Chapter 21 ~
"Just a couple more weeks," Audrey chanted. "Just…have to hang on…"
"Thinking about winter break won't help prepare you for this test," Natalie said, grabbing the note cards from Audrey's hand. She shuffled through them. "Are you even trying to study?"
I finally caught up to them, shrugging my backpack over my shoulder as we left the lockers. "Is that for the bio test?" I asked. "Ooh, it was pretty difficult."
"You are not helping."
"You're not helping yourself!" Natalie said. "Cramming last minute is not going to do you any good!"
"It's better than nothing!"
Natalie groaned. "Just study your stupid flashcards already."
As soon as Natalie handed Audrey back her flashcards, she went back to staring at the flashcards like the words would magically imprint themselves on her brain. Rolling her eyes at Audrey's mindless muttering, Natalie finally turned her attention to me. "So, what's been up with you?"
I refocused my eyes, tearing myself out of my daze. "What what?"
"See, that's what I mean. You're super out of it today."
"She's always out of it," Audrey said, her eyes still on the flashcards she was flipping through.
"But even more so today." She angled herself more towards me and stared at me for a moment, studying me. "Is it…something to do with Hale?"
My jaw dropped. "What? Why is your first conclusion to jump to Hale?"
"No?" She completely disregarded my question and tapped her chin. "Hm…your sister?"
I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, let's go with that."
"I'm not even looking at you," Audrey said, "but I can tell that's a lie."
"Nothing is wrong," I said slowly, trying to get it into their thick heads. "Noooooo...thiiiiiinggg."
Natalie narrowed her eyes. Next to us, Audrey looked up and said, "Dragging out the syllables doesn't make it any more believable."
"What she said." Natalie went back to tapping her chin, and I had the urge to ask her if she wanted a magnifying glass and a pipe with that. "Oh! I got it. It's that guy you've been hanging out with…the guy whose name you never told us…"
I smacked my lips together. I knew exactly who she was talking about, and man, was she on the nose. Well, part of the nose. So like, the tip of it, maybe. Or maybe the nostril. Or the bridge, or—never mind, I messed up the idiom.
Audrey's mouth made a small "o." "She's right, you never did tell us!"
"Haha, what are you guys talking about, I have no idea—" I looked around frantically and pointed at the wall behind them. "Oh look, what a lovely informational flyer about formal coming up!"
Audrey tried to say, "That's not going to work as a distract—"
"Oh my god!" Natalie squealed, plowing right over her. "I totally forgot about formal!"
I hopped right on that thought before Audrey could steer us back. "I know, right!" I'd actually forgotten about formal, too, to be honest. "It's so soon!" Well, still weeks away, but somewhat soon.
While Natalie started to ramble about random formal things like picking out dresses together, buying tickets, and whatnot, I went along with her and agreed to everything regardless of whether I knew the actual answer or not. Audrey chipped in eventually, still eyeing me suspiciously and sending me "this is not over" looks, but I could tell I'd gotten away with it.
Natalie had just started to approach the subject of dates (unfortunately not the ones on calendars…or the edible kind), which I was less than enthusiastic to discuss, when the minute bell finally rang. Panicked, Audrey ran off with her flashcards to Biology, while Natalie skipped off to math, and I found myself traipsing into English. I'd already started making my way to my desk when the sight of Hale jogged my memory. Steeling myself, I walked over to where he was sitting and tapped his shoulder.
He jumped, for once looking surprised to see me instead of the opposite happening. "Oh, hey Em."
"Hey..." I kept shifting my weight. Better to get straight to the point. "Hailin told me she forgot her Calc book with you?"
"Yeah, she did."
When a couple seconds of silence passed, I cleared my throat. "So…do you have it?"
A look of understanding lit up his face, and just as quickly embarrassment washed over. "Oh, no, I left it my house, actually. Damn…does she need it today?"
I waved it off. "Don't worry about it. We can just pick it up from your house later today…" And I realized that could've sounded like I'd just invited myself to his house. Mental facepalm. "…if that's okay?"
If he was bothered by it, he didn't say anything. "Yeah, that's fine." Then, oddly, he looked away, immediately preoccupied with something else. I mean, maybe he was just busy with something, being a TA and all, but something seemed off. He didn't usually brush off conversation that quickly. But since he'd pretty much ended it before I could say anything else, I shrugged it off and sat at my own seat.
Not ten seconds later, I looked up, finding my eyes travelling toward him of their own will. And instead of meeting his head, like I'd expected, they crossed paths with his eyes.
We looked at each other for a split second, long enough for me to wonder if I should say anything, before he seemed to become aware of what he was doing and looked away sharply, ducking his head back down.
Hm. Strange, I thought. Very strange indeed.
After my practice I found him waiting just outside, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders squared against the cold. For some reason, the sight of him standing there made me pause, but I reminded myself it was just Hale and sidled up to him. "Why were you waiting outside?"
He backed up a step, as if I'd startled him yet again.
I couldn't help a small smile. "You're jumpy today."
"Yeah, right," he said, shaking it off. "I'm not the one creeping up on people."
"Me, creeping?" I pointed at myself and laughed. "You do know who you're talking to, right?"
"Oh shut up, kid," he said, ruffling my hair. Despite my snarling and smacking away of his hand, he led me to the parking lot, listening to me begin my five hundredth speech about how he really ought to stop calling me kid, and he wasn't even that much older than me, and…I was pretty sure it fell on deaf ears.
We'd already reached the car before I decided to point this out. "You're quiet today."
He slid in and turned on the ignition. "First I was jumpy, now I'm quiet, which is it?"
"Both." I looked out the window, suddenly remembering something. Well, not just something. "Where's Hailin?"
"Hanging out at Lyssa's, I think." Hale glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. "She didn't tell you?"
"She never tells me anything," I grumbled. "One day, the house is going to catch on fire, and she's going to forget to mention it to me. I'll just walk in, and be like, OMG, the house is on fire, why is on the house on fire, all while she's letting me burn to death."
"Of course," Hale said, "because she's just going to sit there and watch you catch fire. She won't have already called the fire department, and you, and me, and probably everyone in the neighborhood as she's singlehandedly trying to put out the fire herself."
"She would try to do that," I mused. "And she'd insist she could do it all herself till the bitter end."
Hale smiled at that, as if in agreement. Then, the smile slowly slid away. "I heard she left practice early yesterday to go check up on you. Did something happen?"
"Nope!" Definitely too quickly.
"Really." Definitely not suspicious.
"Really, really." Definitely convincing.
He sighed and shook his head. "You're really not going to tell me, are you?"
"Nope!" I was definitely not planning on informing him of the Hunter issue. Ever, if possible. I could just imagine hearing the "I told you so"s on repeat for eternity…
And somehow, I'd still managed to return the smile to his face. "Why not?"
"Don't count on it."
"Is it really that bad?"
"Reply hazy, try again later."
"What are you, a Magic 8 ball?"
And the banter kept on like this for the rest of the drive. I was stubborn as a mule, so he got nowhere with me, but I had to give him props for trying. He was in the middle of trying to find out what way to bribe me when we pulled up, and he suddenly went silent.
"What?" I craned my neck forward to try to see what he was staring at so hard. "What is it?"
His face went completely blank. "That's…my parents' car."
"Oh." I kept switching between staring at the sleek Mercedes parked in the driveway and Hale's stoic expression. "Do you want to…just leave, then?"
"No." It almost surprised me how hard his tone had become. "We're just going to go get the book and leave."
"We?" I asked. But I never got an answer. Not wanting to argue, I followed him, eyeing the entryway of his house like it was the gates to another dimension. It may as well have been, with its grand archway and looming double doors. Hale's house wasn't a mansion, per say, but it wasn't a poor man's abode by any means. I didn't have many memories of it, but the ones I did even from when I was much younger had left an impression.
Hale didn't talk much about his family. Rarely, at most, and the times he did talk about them, it was like pulling teeth to get him to say anything more. I had a vague idea why; when we were younger, I remembered his parents coming by our house occasionally to pick him up in their fancy cars. Even at those times, they'd seemed...aloof. Never impolite, but never quite genial, either.
They were probably the reason why Hale made me stop in the foyer and wait. I kind of wondered why he'd brought me in at all, if he was just going to leave me to stand there while he ran up to his room, but I didn't question him. He'd been gone for what seemed like only an instant when the clicking of heels signaled her entrance.
Still tall, as I'd remembered. Just as elegant, maybe even more lovely. Of her features, she'd passed Hale down the faint bronze-like hues of her hair and the angle of her cheekbones. The slight downward curve of her lips when she wasn't smiling were definitely Hale's, too. "Well, hello." That was all the greeting I got. Not quite welcoming, but not exactly unfriendly. More questioning, than anything.
I wasn't sure whether I should step forward or not, so I just stood there and tried to smile pleasantly. "Hi, Mrs. Knight."
Her eyes swept over me quickly, so fast I almost missed it. "I don't believe we've met before."
"You don't remember her, darling?" Another tall figure stepped forward, resting a hand around her arm. His visage reminded me so much of Hale I had to do a double take. Green eyes. Playful smile. "She was much smaller then, but she's not so different now. Hailin's younger sister, is it?"
"Y-yes." I nodded immediately. "Emica. My name's Emica."
"Hailin's sister?" Hale's mother repeated. I never knew what to make of her tone. Her body language and her expressions always seemed to hover over a thin line between reproachful and cordial, like they could always be taken either way. She must've been the one who Hale got his poker face from.
Hale's father chuckled. "What a while it's been. You've grown into quite the young lady since the last time we saw you. How old are you now? Fifteen? Sixteen?"
"Fourteen," I replied quietly. "Turning fifteen soon."
He nodded knowingly. "And attracting all the young boys now, I'm sure."
Hale's mother's gaze sharpened considerably.
But if she was going to say something, Hale beat her to the punch. "I found it, Em." He wasn't looking at me as he said it, though. He was watching his parents, his eyes never leaving them even as he stopped by my side. He didn't look at me until he rested his hand on my back and said, "Let's go."
"Without even a hello to your parents?" his mother asked, her words harsh and abrupt.
Hale stiffened, but he continued directing me to the door nonetheless.
"Oh, let him be," his father said. "Let him have his fun."
Despite the way Hale's grip found my wrist, I managed to turn around and give a farewell nod to his parents. "It was nice seeing you again, Mr. and Mrs. Knight."
"And you as well," Mr. Knight responded. Before Hale could usher me out, he was able to get one last word in. "Oh Hale, next time, just warn us if you're planning to bring a girl over. At least we had a proper talk with your last one."
Grip ever tightening, Hale pulled me through the front door and slammed it shut behind us.
"I'm sorry," was the first thing he said as we drove off.
I could almost swear I still felt Hale's mother's stare boring into my skull, so I kept my eyes down on my lap. "Sorry for what?" I asked.
"For…that whole thing with my parents," he said slowly.
I lifted my gaze. "Why? I thought they were…" Warm? Welcoming? Not terrible and cold? "…nice."
His hands squeezed the steering wheel too tightly. "I can't believe he even called Hailin my 'last one.' As if I've ever brought another girl over."
I glanced at him curiously. "You haven't?"
"No." I somewhat expected the denial to be defensive, but it just sounded…tired. "Hailin's the first girlfriend I've ever tried to bring to meet them. My parents…" He blew out a puff of frustration. "My mother expects me to find a girl who's…" he seemed to mull the words over, "who can live up to her impossible standards, basically. She doesn't 'approve' of Hailin. And my dad pretends like he could care less, but he's probably one of the most misogynistic people I've ever met."
In all the years I knew him, Hale had never said more than a sentence or two about his opinions on his parents. So it rendered me more than a little speechless to hear this admission. It took me much longer than I wanted to finally say, "It's okay."
He frowned, taking the opportunity at a stoplight to look over at me. "How is any of it okay?"
"They're still around," I said. "And even if they're not the best of people, they still care about you, right?"
Green. His eyes went back to the road. "I guess." He had something in his hand, and he kept rolling it between its fingers, but I couldn't see what it was. "If you can call the rare occasions of them dropping by 'still around.'"
I smiled wanly. "I think I know the feeling."
His eyes caught mine for the tiniest of moments before they returned to looking straight ahead. For a few minutes, the car was filled with silence. Whatever Hale had in his hand, he returned to his pocket before I could even catch a glance. It felt like forever had passed before Hale spoke up again. "Do you remember that music box I tried to give you for your birthday years ago?"
It took me a split second to remember it. Five years ago…had it been that long? "The one I broke?"
"Yeah." A small smile. "I'd forgotten all about it until I found it collecting dust in a corner of my room a little while ago."
He'd kept it that long? I tried not to let the surprise show, putting on a show of mock disappointment. "Wow, Hale, of course you would forget. How could you have done that to a poor ten-year-old girl who'd had such a huge crush on you?"
It took me a second too long to figure out what I'd just unwittingly admitted.
Oh my god.
OH MY GOD.
WHAT HAVE I DONE?!
He seemed to realize what I'd said about a half-second after I did. While I clapped my hands over my mouth in pure horror, his face did the exact opposite and broke out into a wide grin. Before I could figure out how to cover up my slipup, he started to shake with fits of laughter.
"H-hey! That's not funny! I wasn't…I wasn't being serious!"
He was laughing so hard that I had to remind him to keep his attention on the road. And even that made him laugh harder. "Your reaction," he said when he started to calm down, "was priceless."
Did I look like a human tomato? Probably. "Reaction to what?"
He shook his head. "C'mon, Em, you didn't think I already knew?"
My jaw might have popped loose of my head and rolled away on to the floor. "Wait, WHAT?"
"It was so obvious." He quirked an eyebrow. "Couldn't you tell? Everyone knew."
"Oh my gooood," I groaned, sinking lower into the car seat. Please, let the earth open up and swallow my whole existence. "Kill me. Just have mercy and kill me now."
That started the chuckling back up. "Don't worry about it, Em. It was cute." AGAIN with the hair ruffling! "You were a pretty cute kid."
No matter how mortified I was, it didn't escape my notice how completely at ease Hale was with this fact. He'd known all that time that I'd liked him when I was younger, and he'd been okay with that? If he'd known even then…man, I must've been really clueless. Anyway, apparently it was okay after all, because I'd been a…what'd he say? A 'pretty cute kid?' That miffed me a bit. "Oh, and I'm not cute now?" I joked.
"Uh…" Was that hesitation I sensed? "Oh look, we're at your house."
It was my turn to laugh now. I rolled my eyes, sweeping up my bag off the floor. "I see how it is. Gee thanks, I feel the love."
He didn't answer as he exited from his side. When he came around to join me, I couldn't help nudging him and pointing to the car, my eyebrows raised. "Hey, genius, don't forget Hailin's book."
He snorted. "I was going to get it!" Complete lie.
I shook my head as he went back around to retrieve it. "Oh, Hale. What would you do without me?"
Again, he didn't answer for a second. I was started to wonder if he hadn't heard me when he handed me the book, his face surprisingly serious. "I don't know, Em. You tell me."
I bit my lip. "You would…" I glanced to my front door. "…wait outside in the cold because you're too slow to catch me!" With no further warning, I bolted for the door, hoping he would be too surprised to catch up in time. But alas, no luck on that one. Even with my running head start he still made it to the front door before I did.
He stopped, waiting for me with a wide, triumphant grin as I stomped my way up the front porch. While I pulled out my keys, he laughed. "How were you planning to leave me outside in the cold if you knew you would still have to unlock the door first?"
I pouted and kicked a bit of dirt on his shoe. "Shush, you."
"And you were the one asking me what I would do without you."
"Whatever," I said. "You know you'd miss me."
He didn't have a comeback for that as he followed me inside.
A/N: Ahhh it's not a Thursday! Asdjf;sldfjksdfjsldkfj;slkd
Yeah. It wasn't on time this week. I'll just say this week has been a very long, rough one, and I'll do my best to continue the weekly updates. It might not always be on Thursdays, since I'm finding Thursday is not my best day anymore, but somewhere around there.
So, anyway: anonymousvoice, Angel Princess 31, Shadowswept, and Valeria730. You know who you are. You know what you are. Many hugs for y'all. You keep me going. And many thanks to the lovely followers/favoriters.
Question of the weeeeeek~
What's your favorite Halloween costume you've seen/used?
HAVE A NICE WEEK EVERYONE. Stay amazing!