“All worked out.”
“You be careful, Lexi,” Aunt Eva said quietly. “I know what happens when boys get ready to go off to college. That’s when girls make bad choices. Don’t you be one of those girls.”
“I won’t be.”
Eva got slowly back to her feet. Lexi noticed how slowly her aunt moved now that the weather had turned cold. She patted Lexi’s shoulder and headed over to the hook by the front door, where her blue Walmart smock hung, waiting. She slipped it on and then put on her coat. “Off to work,” she said. “We got lots of Thanksgiving merch to display.” She turned. “I’ll get us a turkey. We can have a dinner with all the trimmings. Would you like that?”
Eva opened the door and went out into the rainy darkness.
Only a moment or so later, there was a knock at the door. Her aunt must have forgotten something and locked herself out.
Lexi went to the door and opened it.
Zach stood on the top step, holding red roses. “I thought she’d never leave.”
“Zach! What are you doing here?”
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her until she was clinging to him like a drowning girl. “I had to see you,” he said finally, his breath as ragged as hers. Then he picked her up and carried her down the hallway. The whole house shook, and somewhere she dropped the flowers. He put her down on her narrow twin bed and covered her body with his, kissing her. When he pressed against her, she could feel his hardness through her jeans.
His tongue played with hers, and the feel of it pushed her toward something, a wanting—a needing—that was new and frightening and powerful. Without thinking about it, she pulled him onto her, so she could feel how much he wanted her.
He cursed and broke free, sliding off of her. At her confused frown, he tried to smile, but the look in his eyes was dark. She saw her own desire mirrored there. The difference was that he wasn’t afraid. “It’s better if we don’t do that,” he said shakily.
“I know,” she said, pulling her sweater back down. Her eyes stung, and she didn’t know why exactly, but she felt ashamed. She rolled onto her side, away from him. He tucked up against her, molded his body to hers.
“Why are you so afraid of me, Lexi? I don’t mean sex. I mean me. Why are you so sure I’ll hurt you?”
“Because I love you, Zach.”
“But I love you, too.”
She sighed. Zach’s view of love had been painted by his family; hers was a little darker. She knew how it felt to be abandoned by someone who’d claimed love. “Just hold me, Zach,” she said, settling deeper into his arms.
As they lay there, she stared at the floor. A single rose lay on the industrial gray carpeting, stepped on, its bright red blossom tattered and torn.
* * *
With winter break came the first round of college deadlines. By the time classes ended on the twenty-third of December, Lexi had mailed in most of her applications, and the waiting game had begun. She often woke in the middle of the night, with her heart pounding, a nightmare of rejection still hanging in the back of her mind. Zach and Mia were stressed out, too, but it wasn’t so bad for them. Sure, they wanted USC, but there were no bad answers waiting for them. The question for them wasn’t if they’d go to a four-year school; it was which one they would choose. The only one who seemed totally whacked out about the process was Jude, who couldn’t seem to have a conversation that didn’t include some college reference.
Tonight, Lexi was at the ice cream shop, working late. The school vacation gave business a shot in the arm. Families came downtown to Christmas shop, strolling from store to store beneath trees outlined in sparkling white lights.
She was ringing up a quart of fig and goat cheese ice cream when the phone rang. Thanking the well-dressed woman at the register, she answered, “Amoré Ice Cream Shop. This is Alexa. May I help you?”
“Lex, it’s Mia.”
“You’re not supposed to call me here.”
“The Ottomans are gone for the weekend.”
“Kim’s having a party. We’ll pick you up at nine, okay?”
“Lexi,” Mrs. Solter said firmly. “That’s a business phone.”
“Okay,” Lexi said.
Mia said, “Later,” and hung up.
Lexi went back to work. From then on, the minutes seemed to crawl forward on sore knees, but finally the ice cream shop was closed up and Lexi was outside in the cold, waiting. All around her, Christmas lights hung from eaves and wrapped around potted trees in front of the local businesses. Bright banners hung from the lampposts, fluttering in the night air, and a giant illuminated star hung above Main Street.
A red SUV pulled up in front of her. Mia opened the passenger door and leaned out. “Hey!”
Lexi hurried around to the back door and climbed in the backseat, where Zach was waiting for her.
“Hey, Lexi,” Tyler said from the driver’s seat.
“Hey,” Lexi said, cuddling up to Zach.
“I missed you,” he said.
“I missed you, too.”
They’d been together last night, studying with Mia in the Farradays’ big media room (and making out whenever Mia left them alone), but it felt like a long time ago.
“I called your aunt,” Mia said. “She said it’s cool if you stay at my house tonight.”
Lexi leaned against Zach, rested her hand on his thigh.
She had to be touching him.
There were already about fifteen cars at the Ottoman house when they pulled up.
The four of them walked up the gravel driveway together. Noise from the party sounded muted and distant, until they stepped inside.
Music was playing at the edge of pain. The kitchen was wall-to-wall kids; a few more lay sprawled in the living room, making out, and through the glass pocket doors, they could see about ten more outside, standing around a fire.
Tyler pulled Mia into his arms and twirled her around, lifting her off her feet. Mia laughed and clung to him, and then they were kissing like crazy.
Zach took Lexi by the hand and led her out to the fire, where a group of football players were shotgunning beer.
“Zach … Zach … Zach…”
The crowd chanted his name as they approached.
Bryson stepped forward, holding a Coors Light. “Brewski, dude?”
“Tyler’s the d.d.,” Zach said. “Hell, yeah.” He took the beer, jammed a pen into its side, snapped the cap, and guzzled the whole thing in one shot. Wiping his mouth, he grinned at the crowd around him.
“You want one, Lexi?” Bryson asked.
“Come on, Lexi,” Zach said, rubbing her arm.
She couldn’t deny him. “Fine. I’ll have a beer, but no shotgunning. I do my own laundry.”
Zach laughed and called out for another beer.
For the next two hours, the party roared forward; the crowd grew louder and sloppier and drunker. Every now and then, the air smelled like pot. Someone was always laughing, and then, suddenly, the music changed.
The soundtrack from The Little Mermaid started. Throughout the house, guys—including Zach—groaned. Lexi grinned. “I love it when a girl has the party.”
Mia appeared out of nowhere. In her expensive pink terrycloth sweatpants and thick white hoodie, she looked rumpled and drunk, a little unsteady on her feet. “It’s my song,” she said, grabbing Lexi’s hand, dragging her out onto the patio, where kids were dancing.
She hung on to Lexi, trying to move to the beat, but this close, Lexi could see how drunk Mia was, and how sad. “Mia? What happened?”
“Tyler is all over Alaina Smith.”
“Maybe you’re misreading the signs. You are pretty hammered.”
“I only shotgunned a few beers. And I’m not overreacting.” She leaned forward, whispered, “It’s ’cause she does it. All the guys know it.”
“If he loves you—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Mia said. “The point is, I love him. So what am I waiting for?”
Before Lexi could answer, Tyler showed up and took Mia away, leading her off the makeshift dance floor. Lexi saw how pathetically happy Mia looked at his return. It saddened her because she knew how dangerous it was to love someone that much, and because she knew it was how she looked at Zach.
“My sister dumped you, huh?” Zach said, coming up behind her, taking her in his arms. “I would never do that to you.”
She turned into him, kissing him. She tasted beer and something else, something sharp and metallic. The look in his eyes was a little bleary, as if he couldn’t quite focus.
He kissed her again, deeply, and then, taking her hand, he led her through the party and down to the beach. He started kissing her even before they lay down. His hand slid up under her shirt, unhooked her bra. She knew she should stop him, but it felt so good, and when he touched her br**sts, she felt as if she were floating, flying … She made a sound she’d never heard before. Behind them, distant now, the music changed, or went on, or even went off; she couldn’t hear anything except her own heavy breathing and the way he kept saying her name and whispering that he loved her.
It took a Herculean effort to push him away. “Don’t, Zach…”
He rolled away from her and lay there. She felt the loss of his touch as a physical pain, and she instantly regretted her move. “I’m sorry, Zach. It’s just…”
“There you are,” Mia said, stumbling toward them. In the moonlight, Lexi could see how glassy eyed Mia was now, almost as if she’d been crying. And she was unsteady on her feet. Her shirt was buttoned incorrectly; the way it hung on her thin frame made her look strangely bent. She plopped down beside Lexi.
Lexi tried to rehook her bra without anyone noticing.
Zach sat up, drew his knees in, and stared out at the black Sound. After a long silence, he said quietly, “Mia? I don’t want to leave Lexi.”
“We don’t have to go,” Mia said, leaning against Lexi. She looked at her watch. “It’s not one yet.”
“In August,” Zach said. He looked to her for support, but she could offer none. She was suspended, in a dangerous position between these two, both of whom she loved. “Couldn’t we all go to UW together?”
“I might not be able to go to the U,” Lexi said to him. “It’s so expensive. I might have to start at Seattle CC.”
“We could do that, too,” Zach said. “It would save Mom and Dad a ton of money.”
Mia looked at her brother. “Now you don’t want to go to USC with me?”
“I don’t want to leave Lex,” he said quietly.
Mia looked away, stared out at the water. “Oh,” was all she said, but in that little half word, Lexi heard an ocean of disappointment.
They all knew Mia needed Zach at college with her.
Tyler stumbled over to where they were and collapsed into the sand. “Hey, Mia,” he said drunkenly, reaching for her. “I missed you.”
“Shit,” Zach said. “He’s drunk.”