. Eighteen : "Cool, Calm, Collected" .


If they were ugly, would you have given them a second glance?

That question was the first thing that popped in my head when I woke up the next morning.

I sat up on my bed and glanced in the mirror at my reflection, relieved to see that the wretched blush had disappeared from last night. My golden hair was a tangled mess every morning, but today was worse than usual thanks to the tossing and turning I had done last night to try and go to sleep. I think I finally fell asleep at around two, after I eventually let myself admit that I was, indeed, blushing and it was okay.

The clock on my bedside table read, 7:45 a.m.

I reached over to grab my phone and told Dana I was going to be coming in late today because I had only just woke up. Then I grabbed a hairband to quickly tie my hair into a messy bun and hopped out of bed and out the door.

Slinking down the stairs, just in case Mom and Joey were still sleeping, I thought about Macon's question again. It rang in my ears like a low chime, creeping from the edges of my mind, but still incessantly there.

I hadn't answered Macon, but I knew that if he had asked for an answer, I probably would've had to lie. Because the truth was, I wouldn't have given guys a second look if they were ugly. That meant his other theory about the kinds of guys I picked was also true.

I reached the kitchen and took a huge swig of water. It was horrible to think about how shallow I was—picking the guys who only fit a certain ideal. I was angry at Macon for figuring it out, but I was angry at myself too for not figuring it out sooner.

If I only picked guys who looked good, and ignored their flaws in which I could clearly see, that meant the break-ups were more my fault than theirs. That meant I was being totally irrational in swearing off jocks for good—

No.

No.

I wasn't willing to admit that it was my entire fault just yet. Because if I did, that meant there was something wrong with me, and I didn't need to feel more like a freak than I already did.

But I still couldn't shake the thought…

"Charley?"

Mom stood in the doorway and stifled a yawn with her hand. "Shouldn't you be at work?"

"Shouldn't you?" I snapped, almost on reflex.

It had been a week since her boss visited our house, since their little fighting match, since she got fired, and Mom was still out of work. But instead of freaking out, or searching for another job like a normal person would, do you know what she'd been doing?

She'd been spending her time at the mall, going to salons and getting manicures, pedicures, facials, and going to spas and getting massages. It was like she was on vacation.

Every time I broached the subject of maybe apologizing to her boss and trying to get her job back, she would immediately tell me to let her handle it, because she was the grown up in this family and she knew exactly what she was doing.

Yeah, so that's why we'd been using my paychecks to pay for groceries.

"Honey, would you relax? They're idiots, okay? They wouldn't last a day without me—"

"Yet they've lasted a week," I pointed out dryly.

Mom gave me a sharp glare. "My point is, once they realize how much they need me, Noah will show up at our door and come begging for my forgiveness and everything will be fine again."

"How long are you going to keep doing this? It's bad enough I have to pay for groceries when I could be spending my money at the mall—which, was what you've been doing, apparently—or saving up for a car, like a normal teenager. But the fact that you're having some kind of love/hate relationship with your boss?"

Mom gasped dramatically. "I am not!"

I rolled my eyes and dug out the box of cheerios and some milk from the fridge. Plates were clattered and moved as I tried to take out a bowl for them, and I set all of my items down on our counter.

"Charley."

I was in the middle of pouring milk when Mom called my name, so I set the milk down and turned to her with raised eyebrows, one hand on my hip. "Yes?"

"I swear to you, I am not having a relationship of any kind with that intolerable buffoon." Mom huffed and marched around the counter, leaning forward across from me when she clasped my hands in hers. "I will always love your father."

I rolled my eyes again. God, she was so over-dramatic. Thank goodness I wasn't like that—I took more of Dad's cool, calm, collected vibe.

"Mom. I'm seventeen—turning eighteen in a month." Our blue eyes connected with each other just like soft crashing waves. "I think I'm old enough to be okay with you dating another guy."

"Really?"

Did I come across as a bratty child or whatever? Was I completely rude to Noah? No, I was pretty sure Mom had that part covered. Why the hell did she look so surprised?

"Yes."

"Oh! Well, then, that's great!" A smile flitted across her face, and then passed as quickly as it came. She frowned seriously at me. "If, you know…I happened to be dating someone. Which I'm not. Pinky swear." Mom hooked her left pinky out, grinning innocently.

Geez. I had an IQ of 175, Mom. I was sure as hell not stupid.

Or blind.

But I didn't tell her that, or push upon the topic any further. "Whatever." Swivelling around, I dumped my now-empty cereal bowl into the sink without hooking my pinky against hers.

When I turned back around, Mom still had her pinky high up in the air, but with one, cold, look from me, she immediately stuck it back down.

She coughed awkwardly and wiped her hands on the sides of her pants. "So…why aren't you at work?"

"I called in late because I was pretty wired last night."

Mom's eyes sparkled. "Oh! That's right, you went to Wonderland. How was it, sweetheart?"

I regarded her wearily—clad in hot pink tights, pristine white polo shirt, her hair pulled back into a slick ponytail without a strand out of place, nails perfectly manicured…she certainly didn't look like a mom who was ready to go back to work. She looked like a mom who never had to work another dime in her life again.

If she decided that she was going to retire early—because that's exactly what she looked like she was about to do—I would definitely ask Macon to whack me with his baseball bat again.

An image of her purse, sitting on the fourth step of the staircase, emerged in my mind. I had passed by it earlier and saw white coupons sticking out of them. I held tight to the memory before it slipped away, and on closer inspection, I could just make out the writing on top: Lady Springs.

The spa.

Of course. That was so like her—pampering herself after she just got fired, while I had to work at a stupid concession stand for her. I couldn't even quit if I wanted to because of her.

When I finally answered her question, I made sure to convey my anger through the dead tone of my voice and my chilling glare.

"Thrilling."

I could tell she was unhappy with my short response. "Did Erin go with you? I haven't seen her around lately—"

I shrugged. "She's been spending a lot of time with Tyler."

"Oh, I see. And how are they?"

"They're fine, Mom." I blew a frustrated breath and studied her face. "All of my friends are fine. They have terrific lives, they're happy, they get to hang out and do things teenagers like to do instead of working their asses off to pay for groceries and bills because their mother keeps on getting demoted. They. Are. Fine."

Mom blinked in surprise and her hand flew up to cover her mouth. As if she couldn't believe I would be saying these words with so much spite. Was she really that clueless?

"They're fine," I repeated, softer and more to myself this time. I sighed and backed away from the counter, unable to look at her wide eyes, staring back at me with so much innocence and hurt in them, a second longer. I didn't want to hurt my mother's feelings—in some ways, it was as if she really was a child. I didn't want to hurt a child.

"But I'm not."

- OOO -

"You okay, girl? You're really quiet today," Dana observed, sticking her head into the kitchen.

I shrugged and flipped the trap, the fries making that crispy sound when they were rattled. Damn, it was hot in here. I hadn't realized how stuffy it was or how much I'd been sweating until Dana opened the door and a tiny breeze whizzed through.

Dana's curly hair was free from any hair ties or clips, meaning the air out there wasn't as bad as the air in here. God, I couldn't wait to get out of here.

As usual, Zeke skipped out on work again. I had a feeling he was only going to come in when Dana worked just to avoid me. I wouldn't blame him—I was a huge embarrassment to him and the girl. At the thought of the ugly girl he was flirting with, I recalled my humiliating blow-up and let out a loud groan.

Dana rushed to my side with concern written all over her face. "What? What's wrong? Did you burn your fingers again?"

I glared at her, even though she didn't deserve it. "No." I unloaded the finished fries into their container and tied my long hair up into a ponytail. "I'm thinking about Zeke and As I Lay Dying Girl."

"Still? Oh, Charley, honey. You need to get over that. He probably felt bad for the girl and flirted with her just because she looked like she was having a crappy day."

I snorted. "How could you tell she was having a crappy day if she looks like that every day?"

"Well, maybe Zeke can." I knew Dana was trying to make me feel better but it wasn't much help. Besides, it wasn't even the real reason I was in such a grumpy mood today. I woke up with Macon's comment stuck in my head and I had been thinking about it for the whole day.

I didn't want to be that shallow girl who only dated guys for their looks. I wanted someone to blame and I didn't want it to be me.

Not to mention, the whole thing with Mom this morning…

Ugh. It was like all of my problems with Macon, Mom, and Zeke just decided to cloud up my brain at once and I was having a huge problem overload in there that I didn't want to deal with.

I pressed my knuckles to my temples to try and massage the problems away—even if it only worked for a second or so. I heard Dana exhale and she grabbed onto my arm, pushing me out the kitchen door.

I blinked my eyes open and frowned at her. "What are you doing?"

"Just go, Charley. Take a break—" Her eyes brightened when they landed on the baseball diamond, where a game was taking place at this moment. "Watch the game! I'll cover for you."

"Dana, you don't have—"

"I don't want to hear it. You were bringing down my vibe anyway so there is no point of you working here with that mood of yours."

"But—"

Dana shook my arm furiously and tugged me out the door to the stand. "No! You go have fun and come back when you're smiling—for real—again." I was out the door, looking back at her with a perplexed expression when she finally grinned. "Really, Charley. It's fine. You can just cover for me the next time I need it, okay?"

I felt my lips tug into a tiny grin and nodded gratefully.

"There! See?" She pointed to my grin. "It's a start."

I found Erin on the very first row of the bleachers and plopped down beside her. She seemed surprised to see me but I quickly explained to her what Dana had said and handed me a pom-pom to cheer the boys with.

"You brought a pom—wait. Don't these belong to the school?"

"No." Erin stuck out her chin but avoided my gaze. Liar. "Just wave it around and cheer for Macon. Geez, do you always have to question everything?"

"The one who asks the most questions will receive the most answers," I replied ominously. When she didn't seem to understand what I was getting at, I rolled my eyes and clarified, "Asking questions will make you smarter."

Erin snorted. "You don't need to get smarter, Char."

While I was frowning to myself, trying to figure out what in the hell she meant by that, since there was no way she knew about my IQ level or my memory, we had apparently scored a home run.

On the field, there was a guy with the number twelve on his back, running around the bases. I squinted my eyes to see that it was Brendan, the guy who threw the party and who Callum thought was an asshole. Everyone on our stand stood up to cheer—including Erin, who waved her pom-pom excitedly—but I only clapped politely sitting down. I didn't like assholes, and this guy was an asshole jock. He had enough people cheering for him.

As if there was some kind of force in the universe, I suddenly felt the need to search the dugout for Macon. And there he was; sitting right at the very end of the bench. He was already staring back, like he had been for a while, and he grinned when he saw me looking.

I watched his shoulders shake slightly as if he heard what I had said about Brendan in my mind. Or, realistically, he saw that I was the only one in the stands who wasn't standing up to cheer. Either way, he was laughing pretty hard.

"Why is Macon laughing?" I jumped in surprise because Erin had asked the question right near my ear as I had totally forgotten about her for a minute. "What's going on here?"

Her eyebrows wiggled suggestively.

I scowled at her ability to notice the stupidest of things. "He probably thinks your pom-poms are stupid."

"Fine. Bitch at me all you want, but I know something's happening there."

She returned to cheering and waving her pom-pom for the game, not speaking to me about Macon again, but I knew she wouldn't let it go that easily. Still, I was thankful that I had a moment of peace.

We ended up winning the game 3-1 because this team had a lot of slightly injured players and wasn't playing their best game this week. We were lucky. Erin ran to her boyfriend, who still hadn't touched the diamond for a real game once this season, while I stayed seated on the bleacher.

I didn't want to go home yet and faced Mom—or worse, didn't face her, because that meant she was at the spa, and I would just seeth at home, waiting for her to return. But I didn't want to go back to work either.

I sat on the bleacher, thinking of things I could do, when a shadow loomed above me. For some, crazy, unbeknownst reason, I expected it to be Macon. Not that I wanted it to be…

But I was relieved to see Coach Ember there instead. He beamed at me and slapped me on the shoulder. "Charley, right?"

I nodded.

"I talked to my son at McMaster's about you and he said he would be interested in meeting you sometime." The coach slipped out a piece of paper from his pocket and held it out to me. "He said to call him any time you're free to set up an interview."

I wrapped my fingers around the paper and mumbled a shocked, "T-thanks…um, I will." When he had told me he was going to give his son a call, I didn't think he would actually do it. A part of me thought that he didn't believe Macon when he said I was smart, but he did. And he actually managed to get me an interview with McMaster's.

I was floored.

I was so floored, in fact, that I hadn't even realized Coach Ember had left and standing in front of me, was of course, Macon. He had a huge smile on his face, suspecting me to believe that he had heard the entire conversation. Or maybe Coach had already told him earlier on.

Either way…I swallowed my pride and shot him a sloppy grin. "Thanks for recommending me." I didn't want to be nice but how could I not be? He had done a completely selfless favour for someone he barely knew, and I wasn't one to disregard it.

"You're welcome." You'd think, from the way he lit up at my thanks, I had just offered him the key to the city or something. "What are fellow community members for?"

"Oh, shut up."

Macon's grin grew.

And then, just like that, the answer came to me. I knew I was probably going to regret this if he decided to follow me around tomorrow, but at that moment, I didn't know what else to do.

So once again, I swallowed my ego and asked, "What are you doing right now?"

"Now?" Macon glanced at the watch on his wrist. "The babysitter's shift is almost done. I have to go home and take care of my sister. Mom has some kind of convention today for her school—she's a teacher."

Don't do it, Charley. He'll never leave you alone if you start acting like you're friends

Shut up. Just do it already.

"Sorry—what?"

My mouth hung open as I realized I had spoken the last part aloud. Stupid me. I grinned sheepishly. "Ah…nothing. Do you mind if I, um, maybe—you don't really have to. I mean, we're not friends, but I just don't want to go home and—"

And if I had any doubt Macon was some kind of freaky mind reader, the next words out of his mouth just squelched them. "Charley," he said with a laugh. His green eyes twinkled when he leaned down and if I wasn't stuttering before, I sure would be now if I was still talking. Get a hold of yourself, Charley. "Would you like to meet my sister?"

I thought you'd never ask.

Thankfully, I managed to screw my lips shut from saying that.

Out loud, I released a long sigh, like this was all his idea and I was being forced into it. I even added an eye roll to show how irritated I was. "God, fine," I flipped my ponytail over my shoulder and stood up. "If you're really that desperate for my company."

Macon let out a loud, long, laugh and guided me by the arm to the parking lot where his car was parked.

I bit my lip the whole way there to keep the damn smile off my face.

- OOO -


A/N: Yes, I know it's been a while! I'm so sorry guys! I just have so much to do and when I do find time to write, I always have no motivation to, but I forced myself to write the next chapter so I can update.

Remember reviewing always helps ;) Haha, I always feel guilty if I let people down, but if everyone can patiently wait, then I'll take my sweet time LOL.

And since this is a Canadian story, HAPPY CANADIAN THANKSGIVING for anyone who celebrates it!

Love you all!