His head poked out of the janitor's closet.
"Casey, things sound rough," he answered, coughing. "Were you crying?"
"Yes," She imagined her tear ducts opening their flood gates. "Paul, I'm terrible, awful, horrendous. My heart is half-blue, I swear, and there are no signs of a thaw."
"You're not any of that," Paul replied, moving things inside the closet. Something metallic smacked the ground and he poked his head out to look at her once more. "By the way, don't look in here. I mean it."
"Is there a mess?"
"Yes, because…some of these sponges appear to be partially eaten."
Casey swallowed and shifted her feet. "I hurt Derek's feelings, and I just know that it was bad, because he went a whole day not trying to get hold of me. I feel horrible! I think I've really screwed up whatever chance I had of winning him over---" she paused to take a ragged inhale. "I might never know if we could have something. It seems like he's forgiven me, and…I can't wrap my mind around it."
From inside the closet: "How do sponges resemble human flesh?"
"Paul, everything you said was true. You were right."
With that, she turned and walked away.
"How would I fit a desk in here?" Paul mumbled.
Someone lifted the hood of her sweatshirt and pulled it over her eyes. The ties of it were cinched, bringing the edges of the hood closer and closer to her nose, narrowing her field of vision.
"Derek, stop it!" she tried to say, though it came out much sleepier than that, in a thick, low voice. Lifting her head, she darted her eyes to the nearby alarm clock. It wasn't even eight a.m.
Derek whispered something about her getting caught with a boy in her room. The fact that he didn't mention his legal title as her stepbrother made the muscles in her shoulders loosen.
Casey shoved him to the other end of her bed. "How'd you get in here in the getting-ready-for-school business?"
"Think about what you just said. None of the younger ones would say something. I'm the great one who could kick Liz and Ed around."
"W-why are you awake so early? I mean, you're…you." She said.
Derek was off the bed and in her closet, rummaging, shoving, grabbing. He seized a pair of sweatpants, something with red lettering on it, and a rust-colored sweatshirt she didn't remember owning. Maybe it had started out a different color and eventually seen Derek's creative side…
"Don't take forever." He instructed, jangling the car keys.
She allowed him to push her into the bathroom and stared at her doe-eyed surprise in the mirror. It was going to be an enlightening morning.
Derek looked so tired and he had crazy bed head, but his eyes were smiling.
His mouth half-full of warm, whipped cream-coated strawberry, he pointed across the diner and said, "Hey, is that the border guard?"
"Stop it, Derek!" Casey shot back, smacking his hand down.
"You wouldn't want to see how Blondie does breakfast?"
"Maybe she ordered a leaf and grape skins?"
Derek smiled. Casey felt a sharp pang in her chest. His knee touched hers again.
"The zombies have helped you."
"There's a lot more behind those eyes now."
Upon hearing his words, she felt her throat tighten a bit.
The school loomed before her in a way that wasn't ominous or annoyed-groan-inducing, but because if Casey looked to the driver's seat of the car, she saw Derek; a more alert, comfortable-looking Derek with clean, styled hair. The morning sun was decorating the sky with both yellow and dark orange, as well as a dash of mist over the trees and air and grass. Casey loved the hopeful uncertainties set in such a lovely atmosphere.
"I'll see you after school," Derek said quietly. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
She rolled her eyes.
"Oh, by the way," he added, his tone slow. "Come 'ere."
Her eyes lit up as she leaned his way a bit. He chuckled at her and shifted closer. His warm, bare lips gently pushed against hers. Immediately, she felt herself wake up more, passionately wanting more kisses right now. School, what school?
After another gentle moment, Derek pulled away. He sighed and met Casey's gaze with warm chocolate eyes. She felt her eyes well up again.
"I love you." She squeaked, then hurried out of the car.