The Last Boy and Girl in the World 1
Sunday, May 8
Mostly cloudy, with steady afternoon showers, 49°F
I used to love rainy days. The coziness of hiding inside a baggy sweater. Of thick socks and galoshes. Curling up against your best friend to share her too-small umbrella. The drowsy, dreamy way a day can pass when there’s not a single ray of sunshine.
That was before Aberdeen had its wettest spring ever recorded. After three weeks straight of precipitation, I was ready to blow off finals and move to the Sahara. The weather hadn’t reached biblical levels. We’d had a couple of big storms, not one long and endless monsoon. Some days it just sprinkled, some days it only misted. But the air always felt damp and unseasonably chilly. I was sick of layering. Thermals under jeans, T-shirts under button-ups under hoodies, tights or leggings under dresses under cardigans. All of it thickening me like a full-body callus, while my dresser drawers were full of neatly folded spring clothes that I was dying to wear. In fact, most kids still wore winter coats to school even though it was the beginning of May. In those early days, I remember that, more than anything else, feeling wrong.
So it was really nice to wake up to the sun the morning our high school’s Key Club went to help shore up the riverbank with sandbags. Especially since the forecasters were already predicting a band of severe storms later in the week, supposedly the worst to hit us yet.
Actually, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a rainbow. Not a real one, but a rainbow sticker I had put on the underside of Morgan’s bedside lampshade a million years ago. Everything in Morgan’s room used to be covered in stickers—her walls, her mirror, her closet door. Over time, she’d peeled them away, though their sticky gum outlines were left behind, like permanent shadows. But she never found this one, and I liked that it was still there.
I lifted my head off the pillow. Morgan was already in the shower. I waited until I heard the water shut off before climbing out of her bed. It was too cold and too early to bother changing clothes, so I threaded my bra back through the armholes of the T-shirt I’d slept in and checked to make sure my leggings weren’t too baggy in the butt to wear in public. Then I reached across Morgan’s side of the bed, picked one of my socks off her radiator, and squeezed it. It still wasn’t completely dry, not even after a night spent baking on the coils.
Morgan hurried into her bedroom in her bra and underwear, a towel twisted around her hair. Ever since her parents divorced and her dad moved out, she’d quit wearing her bathrobe. Or maybe it was ever since she’d started hooking up with guys. I wasn’t sure.
“I’m borrowing dry socks, okay?” I knelt in front of her laundry basket.
She shivered as she pulled on her jeans. “You want an extra shirt, too?” she asked, pulling a white thermal with a tiny yellow rosebud print out of her dresser and offering it to me.
I shook my head. “I have my hoodie. And once we start working, I bet we get sweaty.” I looked forward to that, to being outside and not feeling cold.
Morgan put on the thermal and plopped down at her desk, a place more for makeup and hair stuff than for studying or homework. She unwrapped the towel. Her hair was such a dark shade of brown, it looked black when it was wet, and she barely ran her comb through it before twisting it up in a topknot. It was so thick that she used three hairbands to hold it, and I knew the center of that knot wouldn’t ever dry, not even by the next morning. Then Morgan sat back in her chair and stared at her reflection for a few quiet seconds. When she noticed me noticing, she said with a chuckle, “I guess one good thing about having a long-distance ex is that I don’t have to worry about randomly running into him in Aberdeen.”
I crawled over to her on my knees and put my head in her lap. Sweetly, I said, “Hopefully he’ll die soon, and then you’ll never have to worry about seeing him at all! You should try praying for that the next time you go to church.”
Morgan gasped and pushed me on the shoulders, sending me backward onto the carpet. “Oh my God, Keeley! That’s so wrong! How could you even say that?” But she was laughing, because she knew I was joking. I was always saying crazy stuff like that, taking it too far. Too far was my default setting.
I flailed my arms and legs like a turtle stuck on her back. “Because that’s what best friends are for!”
Morgan wore the tiniest hint of a smile as she reached to pull me up. “I’ll text Elise and tell her we’ll be over soon.”
While she did, I pulled a peach sock with lavender stripes from her laundry basket but couldn’t find its match. I went over to her dresser and opened the top drawer.
I had to dig a little to find it. It was underneath a plush stuffed chick with his wings glued around a plastic egg. There’d been a chocolate heart inside that egg. Morgan had given me half on our drive home from hanging out with Wes during Easter weekend. It was milk chocolate with Rice Krispies, my favorite. We ate the chocolate and drove home with the chick propped up on her dashboard, its googly eyes googling with every bump in the road.
Wes gave Morgan tons of little presents like that all the time—cheesy greeting cards, silk roses, key chains, perfume, candy. Elise said that showed what good boyfriend material he was, though I doubt he paid for any of it since his parents owned a drugstore. Before their breakup, Morgan prominently displayed the gifts around her room. When they disappeared, I assumed she’d thrown them away. But they were all there, crammed in the drawer. I lingered over them until Morgan chucked her phone aside. Then I quickly pushed the drawer shut.
“Don’t you think this is a huge overreaction?” Morgan said, half underneath her bed, reaching for her galoshes. I wasn’t sure if she knew what I’d seen or not. I certainly wasn’t going to say anything about it. “I mean . . . I get that it’s supposed to be a crazy storm, but Levi asking Key Club to come out on a Sunday morning to stack sandbags seems crazy.”
I’d had the same thought myself. The river flooded at least a few times each spring, and even with the rain that had already fallen, it hadn’t added up to anything disastrous. The people in town who lived closest to it knew to take certain precautions when it was supposed to storm, like parking their cars on higher ground and moving their patio furniture indoors. It was more annoying than dangerous.
“Yup,” I said. “And also, Levi didn’t ask. He basically demanded. I would have told him to screw off if I wasn’t sure he’d kick me out for insubordination or whatever.”
Our high school didn’t have a ton of clubs, and so I needed to list Key Club on my college apps. I was even considering running for president next year, because my guidance counselor said admissions tended to favor candidates who held leadership positions over kids who just listed a bunch of activities.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Morgan said, her lip curling. “He’s the total worst.”
“Well, I’m choosing to think of it this way. If the river does flood, we’ll have done our part to protect our soon-to-be-inherited beachfront property.”
Morgan grinned at that, spinning around to face me. “Thirty-two more days until we’re officially seniors.”
“Thirty-two more days,” I echoed, just as excited. At that moment, Wes was the only obstacle I saw between me and Morgan having another terrific summer together. And whether or not she kept his crappy trinkets hidden away in her drawer, he was still, thankfully, her ex.
• • •
Back in the old days, Aberdeen was primarily a countryside vacation destination for the rich residents of Waterford City, thirty miles downriver. It was cabins and summer cottages and pine groves. People swam in the summer, skied and ice-skated in the winter. My dad even has a vintage postcard showing people in old-fashioned bathing suits, striped umbrellas, and canvas beach chairs, enjoying our beautiful riverfront.
A hundred years later, the seniors of Aberdeen High School still swam in the exact spot the tourists once flocked to, where the bank stretched as wide and flat as an ocean beach, complete with sand that glittered in the sunshine. This wasn’t the only swim spot in Aberdeen, but it was the best. Except it wasn’t as perfect as the old postcard because of the long-abandoned lumber mill that anchored the end of the beach.
The spot designated for juniors, where I spent nearly every day last summer, was a quarter mile upstream from the senior spot. The beach there wasn’t pure sand like the seniors had, more a mixture of sand and dirt and pine needles. You always had to have a blanket down, but it was still nice. A rope swing looped around a fat branch of a tree that grew sideways out over the water. I’m not sure who put it up. It had been around forever.
Last summer, hardly any of the other girls tried it. They were scared the rope would break or their bikini tops would fly off when they hit the water. But after a couple of swings on the first sunny day, I had it down. Which knot to anchor my hands on, exactly when to let go so I’d hit the deepest part of the river, where the water was the coolest. I even took to screaming out something dumb to make everyone laugh whenever I’d make the plunge. Like this one time, I shouted “Super-absorbency!” because Elise had just admitted that she’d once worn a tampon and a pad while swimming at a church retreat, because she feared leaking in the water. The other girls there that day had no idea what I was talking about, but they laughed just the same. The boys shook their heads or groaned. They never knew what to make of me.
The sophomores and freshmen were relegated to a swim spot even farther upstream, near the highway overpass. They had to pull weeds to clear a place for their towels and pick up the trash tossed out of passing cars. The location sucked for those reasons, plus there were tons of plants, slimy reeds, and other crap you didn’t want touching you when you swam.
Anyway, that’s where we were told to show up for sandbagging duty.
Morgan parked her car near the overpass and we followed the flow of students toward two dump trucks full of sandbags and a rapidly growing group of volunteers. Obviously, other school groups besides Key Club had been summoned to help. Adults came, too. People’s parents, off-duty policemen, my second-grade teacher, Mr. Gunther. Even Mayor Aversano showed up, dressed like a complete tool in a suit shirt and dress slacks, with his slicked-back hair. He did have enough sense to swap his dress shoes for a pair of work boots, but I still rolled my eyes.
At exactly seven thirty, Sheriff Hamrick climbed up on one of the dump truck beds, clicked on his bullhorn, and asked everyone to gather around. Then he extended a hand to the mayor and Aversano’s dress pants stretched dangerously tight over his butt as he lunged up. Aversano took the bullhorn and started talking but no one could hear him. Sheriff Hamrick had to lean over and show him the trigger to press to make the thing work.
I laughed. Hard. Morgan clapped her hand over my mouth.
“Thanks, everyone, for coming out today. Obviously, we’re hoping that the weather forecasters are wrong, the way they tend to be about ninety-eight percent of the time.”
A few adults chuckled at that lameness. I remember thinking, hoping, that I would never turn into the kind of person who thought weather jokes were funny.
As Mayor Aversano went on, his voice took on a totally fake somber tone. My dad had been the one to first alert me to his penchant for doing this, after the mayor announced his most recent budget for Aberdeen, where he was “forced” to cut anything considered “nonessential” (quotations used to highlight his bullcrap). Since then, I always noticed it, a performance about as believable as our high school drama productions.
“. . . but we must be ready in case they aren’t, and do our part to protect our citizens from harm. I’m going to turn things over to Sheriff Hamrick to explain how today’s going to work.”
Morgan and Elise leaned their heads together.
Elise whispered, “I seriously can’t believe he hasn’t called you yet. It’s been two weeks, right?”
“Almost,” Morgan whispered back.
“It must be a pride thing. Maybe he’s waiting to hear from you first?” Then Elise gave Morgan’s topknot an encouraging little squeeze.
I burst in between them and grabbed each by the hand. “Let’s go down to the senior spot. It’s almost ours, anyway. And this place is giving me freshman-year flashbacks of those pink bikini bottoms that always gave me a wedgie.”
“But Sheriff Hamrick hasn’t finished his instructions yet,” Elise said. “How will we know what to do?”
“What’s to know?” I said, pulling her along. “Take sandbag, pass sandbag, repeat.” It blew my mind how often Elise brought Wes up after the breakup. I knew she meant well, but why poke a bruise as it’s trying to heal?
I think Morgan probably picked up on my Wes interference, because she walked a little bit ahead of Elise and me and changed the subject. “Eww,” she said, pointing as we neared the bank of the junior swim spot. “It looks like chocolate milk.”
The river normally ran clear. Not crystal, but close. But the previous storms had churned the water up big-time and it was so high, you couldn’t see the tail end of the rope swing in the murky water. The current pulled it taut, like a fishing line had hooked a dolphin.
“Okay, so maybe sandbags are a good idea after all.” I zipped my hoodie up to my chin, lifted the hood over my head, and stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. The morning sun was gone now, and the clouds hung low and oppressive, like someone’s basement ceiling.
We walked to the senior spot. Another group of volunteers came from the opposite direction. Then everyone fanned out. I sat down on a rock in the sand and let out a big fat yawn.
“Keeley,” Morgan whispered.
I ignored what I thought was her cue for me to stand up, even though I probably should have stood up if I wanted to look like someone who should be elected Key Club president next year. But I was tired. Normally, Morgan and I slept in on Sundays until lunch. And the dreary weather wasn’t helping.
Morgan then knelt down in front of me and practically inserted her entire head inside my hood.
“Can I help you?”
The tip of her nose pressing into mine, she said, “Look left.”
I turned my head.
And there was Jesse Ford.
His back was to me, but I still recognized him because Jesse had the cutest mop of wavy blond hair that was always the perfect mess. The pieces in front were long, almost chin-length, and he used their natural curl to keep them tucked behind his ears. That’s how he usually wore it, except when he played soccer. Then he’d steal a rubber band off some teacher’s desk and pull all his hair up into a little tuft at the top of his head, a man bun I guess you could call it. I know this is truly a look that only very cute and/or confident guys can successfully get away with. Put Jesse Ford in that slim minority. In fact, I weirdly liked it up in the man bun, because it showed off the million different shades of blond over his head. My hair is also blond, but it’s all the same color—pale yellow, like a stick of butter. Jesse’s is an entire box of Crayola crayons devoted to the shade. For example, some strands are as golden as the tops of the cafeteria corn muffins, some darker like pine sap, some as bright white as the sand that poured out of the splits in our sandbags that day.
Morgan quickly pushed my hood off my head and mussed my hair, pulling out a few stray pieces from the little nubby ponytail I had at the nape of my neck so they wisped around my face. She unzipped my hoodie ever so slightly, and pushed up my sleeves so they were at my elbows. She took a step back and smiled, pleased, and then beckoned to me to stand up.
I did, but only for a second, because as soon as I got to my feet, I pretended to faint dead away from happiness, flopping trust-fall style into Morgan’s arms when I knew for sure that Jesse’s back was still turned. Morgan barely managed to keep me upright. We both busted up laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Elise called out from Morgan’s other side.
Morgan pushed me off her and her cheeks turned rose-petal pink. It didn’t matter that I was the one embarrassing myself. Morgan always blushed by proxy. She leaned over and said quietly to Elise, “Nothing. Just Keeley being Keeley.”
I watched nonchalantly as Jesse and some of the other guys on the soccer team kicked an empty Gatorade bottle across the ground. I guess they’d been asked to volunteer too. After fifteen minutes or so, the chitchat hushed and the sandbags started to come down the human chain.
Jesse shot me a quick smile as he turned to pass me the first one. Aberdeen High was small, with only about fifty kids in each grade. I’d had a class with him last year, Spanish II, but we’d never had an actual conversation before. Not in English, anyway. Still, I couldn’t tell if he recognized me, or if he smiled because everyone knew who he was.
All the volunteers worked in painful silence for the first half hour.
“Do you think we’re almost done?” I joke-whispered to Morgan as I heaped the next sandbag into her arms. The first few hadn’t been so bad, but I swore they were getting heavier and heavier.
“Don’t make me laugh, Keeley!” Morgan panted as she twisted toward Elise and passed the sandbag on. “My abs already hurt.”
I gasped. “Oh my God, what if we’re both so out of shape that we end up getting totally ripped from doing this, like two professional—”
“Hey! Watch out!”
I whipped around to Jesse lobbing his sandbag into my not-waiting, not-ready arms. I screeched and jumped out of the way because if that thing had hit my toes, it would have killed. Everyone around us turned to look.
But his sandbag didn’t land on my feet.
It was never going to. Jesse had a hold on it the whole time, and he pulled it back at the last second, a perfect fake-out.
He doubled over laughing at how I spazzed, and I felt queasy as I stepped back into line. But then, when Jesse looked up at me, he winked. I realized he wasn’t making fun of me, he was teasing me.
There is a difference.
“Hardy har har” was the first thing I thought to say. I groaned the words like an annoyed older sister, but really, inside I was all fireworks.
I let the next few sandbags come down the line, still sort of stunned that Jesse and I’d even had that much of an interaction. At some point, Morgan gave me a raised eyebrow and mouthed, Talk to him!
I ran through a hundred flirty conversation starters I’d overheard Elise coach Morgan to say to Wes or the boys before Wes, but imagining them coming from me, out of my dumb mouth, each one sounded like a nauseatingly transparent cover for Hello, Jesse Ford, please talk to me, boy I’ve loved forever.
But a few minutes later, as Jesse turned to pass another bag into my arms, I had an idea. I pulled out my phone from my hoodie pocket and pretended to text someone. “Sorry,” I singsonged, holding up a hand to Jesse. “This’ll just take a sec.” This forced Jesse to hold on to his sandbag until I finished. He knew I was joking, of course, and he played right along without missing a beat. He grunted like it was killing him to keep holding the sandbag, but I think he liked showing off how strong he was.
The other guys on the soccer team were freakishly skinny. Like, skinnier than most girls. Not Jesse. I knew for a fact that he had actual six-pack muscles because he had this terrific habit of peeling off his sweaty soccer jersey after games and slinging it over one shoulder. For that reason, I never, ever, ever missed a home game.
Our little comedy routine got the attention of Levi Hamrick, son of Sheriff Hamrick and president of Key Club. He walked by us, glaring over the megaphone he’d taken from his dad, and said, “Pick up the pace.”
I took great offense at this, because, okay, sure I was joking and probably slowing things up a little bit, but I was also working extremely hard, and if not for the adrenaline that my proximity to Jesse Ford afforded me, my arms would have functioned about as well as cooked spaghetti.
Jesse leaned in close. Close enough that I smelled the pancakes he’d had for breakfast on his breath. Close enough that I spotted three freckles in a perfectly straight line across his earlobe. “I think Levi Hamrick has a crush on you.”
“No, seriously. This is like the third time he’s walked over here to check on you. You should go for it. He’s a catch. He’s . . .” Jesse cleared his throat and switched into a corny announcer’s voice. “A Guy Who’s Going Places!?”
A Guy Who’s Going Places! was the headline of the local newspaper article that had run the week before, along with a picture of Levi holding up two handfuls of thick envelopes spread out like an oversize deck of cards. He’d received acceptances from every single college he’d applied to, which surprised a grand total of no one. Levi ate his lunch in the library. He won the science fair four years straight. His name always topped the honor roll. He scored the highest on the SATs out of the entire senior class. He clearly did nothing but study. He didn’t seem to have any real friends, just nerdy acquaintances, because I never saw him at the movie theater on the weekend, or in the stands for home games. The one place he’d hang out was outside the police station with the officers, folding metal chairs circled up around an open garage bay while they waited for a call or a shift change. He was like a little cop-in-training.
The article was only interesting because of a dumb thing Levi said. The reporter asked him which of the schools he was leaning toward, and he answered, “Probably the one that’s farthest away.”
Obviously, that kind of snobbery rubbed a lot of kids the wrong way. Aberdeen was not a town of privilege, where people regularly got opportunities to seek bigger and better things. I heard someone giving Levi hell for it in the hall, and he looked baffled as to why. I bet he thought that because he was being honest, no one could be offended. Actually, I don’t think anyone was offended. More like they had proof of what they’d secretly suspected, Levi Hamrick was a pompous jerk. I, on the other hand, already knew that for a fact, because Levi Hamrick was the reason I’d quit Mock Congress my freshman year. The only black mark on my high school transcripts.
I leaned in to Jesse and cupped my hands around my mouth. “Levi Hamrick isn’t hot for me.” I was already second-guessing the joke that popped into my head, but it came tumbling out of my mouth anyway. “He has such a hard-on for rules, I bet he jerks off to the school handbook.”
Jesse backed away, a shocked-yet-delighted look lighting up his face. Like even though we’d been chatting for the last few minutes, he actually saw me now for the first time, like I’d materialized before his eyes.
It sent a surge through me.
A pop of thunder cracked just as the last sandbag came off the dump truck. Everyone scattered. I wondered if Jesse might say good-bye to me, but I couldn’t find him in the melee and I didn’t want to linger like a stalker. Well, I did, but Elise and Morgan were hungry, so the three of us hustled, sore and limp, back up the river toward Morgan’s car.
• • •
I had her passenger door handle half-open when a pair of hands squeezed my hips. I buckled because I’m super-ticklish and also because of the sheer surprise of Jesse Ford touching me. He snatched my phone away. I tried wrestling it back from him . . . but not with enough force to actually take it, because even though I’d only ever kissed two boys in my lifetime, I wasn’t a total dummy.
Fending me off with one hand, Jesse plugged in his phone number with the other and then sent himself a text from my phone so he’d have mine. Then he returned my phone with a wink and shuffled off to catch up with his friends.
I checked my sent messages. He’d written, Jesse, you are hands down the hottest senior guy. Also charming, funny, and kind to small animals. Can I pretty pretty please have all of your babies?
I steadied myself against Morgan’s car and tried to catch my breath.
“What was that about?” Elise asked, one eyebrow curiously raised, as she climbed in.
“Nothing,” I said, playing it cool. “Jesse just wanted to ask me something.”
Morgan flipped down her visor and adjusted it so she could see into the backseat. “Hey, Elise, did I ever tell you how”—and this was where I started trying to cover Morgan’s mouth with my hand, because I knew what she was about to say—“Keeley would make me pretend to be Jesse when we were in middle school? She had a whole scene worked out—dialogue, costumes, and everything.”
Elise leaned forward so her head was in the front seat with us. “Umm, why am I only hearing this now?”
Morgan looked at me, her lips pressed together like she was about to burst. Though she wanted to, she wouldn’t tell Elise unless I gave her permission. She was that good of a friend.
I wasn’t embarrassed for Elise to know. My crush on Jesse Ford wasn’t something burning and constant and tortured. Okay, maybe it had been when I was in middle school, but I blame that on the introduction of hormones into my bloodstream. Once I got to high school, it turned into something much quieter, something I hardly thought about beyond silently acknowledging how hot Jesse looked on whatever day, or momentarily wishing I was whichever pretty girl he’d be kissing in the hallway as I walked past them. Because by that time, I had matured enough to understand that Jesse and I would never happen.
As soon as I gave Morgan a nod, she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “Keeley would make me draw on a moustache and get down on one knee with a Ring Pop and beg her to marry me!”
I quickly clarified, “Just remember, Elise, this was middle school. Like, long before either of us had boobs.” Because Elise sometimes made little comments about how fun-loving or free-spirited I was, which were all polite versions of immature. Part of me could actually imagine her thinking I still acted this way.
Then I swatted Morgan. “You kind of sucked at it.”
“How could you say that?”
Turning to Elise, I explained, “There was no artistry to her performance. I’d have to keep reminding her to talk in a deep voice and—”
“Sorry I’m not as big of a ham as you are!”
“Whatever. I made the best of it. My love of Jesse transcended your awful acting.”
Morgan was laughing so hard she could barely get the next question out. “Wait a second! What were the names of your three kids again?”
“Jesse Jr., Jamie, and”—the last name we said together—“baby Juliette.”
Elise settled back in her seat and pinned the swoop of her hair with a bobby pin. She’d been growing out her bangs since Christmas. She laughed too, but more out of politeness, respect for a friendship that predated her.
Elise grew up in Hillsdale, where Saint Ann’s Church was. Morgan knew her from Sunday school and then teen youth group.
I remember the first time I met her at a church picnic Morgan had dragged me to when we were in seventh grade. Morgan kept telling me how alike Elise and I were, how much we had in common. I took this as a compliment about our friendship, that if Morgan had to make a new friend, she’d pick the most Keeley person she could find. I pictured Elise as a sweeter, churchier version of me.
And she was, at first glance. Elise was thin and delicate with a brown bob that fell just past her chin and a silver cross pendant that hung in the hollow of her collarbone. I’m not sure if she was surprised that I was coming with Morgan to the picnic, because she’d only saved one extra chair. She stood up and offered both chairs to Morgan and me, and sat in the grass by our feet. I appreciated the show of respect.
But it might have been because Elise was afraid of me. I remember saying all kinds of borderline inappropriate things to her to be funny, like stringing together a bunch of curse words or making dirty jokes or whatever. Morgan kept laughing nervously and telling Elise, “She’s kidding, she’s kidding,” to which Elise quickly forced a smile and replied lightly, “Oh, totally, I knew that.”
We were in line for hot dogs when Elise pointed out a boy with flippy hair and mirrored sunglasses playing his guitar to accompany a pastor singing a Jesus song. She leaned in and said to me, “I used to be so hot for that guy, but it turns out he’s the absolute worst kisser on the planet.” And she stuck out her tongue and rolled it around like someone having a seizure, and then made a gag face. “I can’t even see his cuteness anymore. He’s, like, tainted.”
Neither Morgan nor I had ever French-kissed anyone. We were still playing those pretend games at her house.
“She’s not boy crazy or anything,” Morgan whispered to me later on the ride home, as if she could read my mind. “She’s just . . . uh . . . not shy.” And then she threw in, “Like you!” to put me at ease.
Of course, after Elise’s dad lost his job and they moved to Aberdeen, I saw plenty of Elise’s sweet and churchy side, and I think that’s ultimately what I liked best about her, those two identities mashed up together. She was super-sweet with her little brothers, and if we came over when she was babysitting, she’d be playing with them just as much as hanging out with us. And she never talked shit about anyone, even people who completely deserved it, like Wes. Meanwhile, her phone was full of numbers, boys we’d meet at the mall or the movie theater or who went to her church. Elise wasn’t so much interested in having a boyfriend as she was in having someone to crush on.
I think, at first anyway, having a boy to obsess about kept Elise from feeling jealous of what Morgan and I had together. Because as close as the three of us were, every so often there were moments where our threesome was eclipsed by the previous twosome. I say this with no offense to Elise, of course. But you can only have one best friend. My friendship with Morgan went all the way to the cradle, because our moms were best friends too. She couldn’t compete with that.
Later on, though, when it was both Morgan and Elise getting that kind of attention together, I became the odd girl out.
“Anyway, Jesse and I weren’t flirting,” I corrected her. “We were joking around.”
Again, there is a difference. One I knew all too well.
Morgan cleared her throat. “Keeley, he checked out your butt as you grabbed us bottles of water from the cooler.”
I couldn’t play off my shock. I spun toward her. “He did not. Shut up.”
“He totally did! He watched you walk the entire way!”
I wanted so badly to believe her. And maybe it was the truth. But we’d both heard what her ex-boyfriend Wes had said about me, the kind of girl I was, and I knew Morgan wanted to undo that damage. It was why she broke up with him in the first place. So there was that possibility too. And for me, it was the possibility that seemed more likely.
Because like I said before, I had only kissed two boys in my lifetime. Neither one was from Aberdeen. They were both friends of boys that Elise and Morgan were interested in.
We’d get dressed up cute and make the drive to Hillsdale, or some other town, to meet them. At first, it was more Elise’s thing, but then boys started asking Morgan for her number.
Over the past year, I lost count of how many times Morgan or Elise would stand off a little ways with the boys they liked, whispering to them or showing them something on their phones, leaving me with whoever else had tagged along. Unlike my friends, I never knew how to act. I’d either completely clam up, afraid I’d say something dumb, or I’d swing too far the other way and say, like, many many many dumb things.
In the last three years, I’d met lots of boys, obviously. But I’d only ever kissed two.
• • •
By the time Morgan dropped me off, it had started to rain yet again. Lightly, but the way the wind whipped through the trees, it was clearly the beginning of another big storm. The weathermen were right after all.
Mom’s car was long gone. I knew she’d be working. The only patch of driveway that wasn’t getting slick was underneath Dad’s old work truck. It sat in our driveway like a clunker because Dad didn’t drive anymore, but it still ran fine. We’d been trying to sell it forever but there were no takers. Mom said Dad was asking too much. Dad defended his price by listing off the truck’s attributes—how dependable it was, the low mileage, how he’d splurged on new brakes right before his accident.
Before I went in the house, I climbed inside it and started it up, letting the engine run for a few minutes as I looked at Jesse’s text again. I did it to make sure that the battery wouldn’t die. I was hoping it wouldn’t sell and then I’d get to drive it when I turned seventeen next March.
I jogged the path to our house, a clapboard cottage with shingles the color of buttercream and the front door painted robin’s-egg blue. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor, plus a small attic with a pull-down ladder and a musty root cellar, which had always scared the crap out of me. We had a front porch just big enough for a swing, and the moss-covered roof came out from directly under my bedroom window.
I crept inside, knowing Dad would be sleeping.
Dad had become nocturnal ever since his accident. He’d spend every night on his computer, and then sleep pretty much the whole day away. It was easier for him, I think, to be asleep while everyone else in town was out doing the things he couldn’t anymore. So I wasn’t surprised to find his computer on. He used two chairs, one to sit in and one with a couch pillow on it where he could prop up his leg. I cleared away a coffee cup and a dirty plate, turned off the monitor, pushed the chairs back in, picked up his cane, and set it next to the stairs so it would be waiting for him when he woke up and came down again.
I went into the kitchen and made myself a grilled cheese. My sandwich in one hand and my phone in the other, I reread Jesse’s text a few more times before I forced myself to delete it.
It wasn’t even hard, because I was 99 percent sure I’d never hear from Jesse again. I didn’t even blame Wes for making me think so pessimistically. It was just my reality, to never have a boy be interested in me romantically for more than one random moment. Like a TV show you don’t like but you end up watching anyway, because there’s nothing else on.
And remember, this was Jesse Ford. Not some less-cute friend of the boys Elise and Morgan were interested in. Jesse could get any girl in school he wanted. He was so charming and funny and disarming that it didn’t matter if he wasn’t the most traditionally handsome guy. It didn’t even matter if the girl he was after had a boyfriend. The year before, some meathead football player found out that his cheerleader girlfriend had secretly kissed Jesse, and he punched Jesse square in the jaw in the middle of the cafeteria. The picture of the aftermath, Jesse proudly grinning with a bloody lip and a purple cheek, was still his profile picture.
I couldn’t imagine a single scenario where he’d want to be with me.