a month, Wyatt," I pointed out.
He shook his head good-naturedly, grabbing my jaw and forcing me to look at him. "Andy, it can't be this complicated. I want to be your friend and everything more, but you've got to be able to talk to me."
I pouted. "I did talk to you. I confided in you about a lot of things."
"Barely. You just listened to what I had to say without adding your two cents. I'd talk about Beth and problems at school and you'd just sit there, nodding and hardly saying a word. Where's your father? Why are you so angry at people in North Clover?"
Something he said suddenly registered in my mind. I want to be your friend and everything more. "More?" I hissed, ignoring everything he just said. "What about more?"
He looked amused as always, although a sigh slipped out. "You didn't think there was a reason I kept coming back to you? Take it from me, a guy doesn't put up with a girl like you unless he's interested in her."
I narrowed my eyes. "What's that supposed to mean?"
He looked doubtful that I didn't know. "Andy. I think you know." At my look, he added, "You're not exactly the friendliest person I know. I'm pretty sure you wanted to wring my neck the first day I met you."
"A part of me still wants to," I mumbled, glancing downward.
"And that's what I love about you."
I slumped in my swing. The information nearly knocked the wind out of me; I had thought I had been the only one dealing with sexual tension. A part of me knew that the only reason I blew the fight out of proportion was that I needed an excuse to not be around him so often, because having him but not having him just killed me.
He cupped my chin again, and I felt my body melting again. "Talk to me," he said. It wasn't a question—it was now, or never.
It was all it took. Just like that, everything came spilling out, with Beth pretending to not be watching us a few feet away.
I told him about how I was afraid I was going to turn into a saggy, aged, chain-smoking woman with too much makeup, stuck in East Clover with a dead end job and no way out.
I told him about how I'd never known my father and Mama was always out late at night working, how I would never have enough money for college so I just intended to buy a car and drive away (maybe with Mama), never looking back. How I was afraid his parents might have been abusive because he hated talking about them so much, or how I was scared to think of my future and how few of options it held.
I told him how much I liked him because I had been on such a roll that it had basically slipped out unintentionally. Of course, by then he had admitted to liking me too, so I went on to tell him about how much it had hurt to think that he had only been my tutor out of pity.
Everything that I had been holding in for years simply fell out of my mouth and eyes as I cried into his arms.
By the time I dried my eyes, it was already dark and Beth was gone. But Wyatt wasn't; he held me in the sand as we stared up at East Clover's stars, barely visible against the light of the town, and I thought I might love him. So caught up in my emotion, I arched my neck up and kissed him, pulling away a few moments later.
"I'm sorry," I murmured, burying my head in his shirt.
He laughed breathlessly, leaning down to kiss me once more, lingering longer than I had. "Don't be," he whispered. "Just don't ever think you have to hold all that inside again, okay? Know that I'll always be here."
"I know," I whispered back, closing my eyes, tired from the crying. I was so sleepy that I didn't realize he was picking me up, bridal style, and carrying me to his car. I fed him drowsy directions, and before I knew it, I was gently being laid onto bed.
"Your boss at the liquor store called," Mama said as I rolled out of bed, only half awake. She was making her bed, still in her work clothes. What time was it? "You're fired."
My eyes widened. That woke me up. "What? Why?"
"You never came back yesterday. A guy came in and held up the store, but there was nobody there so he just took everything." Mama looked apologetic. Of all the things.
"He wasn't there either!" I pointed out. She only shrugged and told me I could have the shower first.
"I like that boy," she called as I was getting into the shower. "The one that brought you home last night." She said something else, but by then I had already turned on the nozzle and stepped into the shower, thus drowning out her words.
When I opened the bathroom door, wrapped in only a towel, Wyatt was on my couch, textbooks at his side as he fiddled with his thumbs. Seeing me clad in only a towel, his face flushed red, as I'm sure mine did ten fold.
"I-I told your mom I was coming over," he mumbled, looking down.
So that's what Mama was trying to tell me. Oops. "Oh. Well, um, let me get dressed and I'll be…be right back."
When I re-emerged from my room—this time fully clothed—Wyatt was flipping through one of the textbooks I had never seen before. I ran a brush through my hair. "What's that?"
"Textbooks," he said, looking up only to smile his hello. His face wasn't nearly as red anymore.
I plopped down on my couch next to him, peeking over his shoulder to read what it was about. "Well, yeah. I know that. What're they for? School's out, silly."
"Not for you," he said, raising his head and staring me squarely in the eye. "You're getting into Cliffside."
I dropped my forehead into my palm. "Oh, jeez."
"Applications aren't due for another two weeks, and I can still get you an interview if we call immediately. All you have to do is pass the entrance exam and maintain a 3.8 GPA—"
"Wyatt, we've been through this before. I'm not smart enough for—"
"And I don't want to hear any of that crap, Andy! You're one of the smartest people I know. You've always got something, albeit biting, to say back to me. You're quick on your feet and you don't give yourself the credit you deserve. And…you're better than East Clover. Better than North Clover! You deserve the spot at Cliffside. You deserve a chance at college."
"Ugh, did we not already do this? If you know I don't want you pitying me, then you should know I definitely don't want some stuffy rich person who doesn't even know me pitying me either!"
"Hold on now, Andrea," my mother said from the kitchen, throwing a dishrag back into the sink. "If the boy thinks you've got a chance at a private school, let alone college, you take it. There's a difference between being helped and being pitied."
"Your mom has a very good point—" Wyatt started, but I cut him off.
"But what would they ask me? Why I wanted to go to Cliffside, and I'd tell them that I live an underprivileged life so they should take me under their wing? And what, then? I'd be after scholarship after scholarship until college, and be fully in debt!"
"But you would have the degree to get the job to help you get out of it," Mama countered. "I never went to college, and yes, I ended up with you and I'm very happy for it, Andrea, but I always promised I'd find every way I could to get you a better life. Why do you think I work such long hours?"
I glared at Mama, feeling betrayed. Out of anyone, I would have thought she would understand where I was coming from.
"We're not having this argument again," Wyatt said, standing. The textbook in his lap fell to the floor. His voice was loud and clear, almost angry. I'd seen him annoyed, but never angry. It was so startling that I almost forgot it was the same goofy boy who had drawn the picture of the librarian with the unibrow. "You can kick and scream all you like, Andy, but one of these days you're going to have to accept that people aren't here for the sole purpose of making fun of you. I don't know why you can't just…take help from somebody!"
My mouth was dry and forehead creased. Wyatt was breathing heavily, Mama in the kitchen looking more serious than I had ever seen her. "This is about your future, Andrea. You are going to apply for this fancy school, and if you don't get in there, I'm going to see about transferring you to North Clover high. Wyatt and I talked about it last night and decided it was the best for you."
"He has no right!" I shouted, instantly regretting it. But Wyatt didn't even flinch.
"But I do," Mama said. There were bags under her eyes, her hair piled into a messy bun, her work clothes wrinkled, and there was a stain on her blouse, but for a moment, I didn't see any of that. I saw a woman standing tall, formidably serious. "For your own good, I'm giving you no choice."
I guess I don't know why I resisted it at first. I think it was that I was so used to seeing myself through the eyes of others—poor, without a father and working crazy hours to get by—that I started holing myself in. I'd settled for the fact that I wasn't going to have the life I'd seen in magazines or read in books and decided anyone who told me otherwise pitied me.
I still hate being pitied; getting through that Cliffside interview was one of the hardest things I ever will have had to do. I sat there and told a complete stranger why I deserved the scholarship, and it was because I was poor and couldn't afford the education otherwise.
But I swallowed my pride, aced the acceptance test, and charmed my way into a future I had never thought could be mine.
I applied for the job at Vinny's Vinyl's again, restraining myself by lying and saying I lived in North Clover. I had sat down with the owner, whose name was surprisingly not Vinny, and told him why I deserved the job. Wyatt had coached me through it, even prepared a note card with a few jokes to keep the mood light—of course, they were utterly stupid, with lines like, "What's the difference between a guitar and a tuna fish? You can tune a guitar but you can't tuna fish!"—but I'd proved to myself that I could actually function without him at my side, and nailed the job with my own brutally honest reasons.
Wyatt and I make the commute to the city every weekday in his Camry. I make sure the car is kept clean and he makes sure I'm not still too stubborn to back away at the last minute. He helps me in math and I tutor him in kissing, a subject in which he had surprisingly little knowledge.
Every morning that we drive to school, I make sure Wyatt stops at the booth with Paula, the chain-smoking woman I used to work with. We hand her three dollars and thank her before passing through.
She's gotten used to seeing me ("one of us") with him ("one of them"), and I can tell she still doesn't like it, but I don't care. It's how I know that I'm too big for East Clover.
I don't know what would've happened if he hadn't stopped that first day. I don't know what would've happened if I had first listened to Mama and not taken the job at the toll booth. I don't know what I'm going to do about college either (suck it up for the rich snobs again, I guess, and study like a maniac), or even if Wyatt and I will go to the same school. He still wants to go to Brown; I'm still undecided.
All I do know is that I'll go crazy without him. Wherever our paths flow, it'll be down the same stream.
I'd always thought I'd been a girl with sense—I knew not to talk to strangers, when to cross the street, which bus to take—but until I met Wyatt, I never realized I'd been a girl who was dense.
Mama and Beth call it love, what Wyatt and I have. Wyatt agrees, although I prefer to call it an exchange of saliva, wit, good company, and math tips wrapped into one neat little package.
(Well, I'm working on saying it, alright?)
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed it! Another thanks to my beta, Sally Can Wait.
So normally I'm pretty cool about not reviewing--you know, I write for me, blah blah--, but this story in particular has a lot of ghost readers. I URGE YOU TO REVIEW. It'll boost my self esteem? xD Well, please and thank you.
BY THE WAY, DON'T FORGET TO GO CHECK OUT THE SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL AWARDS! NOMINATION PERIOD ENDS TOMORROW. (WHY IS THAT IN ALL CAPS)
xoxo The Cat Died Nobly