I thought going off to college for four years would be great. And it was, until I realized I had to come home every summer, back to my domineering aunt. I was so happy that I was in my final year of school—graduating when I was seventeen was the best decision I had ever made—and hoped that this summer, the summer I was twenty, would be different. I was going to take classes at the community college as usual but besides that, I vowed to try something different.
Aunt Tess wanted chicken my first day back that summer and I tried to make it as healthy as possible per her request, with lots of vegetables on the side, but I was sure she'd request gravy. She was terrible at sticking to her diet. I found the low fat kind and made that, leaving the box of the regular kind on the counter so she'd think she was eating the fatty kind.
Dinner was ready by six and Aunt Tess came in just as I was pulling out the bread from the oven. She didn't even greet me when she came in.
"My car could use a wash," she said in her high-pitched voice; I would compare her to Barbie except she didn't sound sweet. She didn't look at me as she threw her keys on the coffee table and kicked off her heels.
"Sure, I'll do that tomorrow," I mumbled and rolled my eyes as I bent to pick up her shoes and put them away in the closet.
"Call the boys for dinner," Aunt Tess said in an exasperated voice, grabbing a can of Diet Coke out of the fridge. I saw her glance at the gravy on the counter.
I didn't even have to talk to my cousins George or Simon to tell them dinner was ready. I knocked on their doors and they came out seconds later, making a beeline for the kitchen. I hovered in the hallway, waiting for them to fill their plates with food—George always made a plate for his mother—and then tip-toed back into the room. I piled what little food was left on my own plate, grabbed a water bottle out of the fridge and quickly made my way back down to the basement which served as my room.
After being home for two weeks, it was time to start my classes. The first day was always the easiest. Both teachers spent an hour on the syllabus alone and the next forty-five minutes on introductions. As usual, I stumbled through my name and my major—I was an English major, though I knew I couldn't do much with it—and nearly missed the chair when I sat back down.
I am just so graceful.
Human Geography was on Tuesdays at two in the afternoon and Biology was Thursdays at one. Snacks were allowed in Geography so I fell into the habit of grabbing a bag of chips or a candy bar and a drink from the gas station to take with me up the hill to the community college.
On the third week of classes, I was actually early to Biology for once; I grabbed a seat near the back of the room and opened up my textbook to check my homework.
I was alone for only a few minutes before someone else came in. I didn't even look up as the person sat down at the desk next to me.
"Hi there!" said a cheerful voice next to me. It took me a moment to realize she was talking to me.
"Oh, hello," I mumbled pathetically.
I was sitting next to Bridgette, a real pretty red-head that must have been a cheerleader in high school. She still had roundness to her cheeks, suggesting that she was barely eighteen, and her nose was covered in freckles. She wore her smooth hair in a high ponytail and though she wore make-up, she wore natural colors that accented her flawless skin and perfect smile.
"I'm Bridgette," she said brightly, sticking out a well-manicured hand. I noticed that she sat extremely straight in her chair; I always slouched, hopeful that no one noticed me. "You're Bella, right?"
"Right," I answered, shaking her hand awkwardly.
"How are you doing in the class?" she asked me kindly.
"Oh, uh, not bad," I answered, already wary that I was about to just get used for my knowledge in the class rather than as an actual friend.
"It seems pretty easy so far," Bridgette said, pulling out a nail file and daintily shaping her already perfect nails. "I wonder when the first test is."
"It's in two weeks," I answered, glancing at the syllabus tucked into the back of the textbook.
"Oh, that's right!" Bridgette laughed. She looked around the room as a few more people milled in and then turned to me with a bright smile. "So, do you have a boyfriend?"
"A boyfriend?" I asked in a high-pitched voice, feeling my face turn hot. I looked down at my book, letting my hair swing forward to hide my red face. "No, I don't."
"That's surprising," Bridgette said quietly, sounding genuinely surprised.
"W-what about you?" I asked hesitantly, sensing she was waiting for me to ask.
"Oh!" She giggled loudly, flashing her bright, white teeth again. "I'm not sure. I mean, there is this one guy that I was hoping but… yeah, nothing going on. Yet."
She gave me a mischievous smile. I ran my hand nervously through my hair and gave her a small smile back.
The class was full by then and the teacher came in soon after. Thankfully, Bridgette didn't ask me for any answers during class and took notes just as diligently as I did. When class was over, she gave me a cheerful goodbye, blinding me with her smile again, and took off. I stared dumbly after her, wondering if it was a joke or something that she talked to me. I wasn't sure why but something didn't seem quite right. Maybe I just wasn't used to people actually being friendly.
Bridgette sat with me every week after that. She liked to tell me stories about her friends and the stupid things they did or some of the things that they did that she wanted to copy—I managed to talk her out of a nose ring after he best girl friend got one.
One afternoon after class, Bridgette asked me to get a coffee with her at the campus café. I agreed but when she wasn't looking I checked my watch. I had about a half hour before I needed to be home to make dinner.
Sitting in the warm sun outside the café, Bridgette chattered happily about anything and everything. I didn't say much; I didn't have any similar stories to tell. After she told me all about the movie she got to see that weekend, we lapsed into silence. I could tell she liked to talk; she quickly started fidgeting with her coffee cup before she started up again.
"You haven't told me anything about yourself," she said sounding slightly annoyed. "What kinds of things do you like to do?"
"Oh, I'm pretty boring," I admitted in a small voice. "Mostly I just read and… hang around the house."
"That's cool," Bridgette nodded. "Do you still live with your parents?"
"No… they died when I was fourteen," I answered. I was used to people asking and tried to keep the sadness out of my voice but it never worked. I looked down at the tabletop, trying to think of something else to say. "I live with my aunt and cousins. It's not so bad."
"Aw, I'm so sorry!" Bridgette squealed, putting her hand on my arm. I looked up to see a look of genuine remorse on her face.
"Honestly…" I said quietly, wondering if I was about to give away too much. But I had made a vow—this summer would be different in some way. Why not start with opening up to someone new? I took a deep breath. "Honestly I don't think I ever fully got over it. It was kinda a freak thing. They died during a robbery at the convenience store they were at."
It was silent for a few moments as we quietly sipped our coffees. Way to kill the mood, Swan, I thought sourly to myself.
"So, do you have any other plans for tonight?" she said brightly, smoothly changing the subject and pulling a quick smile onto her face.
"Tonight? Not really—" I stopped short. I looked at my watch and gasped. "Aw crap, I'm late!"
I jumped up from the table, grabbing my backpack and nearly empty coffee cup.
"Wait, late for what?" Bridgette asked, her perfectly shaped eyebrows pulled down in confusion.
"I gotta…uh…" I didn't want to tell her that I was supposed to go home and be the servant girl but I didn't know what else to say; I was a terrible liar. "I have to cook dinner for my aunt. I was supposed to be home forty-five minutes ago!"
I started to rush away from the table but Bridgette leapt up and grabbed my hand.
"Here's my number," she said, scribbling on my hand with a pen. "Call me whenever you want."
She gave me one of her dazzling smiles and I couldn't help but smile back. I wasn't sure what to say, though, so I just nodded and hurried down the cement steps and ran out to the parking lot.
There weren't many cars in the lot so it was easy to spot mine—not that it'd really be all that hard if the lot were full.
I drove my dad's old Mustang but it looked nothing like the hot rods we used to check out at car shows. It was a 1979 model and looked more like a Buick than a Mustang. It was boxy, with a bad paint job—we had started to change it from gray to blue but never got to finish—and an ugly red interior. The heater was broken, the windshield wipers only had two settings—on and off—and if it was cold out, forget about getting it started in one try.
I got home as fast as I could and breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Aunt Tess's car wasn't at the curb. I still rushed inside to see if she had already come and gone, leaving me a nasty note behind.
The house was dead quiet and dark. I felt along the wall, found the light switch and flipped on the living room light. The house seemed empty.
I walked slowly into the kitchen, starring around the room, still trying to spot a note of instructions. I didn't see anything but my eyes fell on the answering machine set on the side table by the couch. The red light was blinking, indicating that there was a message.
I crossed the room and pressed the play button.
"George, Simon, Ben and I are out to dinner," came Aunt Tess's nasally voice out of the machine; as always, she didn't bother with a greeting. "We'll be home late. Do the laundry or something."
There were no other messages on the machine so I erased the one from Aunt Tess and heaved another sigh of relief.
"All alone for the night," I said happily, flopping down onto the couch.
I sat still for all of thirty seconds before I stood again and went to the laundry room set into the garage.
"Might as well get the laundry started," I said aloud to myself, opening the garage door. "Because I'm sure—"
I finished my sentence with a groan. Laundry was the one thing that Aunt Tess requested I be asked to do and she always waited until she had just about nothing left to wear to ask.
The load—or rather loads—was worse this time. Not only did Tess fail to ask me sooner but so had the boys. Three tall laundry baskets were overflowing with dirty clothes—nothing sorted, of course. It looked like I was in for the night whether I wanted to be or not.
Once I started the wash, I sat on the couch and flipped on the TV. I surfed the channels for a few minutes but I watched so little TV these days that nothing interested me and I turned it off quickly. I sat quietly, listening to the washer thumping in the next room, eating my pathetic dinner—a sandwich. When I was done I brushed the crumbs off my lap but paused when I saw something on my palm.
It was Bridgette's number. I had almost forgotten that she had given it to me.
I stared at it for nearly a minute, biting my lip. Should I call her? What would I say? I laughed darkly, picturing it in my head.
Hi, Bella, what do you need?
Nothing, just sitting in an empty house like a loser with nothing better to do so I thought I'd call you.
Oh, how sad. Well, I'm very busy brushing my hair a hundred times and looking in the mirror, telling myself how beautiful I am so I can't talk now. Bye!
As soon as I thought this, I felt bad. Bridgette seemed nice enough so why was I picturing her doing such vain things? Sure, she was perfect looking but that could just be good genes…
I decided that if she gave me her number then it meant she really did want me to call if I could. What's the worst that could happen? She'd say she was busy. Surely she wouldn't laugh at me when I told her how dismal my life at home was. Not that I'd give her all the details.
I took a deep breath and grabbed the cordless phone sitting next to the answering machine. I dialed the number, calling her cell, not giving myself anymore time to think about what I was doing but all the time knowing how sad it was that I had to work up the courage to just call someone I had been talking to for weeks.
The phone rang six times; I wondered, perhaps a little hopefully, that she wouldn't answer. But just as I was about to hang up, she picked up.
"Yes, hi, hello!" Bridgette answered breathlessly.
"Bridgette? It's Bella." I cringed; why did I have to sound so unsure of myself?
"Oh, hey!" she answered brightly. "I thought you would be busy cooking dinner."
"Turns out my aunt and cousins decided to go out," I answered, scrunching up my nose, trying to tell the truth without sounding too pitiful. "So I'm just… stuck at home… doing the laundry."
I hoped desperately that she wouldn't realize that I was uninvited to dinner and being forced to do everyone else's laundry. I waited for her to figure out, holding my breath.
"That's too bad," she said sincerely. "I'm sorry I kept you out. Guess they thought you had other plans?"
"Yeah, I think so," I answered quickly, seizing her excuse. "I don't mind though… Gives me a chance to catch up on homework."
"I should be doing homework," Bridgette said grumpily. "But I'm locked out of the house. I forgot my key…again. My neighbor has a spare but he isn't home. I was trying to get the kitchen window open but my dad locked it."
"Oh, I'm sorry," I answered, wondering if I'd be able to do anything to help. I doubted it but I offered anyways. "What can I do?"
"Nothing, really. My parents will be home in a couple hours." Bridgette sighed heavily and then continued in a bright tone. "Hey, can I come over? Sounds like you're pretty bored over there."
Bridgette laughed, obviously teasing. I gave a small, nervous laugh, running my hand through my hair.
"Yeah pretty bored," I said weakly.
"So… Can I come by?"
I bit my lip, thinking fast. Tess and the boys wouldn't be home for a while, I was sure of that, but what would happen if they did and found me hanging out with a girlfriend? I shook my head quickly, knowing I was being silly. There was absolutely no reason why I couldn't have a friend over—not that I ever had—and I was doing just what she asked anyways.
"Sure," I answered as cheerfully as I could but still nervous. I gave her my address and she assured me she'd be over within a few minutes.
Just as I was throwing a bag of popcorn into the microwave, there was a knock on the door. I hurried to answer it—once again tripping over my own feet—but realized as soon as I got to the door that I was a little too quick in answering. I took a deep, steadying breath and waited for Bridgette to knock again. When she did, I plastered what I hoped wasn't too eager of a smile on my face and opened the door.
"You are a total lifesaver!" Bridgette exclaimed, sweeping past me like she'd been coming over for years. It didn't bother me but did take me a little off guard as she made her way to the couch and sat next to my books.
"No problem," I answered shakily, closing the door and taking a seat next to her, feeling completely stupid as I tried to mimic the way she comfortably curled her long legs underneath herself.
"I mean, I was all for waiting for my neighbor to get home," Bridgette giggled, flipping her hair over her shoulder. "But I really do need to study."
I gave Bridgette a questioning look, totally confused as to why she would giggle about her neighbor. With no more prompting but my stare, she launched into her story.
"Okay, so I've lived next to this hot guy for years," she said excitedly. "But he's never looked at me in that way. See, he's a few years older so it wasn't even legal until a few months ago."
She giggled madly again and I gave a small smile. I heard more words like "hot" and "gorgeous" to describe the neighbor but she didn't actually give a name or a real description of his appearance so I soon found myself spacing out. It was hard to keep up with how fast she talked but she didn't seem to need much from me except for a few mumbled responses.
After Bridgette was done gushing about her crush, we shared a bowl of popcorn while we quizzed each other for the upcoming test we had. I had to excuse myself a few times to work on the laundry but Bridgette just followed me and leaned against the doorway to the garage, chatting nonstop. I was waiting for her to ask why I was folding clothes that obviously didn't belong to me but she was too caught up with her own voice.
In the end, the evening turned out better than I hoped and, as if she was sensing my anxiety as it got later, Bridgette left just before Tess called to tell me she was on her way home. It would take them an hour to get home so I took my time putting everyone's clothes away and then made my way down to my room.
The following Thursday, just as I was about to leave for class, the phone rang. I answered it wearily, fearing Tess would give me a horrendous chore to complete after class. She had been in a particularly bad mood that morning before work; I didn't know why. Luck was with me and it was Bridgette.
"Hey, Bella, it's me," Bridgette said, sounding terrible.
"Hey, what's wrong? You sound terrible."
"Yeah, I'm sick," she answered hoarsely. "Could you take notes for me?"
"Yeah, of course," I assured her before telling her I hoped she felt better and hurrying out the door; I was late for Biology now.
I let the teacher, Mr. Martin, know that Bridgette would be absent that day and took my seat at the back of the class. I took out my textbook to look over what we'd be covering that day. I was halfway through starting the introduction to the chapter when Mr. Martin cleared his throat, signaling that class was beginning.
"Good afternoon, everyone," he said loudly. "We have a special guest today. Please welcome EMT Edward Cullen."
There was a polite smattering of applause and I looked up to see someone dressed in all navy blue with a blue baseball cap with EMT stitched in red across the front stand up and take his place next to Mr. Martin, raising a hand in greeting. I could see messy bronze colored hair peeking out from under his hat. He had broad shoulders and a very square jaw covered in a bit of stubble. He smiled crookedly and even from the back of the room, I could see his green eyes sparkle. I couldn't help but notice how very good-looking he was—I swear, he looked like a male model—so I looked down at my book so I didn't look like I was staring unnecessarily.
"Now, I know this isn't a health class," Mr. Martin continued. "But after my brief encounter with a choking woman in a restaurant, I decided it would be a good idea to introduce us all to the art of CPR."
Mr. Martin chuckled and gestured to EMT Edward; Edward grabbed what I thought was a student out of one of the front row chairs that turned out to be a badly dressed CPR dummy.
I didn't pay strict attention to the tutorial—I was already a certified "life saver"—but I noticed that every once in a while, when Edward leaned over the dummy to demonstrate that his eyes would flash up in my direction. Each time he did, I hid my eyes behind my book. Mr. Martin didn't notice my inattention, too swept up in the lesson himself, but Edward seemed to notice. Every time I cast my eyes downward, I thought I saw him smile that sly crooked smile again.
When Edward had everyone in the class take turns giving the dummy mouth to mouth—a few of the boys snickered when it was their turn—Mr. Martin swept the room, asking a few people questions to make sure we were listening. When he reached my desk, he looked down at me with a slightly disapproving frown.
"Ms. Swan," he said in a stern voice. "Is there any reason why you're reading the textbook and not joining in?"
"I'm already certified," I answered in a small voice. When Mr. Martin continued to look at me disbelievingly, I dug in my wallet for my Red Cross card.
"Oh, well then please answer the questions at the end of the chapter," Mr. Martin said reluctantly after handing me back my certification.
When Edward was finished, the class gave him another round of applause, more enthusiastically this time, and he bowed deeply from the waist. Everyone started gathering up their books and bags, a few people approaching Edward to shake his hand or ask him a question. I shoved my textbook back into my backpack, grabbed my paper with the answers for the end of the chapter questions, and made my way to the front of the room, too.
I dropped my work on Mr. Martin's desk and turned to let him know that I did what I was asked. When I looked, however, he was busy describing his experience at the restaurant, gesturing wildly. Edward was listening politely but when I looked in his direction, he caught me looking and gave me a wide smile.
I felt my heart beat faster, my face turning bright red, as my nerves got the best of me. I put my head down and walked swiftly from the room, only glancing back when I reached the door. I thought I saw Edward staring after me, a slightly disappointed look in his emerald eyes.
It was probably my imagination but Edward really did look sorry that he couldn't follow me out of the room. I shook my head once and continued out to my car.
"Wishful thinking," I whispered to myself once I was out of earshot of anyone else. "I'm spending too much time with Bridgette and her stories about her crush."
When I got home, I gave Bridgette a call. I didn't keep her on the phone long—her voice was getting even raspier—and though she was glad that she didn't miss much in the way of Biology, she was disappointed that she didn't get to see the "cute" EMT. These were her words, not mine. I didn't even mention to her that I thought the same thing about him and tried not to even think about how he had looked at me, let alone tell her about it.
The next day, I didn't have anything to do so in the afternoon, I went over to Bridgette's with some chicken soup and cough drops. Her house was across town and twice as big as Tess's. We sat across each other in the living room and watched a couple of girlie movies.
Once again, I lost track of time with Bridgette and had to leave in a hurry. My car took a few tries to get started and I chugged home as fast as I could.
I groaned when I saw Tess's shiny red Mini Cooper parked in front of the house along with a couple of cars I didn't recognize. I grabbed my things and dragged my feet up to the front door.
I turned the handle but found it locked so I reached in my pocket for my key. Just as I was about to put it in the lock, I heard the dead-bolt—which I did not have a key for—turn with a loud click.
I froze with my hand extended toward the lock, confused. As far as I knew, Tess had never locked me out of the house on purpose.
I put my key back in my pocket and raised my hand again. I hesitantly knocked on the door. No one answered so I knocked again, a bit louder.
"Tess?" I called through the wood. "Tess, its Bella. Let me in!"
It was silent for a moment and then I heard the locks turn again.
Tess opened the door just wide enough to stick her blonde head out.
"Why, hello, Bella," she said in a falsely cheery voice. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, I was hoping to come in," I answered, trying my best not to sound too snotty but I was getting seriously annoyed with her; she never got irritated with me without voicing her reasons.
"That's going to be a problem tonight," Tess said, wrinkling her nose and giving me a sickly sweet smile. "You see, I have some potential clients over tonight and since you decided to not come home on time, then you are not welcome to come in."
I felt my breath come out in a gust. I was lost for words. I sputtered incoherently, trying to think of something to say that would get me into the house but nothing popped up but a string of dirty words to call Tess—none of which I'd ever even said aloud, let alone called Tess to her face.
"You can sleep in your car or on the street for all I care," she said acidly, glancing over her shoulder. "Just don't come back tonight."
With that, Tess slammed the door in my face and turned the locks again. I stood for a moment, blinking in a confused way, before turning back to my car. I could hear Tess's fake laugh she used for clients coming from inside the house.
I considered going back to Bridgette's but she wasn't feeling well and I didn't want to explain what happened. I bit my lip, trying to think of my options. I finally remembered that I had opened the window last night to let some cool air into my room and that I had never closed it.
I picked up my purse again, ducked my head to get past the front window and ran in a half-crouch around to the side of the house.
My window was just above my dresser and was level with the ground. It was barely large enough for me to squeeze in through and if I wasn't careful, I'd knock off all the pictures on my dresser, sending them crashing loudly to the floor. Tess had once caught me sneaking in that way when I had forgotten my key and had practically kicked me out again until I reminded her that if I hadn't gotten in then who would cook her breakfast in the morning?
I swung my leg through the window and reached down slowly until my toes found the top of the dresser. I carefully put my other leg through too and balanced myself on the edge of the dresser, catching myself with the edge of the window frame before I fell flat on my back. I heaved a large sigh when I got myself safely onto my soft, green carpet.
I flipped on my lamp and sat down on the edge of my bed, waiting to see if anyone upstairs had heard me. All I could hear was more of Tess's fake laughter followed by the sound of my stomach growling loudly. I hadn't eaten anything since lunch and I was starving. I wondered if I had anything still stashed in my room.
From under my bed, I pulled out a grocery bag full of snacks—granola bars, chips, crackers, a few candy bars. I dumped them eagerly onto my bed, grabbed the bag of potato chips and tore them open. I ate them greedily, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and grabbed the water bottle I had in my purse.
Once I had polished off the bag, I looked at the clock. It was barely past eight and I had nothing else to do. I didn't feel like reading or listening to music. I really did want a shower but that was out of the question.
I leaned my head back onto my bed and stared at the ceiling. I opened a granola bar and took a bit, chewing slowly. My thoughts wandered to the EMT from yesterday.
I don't know why I thought of him though I was still wondering if he really had been looking at me. Maybe he had been since I was the only person not watching him give his lesson. Perhaps that disappointed look was just because of that. I didn't want to get my hopes up that it was anything more than that.
As far as I knew, no guy had looked at me in any special way. I was too plain, too nerdy to really draw attention. It probably put guys off the way I always had a book in my hand, making me look pretty antisocial, but it was they way I felt most comfortable in public. I carried a book with me everywhere, just in case I had a few boring moments to fill, and most people seemed extremely confused by that.
I jumped up off the floor, suddenly annoyed with myself for just sitting on the floor of my room on a Friday night all because I wasn't allowed in the rest of the house. I had no idea what I should do with myself but I shouldn't be doing this.
I grabbed my purse and hoisted myself out the window again. I sprinted to my car, got in and closed the door behind me as quietly as I could. I rummaged in my purse, gathering up all the change at the bottom, and then started the engine. I cringed at how loud it was and cast a furtive look at the front window. I could see Tess's silhouette behind the curtains, a cocktail glass in her hands. I saw her throw her head back to laugh wildly and felt reassured that she hadn't heard my car start.
I drove to the only privately owned coffee shop in town, glad that it was a Friday night and that they'd be open for a few more hours. It was called South Side Coffee Shop, because of its location in town, and the coffee brewed there was only local blends and was much tastier than any Starbucks coffee I had ever tried.
The shop wasn't too busy but I saw a few regulars hanging out at the tables outside, laughing and smoking. I parked half-way down the street and went inside.
It was warm and cozy inside with only a few of the small, wooden tables occupied. The register counter was set in the middle of the right-hand side wall and I couldn't see who was behind it because the espresso machine was blocking my view. I waved at a couple in the back near the piano that smiled at me politely and stepped up to the counter.
To my surprise, there wasn't anyone there at all but when I looked to my left, just past the bagel display, I saw that the storeroom was open. I leaned over the counter to get a better view into the room and saw a familiar leather jacket hanging on the peg inside the door.
"Hey, Todd!" I called out.
My old friend Todd appeared, dressed in his usual plain white t-shirt and blue jeans, cuffed at the bottom, a smile lighting his face. Todd had his dark hair slicked back as usual, completing his James Dean look, and he patted it habitually when he saw me.
"Hey there, good-looking," he said cheerfully, coming to stand behind the register and placing his hands on the counter. "Where've you been?"
"Ugh, Tess has had me busy all summer, of course," I said, rolling my eyes.
"When are you just going to ditch that—" he cut himself off before he said anything foul, processing my glare. "Sorry, I know why you stay there. Doesn't mean I haven't missed you."
"Yeah, yeah," I said dismissively, waving my hand; Todd winked at me.
Todd and I grew up next to each other. Before my parents had died, we had been best friends but he and I had drifted apart over the years.
He flashed me one of his sly smiles and went to pour me a cup of coffee.
"It's a good thing you're here," Todd said to me over his shoulder as he added milk and sugar to my cup.
"Let me guess," I said, giving a fake sigh and piling my change on the counter to pay for my coffee. "You need me to balance your register."
"You're a mind reader, doll," Todd said, setting my cup down on the counter and giving me another wink. I rolled my eyes again and came around the counter to sit at the only stool behind the register.
I spent the next couple of hours helping out Todd, running the register and chatting easily about school and Tess.
Around nine forty-five, I heard loud footsteps coming across the hardwood floor. I looked up to see a sleek blonde in high heels coming towards the counter. I felt especially grungy around her. While I was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans and my hair probably needed to be brushed, she was wearing a mini-skirt and a strappy tank top even though it was no where near warm enough outside for it. Her ice-blonde hair flowed down her back, almost to her waist.
Before I could ask the girl if she knew what she wanted to order, Todd was right behind me.
"Hey there, sweetheart," Todd said, leaning across the counter.
The girl leaned towards Todd as well and planted her lips on his. I let them have what was basically a make-out session for a good thirty seconds before I sighed and gave Todd's leg a good pinch.
Todd jumped away from the counter. The girl stuck her bottom lip out in a pout; Todd patted his hair and gave a nervous chuckle.
"Bella, this is Sarah," he said, gesturing at the tall blonde.
"Hey, Bell," the girl said in a sing-song voice, pulling out a tube of lip gloss from her hip pocket and applying it heavily to her perfect, pink lips.
"Hey…Sar," I answered uncomfortably, casting my eyes back down to my book.
"So, are we going out tonight?" Sarah asked impatiently. "I wanted to go to Jasper's tonight."
"I'm the only one here," Todd pointed out. "I gotta close up tonight."
"What about her?" Sarah asked, acting as though I wasn't sitting right in front of her.
"Chill. She's just helping out," Todd said with a shrug.
I peeked up just in time to see Sarah roll her eyes and cross her arms tightly across her chest. She exhaled in a huff and turned halfway towards the door.
"Well, I don't feel like waiting," she complained. "Jennifer is already over there."
Todd shuffled through the stack of credit card receipts in front of him, keeping his eyes down. I glanced up again at Sarah; she looked furious. She glared down at me and I looked down again, shifting uncomfortably on the stool.
Sarah started tapping her heel and Todd finally set down the receipts.
"I told you," he said irritably. "I have to close up."
"Fine!" Sarah snapped. "I'm going out with Jennifer.
"Alight," Todd said indifferently.
Sarah flung her blonde hair over her shoulder and started to stalk out. Before she had taken two steps, she turned around again, fixing Todd with another pout.
"Will you meet me there when you're off?" she asked sweetly, batting her eyelashes.
"Of course," Todd answered, sounding as though their argument had never happened; I felt my jaw drop open.
Sarah gave Todd an alluring smile and swept from the room. Todd tried to go back to what he was doing but I could see him sneaking a few glances at me, waiting for me start asking questions.
"So…" I said slowly; Todd kept sorting receipts. When he didn't say anything, I continued in a teasing tone. "She seems like a sweet girl."
"Shut up," Todd mumbled, clearly embarrassed.
"No, really," I said eagerly, setting my book aside. "She's a real gem. I bet you even found her at Jasper's!"
Todd knew my distaste for the sleazy bar across the street from the coffee shop. Neither Todd nor I was old enough for it but the owner rarely carded anyone so Todd snuck me in a couple times. I never drank anything but sodas or water there. Todd, on the other hand, usually needed me there to get him home safely.
"Jasper's isn't that bad," Todd muttered. He looked up at me to see my incredulous stare. "Alright, fine," he admitted. "It's a real dive."
"You got that right," I said under my breath, picking up my book again.
Todd was awkwardly silent for a few moments.
"What did you think of her, really?" he finally asked in a low voice.
"I really don't know," I shrugged. "She doesn't seem like your type. She was pretty bossy."
"Yeah, I know," he sighed. "She was pretty nice when I first met her, though."
"Were you drunk?" I asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Maybe," he said shiftily and I laughed.
"As long as she doesn't break your heart," I said in a mock sorrow voice, putting a hand over my own heart and pretending like I was blinking back tears.
"Alright, enough about Sarah," Todd laughed, giving my shoulder a little shove. "I'm going to pull in the outside tables. Let's close up."
I counted the register one last time and jotted down the amount in a black ledger. Todd went around the counter and outside; I could hear him chatting with the few people still socializing outside as he carried in the metal lawn chairs and tables.
"So, anything new with you in the guy department?" Todd asked later as we cleaned the wooden tables inside the café.
"About as much as usual," I mumbled, thinking of that EMT again. I didn't want to mention this to Todd either but he knew me so well, he could tell I was avoiding something.
"What's his name?" he asked with a wide grin; I threw my dirty cleaning rag at him. He caught it easily before it hit him in the face. "What? I was just wondering if I knew him!"
"I'm sure you don't," I said sharply. "And even if you did, it doesn't matter. He's not interested in me."
"Oh puh-lease!" Todd said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "Plenty of guys have shown interest in you, you're just too oblivious to notice."
I shrugged, hoping he would drop it. We cleaned in silence and after I put a few chairs upside down on the tables, I turned to Todd again.
"Listen, it was great seeing you," I said, wiping my hands on the back of my pants and reaching behind the counter for my purse. "But I really should get going."
"Gotta climb back through your window before the warden notices you're gone," Todd said with a smirk.
"Oh, hush!" I said, playfully smacking his arm.
Todd grabbed my hand, shoving a couple twenties into it.
"Thank you for helping tonight," he said sincerely, giving me a one-armed hug.
"No problem," I answered, returning the hug. When I pulled away I thought I saw him frown.
When I got home, Tess was still entertaining her guests, laughing even louder than when I had left. She must have had a few more drinks. I slipped in through my window without a sound, closing it firmly behind me. I slipped into a pair of warm sweats before turning out the light and crawling into bed.
It was hard to even think about getting to sleep, and not just because Tess was being so loud. I was thinking about what Todd had said about other guys showing interest in me. I was sure he was just saying that because he was my friend…or was he?
All through elementary school and on to middle school, Todd had always been there for me. He was always there to tell me the truth about something, no matter how difficult it was. Our falling out had happened just before my parents had died and I knew he regretted that so it felt like every chance he got, he would say something nice just to boost my spirits.
So which was it? Was he telling me the truth, the way only he could? Or was he just trying to cheer me up?
I sighed and rolled over so I was facing the wall. I pulled the pillow out from under my head and put it over my ear, pressing it down to muffle the sounds coming from upstairs. I closed my eyes.
And then that EMT's face popped into my head. In my head, he really was looking right at me, his green eyes penetrating my own muddy brown ones, his lips turning up in that sexy crooked smile…
I tried to think of something else besides Edward's good looks and my thoughts wandered to his age. I was sure he was older than me, though he certainly didn't look old. He had been so tall and lean but I could tell that under his EMT uniform he was quite muscled. I remembered seeing his biceps flex as he picked up the CPT dummy…
I groaned and rolled over again, onto my back, pulling the pillow with me and putting it over my face.
I had never been one to lie around, thinking about a boy; I couldn't figure out why I was doing it tonight. Whether or not Edward had been looking at me, I'd probably never see him again so there was no point to even fantasizing about him.
So why was I?
The next few weeks passed without anything exciting happening. Bridgette was feeling better within a week of getting sick and we hung out every few days. At first, she was always trying to get me to confess more about my life but she quickly figured out that I wasn't like that. She slowly started becoming more like me, enjoying moments of silence that, when we first met, she would struggle to fill with idle chatter.
I started getting in the habit of running by the gas station I passed on the way to Human Geography on Tuesdays to get at least a drink. If I had enough money, I'd grab a snack as well so I also tried to make it a habit to help out Todd on the busier nights during the week so that I could make a few extra dollars. I hadn't noticed at first how difficult the summer was coming along when I didn't have a job and steady money coming in so Todd made a deal with the owner of the coffee shop and I started working full shifts on the weekend nights.
One of the times I stopped by the gas station, I noticed a white EMT van sitting in the parking lot. When I came back out, it was gone; I wondered if I was imagining things. I shook my head, amazed at myself for thinking about that EMT yet again.
And I did still think about him, curious—though I tried not to admit it—if I'd see him again. I did live in a pretty small town. But what were the odds of coming across the same EMT unless I was to get seriously hurt? And even if I did get hurt, I didn't have the money to call 911 and get a ride to the hospital. There was no way I'd ask Tess for the money. I'd have to just bleed all over the seats of my Mustang—at least the interior was already red.
Every time I drove by that gas station, I would glance in the parking lot. I was shocked to see the white van back more than once; it must just be a coincidence. One of the times I saw it, though, I got real paranoid and drove all the way into the lot only to find that the van was just an ordinary old, broken down hippie-style van.
"Get a grip, Swan!" I said to myself in the car, leaning my head against the steering wheel. "You're not going to see him again!"
But deep down, I knew I wanted to.
I was surprised when it was already the middle of the summer. Bridgette was becoming a real good friend and Todd and I were hanging out more than we ever did when I was back in town. I was happy about this but also a little curious. What about his girlfriend? Every time I'd ask where Sarah was and why he wasn't hanging out with her, though, he'd quickly change the subject.
One Sunday, Tess was being her usual charming self so I left for work early, which turned out to be a good thing.
I came into the shop, expecting to see Todd busy behind the counter, but I received a shock when I saw someone else there. He looked familiar, one of the regulars, but I didn't know his name. He was a heavyset guy with dark hair that swung into his eyes and he always wore all black, no matter the weather.
"Hey, where's Todd?" I asked, coming up to the counter.
"No idea," the guy said, shrugging his shoulders. "He asked me to cover a quick break for him and hasn't been back since. It's been at least an hour."
"Weird…" I mused, trying to think of where he would be. "Well, I hope he's alright."
"Don't worry," he chuckled. "I think he said something about Sarah."
"Figures," I mumbled and then continued at a normal volume. "Why don't you get yourself a cup of coffee, on the house?"
We exchanged places and after he got himself a cup of coffee, the guy went back outside to his friends. I got to work making fresh pots of coffee and grinding more beans for later. I couldn't help glancing at the door every few minutes, waiting for Todd to come strolling in—possibly with a few new hickeys on his neck—smiling like an idiot. I tried calling his phone a few times but it went straight to voicemail every time, meaning his phone was either dead or turned off.
The later the evening got, the more worried I felt. Luckily, the shop closed at eight on Sundays. It was a real slow evening so I started the end of the night cleaning routine early and had the doors closed and locked at five to eight.
I went to the curb outside of the coffee shop and looked up and down the street. I spotted Todd's truck parked halfway down the block but didn't see him anywhere. I frowned and fidgeted with my keys, wondering what I should do.
"You looking for Todd?" a deep voice asked.
I turned with a start to see a guy name Jeremy standing next to me. Jeremy was a few years older than me but a little slow. He liked to walk around town all day with a backpack on his back that I never saw him open. He had stringy blonde hair and was missing a couple teeth but he was a real nice guy.
"Yeah, have you seen him?" I asked, craning my neck to look down the block again.
"He went into Jasper's hours ago," Jeremy answered, as though it was obvious.
"Jasper's, of course," I groaned. "Did he have Sarah with him?"
"Yeah, but she left, like, right away," Jeremy said in his slow drawl.
"Thanks, Jeremy," I said, patting him on the arm. He gave me a nearly toothless smile and ambled off.
I crossed the street to Jasper's. Though it was a Sunday, the windows glowed brightly and there were a handful of cars parked in the small lot next to the bar. I walked up to the front door, ran my hands through my hair a couple of times, and took a deep breath. I always felt nervous when I came in here.
I yanked on the heavy wooden door and entered the dim room.
The second I walked in, a large man blocked my way; I almost ran straight into him. I looked straight up, past his huge belly and his tightly crossed arms, to look at his shiny bald head and severe expression.
"Can I help you, missy?" he asked in a voice so deep it practically shook the floor.
"I-I'm just looking for someone," I stuttered, taking a small step back.
"Do you have ID?" he boomed.
"N-no," I answered. "But I'm not here to d-drink, just to pick up a friend."
The man looked down his nose at me, pursing his lips. I tried to give him a friendly smile. Finally, he took a step to the side and gestured that I could come in; I gave a small sigh.
I glanced around the room, my eyes already adjusted to the strange orange light of the room.
There were a group of men playing pool in the corner by the jukebox that was playing some classic rock off actual vinyl records. They looked up when they saw me, a couple of them smiling and winking in my direction. I tried to ignore them and continued my survey of the room.
At the bar there were two men. One was sitting at the stool farthest from the door, a dark blue baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He wore dark jeans and a black Dickie's jacket. He cupped his hands lightly around a tall beer glass. I saw him glance once in my direction but he quickly cast his eyes back to his drink.
In the center of the bar, slumped over the counter and surrounded by empty beer glasses, was Todd. He looked fast asleep.
I strode over to the bar with a sigh. I pulled up another stool and sat down next to Todd. I moved a few of the bar glasses out of the way and grabbed his shoulders.
"Todd? Todd!" I shook his shoulders roughly, just about yelling in his ear. Slowly, he lifted his head and looked around with unfocused eyes.
"Todd? C'mon, let's get you home," I said loudly.
"What?" Todd asked dumbly, still looking around like he didn't know where he was or that someone was talking directly to him.
"Todd? It's Bella," I said, putting my hands on either side of his face and turning him to look at me.
"Oh, hey, Bella," he said with a vacant smile. His breath wafted over me and I cringed away from the strong alcohol smell.
"Are you okay?" I asked him, still trying to get him to focus on me.
"Yeah, sure," he said, waving his hand dismissively; I frowned.
"Alright, well, let's get you out of here." I grabbed his hand and threw his arm over my shoulders. I tried to stand but Todd didn't help at all, he just sat there limply.
"Get up, Todd," I grunted, elbowing him in the ribs.
He got to his feet unsteadily, swaying where he stood. I tried to get him balanced but I had horrible balance on my own. I nudged him again, harder this time, and he stood up a bit straighter.
We shuffled our way across the room; I could already feel my back and shoulders compressing painfully. I wrapped my arm tightly around Todd's waist, gripping his t-shirt.
"Why didn't you come back to work?" I grumbled at him. "I was worried. Did something happen?"
"You could say that," Todd answered, slurring his words together; I almost couldn't make out what he was saying. "Sarah broke up with me."
"I'm sorry," I tried to answer sympathetically but I was gritting my teeth together so tightly that I could barely get my own words out. I could feel sweat beading up on my forehead from the effort of pulling him along.
"No you're not," Todd snorted, coming to a stop; he swayed again.
"What are you talking about?" I asked breathlessly, wondering if this was just the liquor talking.
"You're such a tease," Todd said angrily, leaning heavily on my shoulders. "You say you want me to be happy but when then when I find someone, you find so many things wrong with her. And all the while you flirt with me."
"You're not making any sense," I said quietly, trying to understand what he was saying.
"You're such a tease!" he yelled again. "I've liked you for years but every time I make a move…"
Todd shook his head and I attempted to get him moving again.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Todd, let's just—"
"No!" Todd shouted, jerking his arm away from me and shoving my shoulders. "You get all these guys falling at your feet but you don't even notice. Well, here's another one! Take him!"
Todd flung his arms out, rocking back on his heels dangerously.
"Todd, you're just… my friend," I said, bewildered. I backtracked, trying to figure out if he really had ever made a move. I thought we were just really good friends. Was all that extra friendliness actually something more?
"Then quit flirting with me!" he said belligerently, finally overbalancing and falling flat on his face.
"Todd!" I cried out, dropping to my knees. He had passed out again.
"Don't worry about him," a voice above me said. I looked up to see the doorman towering over me. "I'll make sure he gets home okay."
"Are you sure?" I asked, putting my hand on Todd's shoulder.
"I've done it before," the man chuckled.
I looked down at Todd once more. I felt bad for leaving him here but it looked like I didn't have a choice; there was no way I'd be able to lift him now. I nodded at the doorman and left quickly, before I could change my mind.
I got into my car, parked down the block from the coffee shop, but didn't start it yet. I sat and waited, watching the bar, to see if the man really was going to get Todd home safely. Of course, I wouldn't know if he actually got home alright without following but I figured as long as I saw him leave that I might feel a bit better about abandoning him.
I only had to wait a few minutes before I saw three people leaving the bar—Todd with two men flanking him, the doorman and the man at the bar in the hat.
"Wow, nice guy," I muttered, watching as the three made their way into the parking lot.
I received another surprise as I saw them help Todd into the front seat of an EMT van. I closed my eyes tightly and opened them again, not believing what I was seeing. But the van was still there, slowly pulling out and turning in the direction of Todd's house.
I was tempted to follow, and not because I was worried about Todd. I was overwhelmed with the urge to find out if that EMT was really…
"No, no, no!" I said to myself, pressing my fingertips to my closed eyelids. "It's not the same guy! Quit thinking he's following you! It's just a coincidence… You're just thinking about him so much you want him to be here…"
I sighed heavily and opened my eyes again. I started my car and, without looking in the direction of the van, I drove home.