Disclaimers: all characters belong to Ann Brashares
A/N: actually a smaller section of a larger story I have plotted but not written. Basically, Carmen is spending the 4th summer in Charleston with her father's family as Lydia is pregnant but confined to bed. And she has been dumped by Win. I think that's all you would need to know.
He looked up from his packing, startled. "Yes?"
Carmen couldn't help but notice the clean lines and tidiness of his packing. His shirts were crisply folded and even his socks were neatly arranged.
"You're going to Atlanta?" It really wasn't a question. He had mentioned at the beginning of the week that he was going to visit his father.
Nodding, he went to his closet to pull out some slacks.
"Can I come?" The words seemed to come out before she even realised she was going to ask. However, the thought of temporarily escaping the maw of Lydia's pre-natal hormonal mood swings and his aunts' constant chattering was too good to be true. And she never had liked the idea of Paul having to make that trip by himself month after month.
He hesitated and she could guess what he was thinking. "I won't come to the hospital unless you want me to – I can stay at the motel or go shopping or something. But I could keep you company on the drive down and we could check out the Atlanta night life."
That was it? Carmen knew if anyone made a similar request to her she would make it much more difficult before she gave in. But she should know that Paul wouldn't be like that. He was a reasonable person; Carmen was not.
Early the next morning they were on the interstate. Al had been hesitant at first – Carmen decided he probably didn't want to be dealing with Lydia and her sisters on his own – but relented when Carmen gently reminded him that both she and Paul were adults and asking him was just a courtesy.
So far the drive had been quiet, but not uncomfortably so. It was a novel thing for Carmen to be silent with someone else, but Paul was teaching her. Maybe she could teach him to be verbose and irrational.
"Are you hungry?" Paul gestured to a rest stop coming up with a gas station and a few restaurants.
"I could eat."
After filling up with gas he pulled into the IHOP. They sat down in booths that must have been there in the 1950s and ordered pancakes and coffee.
Carmen began chattering inanely about all the great pancakes she had known and Paul listened with a bemused smile on his face. Their pancakes arrived and Carmen immediately slathered hers with lots of butter and then poured a bit of each available syrup on the stack until it was a gooey heap. Paul methodically placed two of the flapjacks to the side and left the third. He spread the perfect amount of butter and blueberry syrup before taking a bite. Looking woefully from her plate to his she realised that Paul's was the pancake plate of an adult and hers was the pancake plate of a madwoman. She caught Paul staring at her pancakes with a slightly bewildered look on his face before he noticed her watching him. A moment passed as he thoughtfully considered the sticky mess. Then he reached over, snagged some from her plate and chewed slowly. "Not bad," he said, seriously.
Carmen couldn't help but laugh.
They made it to the motel by early afternoon. As she followed Paul into the room, it occurred to Carmen that this might feel a bit weird. Sure they had been living together under the same roof for the past month, but they'd be spending the night in the same room. Sleeping less than five feet from each other. In their pyjamas. Alone.
Realising she still stood in the doorway, she closed the door and threw her bag on the bed that Paul had left empty.
She watched him carefully unpack and put things in the dresser and closet. Opening her own knapsack, she tried to smooth out the wrinkles of The Pants that she hurriedly stuffed in earlier that morning. Luckily they had arrived with a note from Tibby early the previous evening. Carmen thought they should have a chance to go to Atlanta in their last summer.
At the foot of her bed, Paul cleared his throat. "I'm going to the hospital for an hour or two. Would you like me to drop you off downtown?"
"No, I think I'm just gonna hang out here and catch up on my daytime TV. See if Erica Kane has married anyone since I've started college. Haven't really got a chance in Charleston."
He nodded and left. The moment she heard the car pull away she pounced on her cell phone and punched in Tibby's home number. The machine picked up. "Tibs? Are you there? If you're there, pick up." She waited until it became obvious that Tibby wasn't there. She tried Bee next, but no one answered there either. There was one other possibility. She found Brian's cell phone number in her phone's memory and called it.
"Hello?" Brian always sounded just a little bewildered when he answered the phone. As if he weren't sure why someone would be calling him. Her call probably wouldn't help.
"Hey Brian, it's Carmen. Is Tibby with you?"
"Um, yeah. Just a second." She heard rustling and some fumbling before Tibby picked up.
"Carmen? Are you okay?"
"No! Well, yes, I'm fine, but I think I've done something really stupid." It occurred to her that she may have interrupted Tibby in something. "I'm not calling at a bad time or something, am I?"
"It's fine. We're at the movies but it doesn't start for a few minutes and Brian's gone off to get popcorn. Now what allegedly stupid thing have you done?"
Carmen took a deep breath. "I'm in Atlanta."
"You didn't run away again, did you?"
"No." Well, not really, anyway. "I'm here with Paul."
"So? You're spending the whole summer with him."
Flopping backward on the bed so that her head was dangling off the side, Carmen sighed. "I know, but it's weird. We're in this motel room by ourselves and suddenly it was like, he's not Paul, he's …"
"A guy?" Tibby guessed when she didn't continue.
"Exactly. I'm sick. I'm having dirty thoughts about my brother and now I'm going to hell."
"You're not going to hell. And he's not your brother. Besides, he's a hottie."
"Well, he is. And… " Tibby trailed off, and Carmen could tell she was debating whether to go on or not.
"He could be good for you. I mean, he's already been good for you, but maybe you could be good for each other."
"Tibs, are you suggesting I date Paul?" It was difficult to process. She couldn't even wrap her brain around the concept.
"Would you like to date Paul?"
"That's not an answer."
Flustered, Carmen struggled for an answer. "It's not like that. I mean… he and I…"
"Listen, Brian's back and has been patiently waiting for me to get off his phone so I'm gonna go. Just give it some thought, okay, Carma? And call me when you get back to Charleston."
The line went dead and Carmen lay with the phone in her hand for quite some time contemplating what Tibby said.
It turned out what Paul considered a night on the town was grabbing a late supper at Applebee's. Considering what was on her mind, Carmen found it amazing that she could eat anything. She'd put on The Pants just to keep her sane, and possibly help her come up with a solution. Thank God Paul never seemed to need conversation. He generally came back from trips to Atlanta quieter than usual, which for Paul was saying something.
After they ordered Carmen decided to put her own troubles aside for the time being and concentrate on Paul's. If she could manage to pry anything out of him. "How was your dad?"
"Okay. He's having a better month." He said it with such finality she knew she wouldn't get anything else out of him on the subject.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Why do you visit every month, Paul? It makes you sad, and it doesn't seem like he's ever going to get better. Why do this to yourself?"
"Because it's not about me; I don't want him to feel alone. My grandparents, my mom, Krista – everyone has abandoned him. And he probably deserves it. But he's my dad so I'll stick with him."
It was the most she'd ever heard him speak in one go. But she couldn't concentrate on that. Because suddenly all she could think about was what Tibby had said.
"That's probably the nicest thing I've ever heard." She could feel herself tearing up. "You're a good man, Paul. Better than most." Infinitely better than Carmen.
As though he could tell what she was thinking he reached over and grasped her hand. "You're good too, Carmen. I know you think you're not, but you are." Paul always saw the best part of her. Even when the worst was on display.
She stared at their joined hands. His were large, sturdy but incredibly gentle. Hers were small, soft yet deceptively strong. In the past he had hugged her, danced with her, comforted her, but this was the first time they had held hands. It was a perfect fit. And Carmen realised that the answer to Tibby's question was, yes, she did want to date Paul. Not just date him but keep him safe, comfort him in the tough times, make him laugh like she knew she could and be his best friend. Maybe he wasn't perfect, but he was the perfect guy for her.
Looking up, she found him watching her intently. He'd never looked at her like that before. Usually his brow furrowed in a vain attempt to understand what she was saying or how she jumped to the conclusions she did. Tonight… she couldn't explain it exactly, but he made her feel beautiful.
Their food came and he let go of her hand so they could eat. The spoke lightly of inane topics for the rest of the night. Carmen began to wonder if she had imagined the looks and feel of his hand gripping hers.
The wondering stopped when, while walking back to the motel, Paul reached over and took her hand again. And held it the entire way.