Day Two Hundred and Thirty-Three.
“Fucking finally!” I exclaimed immediately, glad to be in the privacy of my own room. “Where the hell did you scamper off to, freckles?”
“Uh… what?” Pep asked in confusion.
As if she didn’t know. I had been trying to get in touch with her for three days. Three days!
“You weren’t home all day Sunday because I walked over with Elvis three times a33;“ where were you, by the way?” Without giving her a chance to respond, I continued, “I didn’t have time to stop by yesterday, but I finally got my phone back and I called and texted all day long. I did the same today and only just got a hold of you now. What the hell, Pepper?”
Usually I wouldn’t be this upset, but it had been three long, lonely days. I still hadn’t met with Pep after Halloween, and I had stories to tell. It was killing me to keep it all inside.
Actually, I had already confided in Joe. He was very upset with me. He said that Rainie was obviously not in her right state of mind and I had taken advantage of her - again. I was a total jerk, and obviously she wasn’t going to break up with Jesse for someone who continued to take advantage of her when she was most vulnerable! How could I? What is wrong with me? I should never, never take advantage of a drunk girl! If Mom found out what I’d done, she would beat me with a stick!
(Side-note: These words are Joe’s and not mine, of course).
We hadn’t talked about it since then, but every so often I caught him glaring at me like I was some sick son of a bitch who deserved to be imprisoned. Once, he purposely came into the family room while I was watching television, singing at the top of his lungs Something Corporate’s ‘I Kissed a Drunk Girl’. He stood on the coffee table to obstruct my view as he belted out, “I know you are not the one! I know you are not! The one!”
Needless to say, I was done with confiding in Joe.
“Well, I had school…”
“Not on Sunday,” I pointed out. I sighed, deciding to forgive her. “There’s so much to tell you. What are you doing right now? You wanna take the dogs for a walk?”
“I can’t,” she replied.
“Oh.” If there was a reason why, I didn’t bother asking. “Can I come over, then? Or do you want to come here? I need to see your face as I tell you this. Your mind will be blown to smithereens.”
“Okay. I’ll come over,” she agreed.
“Good. See you soon.”
I hoped she would sprint over here, because I desperately needed her to help me. Usually Pep’s advice was pointless, but in this case, I was willing to take any assistance I could get. I especially needed her advice as to what to do about Avery. I didn’t get my phone back until thirty-six hours after I’d stranded Avery at the party, and by then, I wondered if it was too late to call and apologize. So I hadn’t. And with each minute that passed, I felt worse and worse. I needed someone to tell me what to do.
It took seven minutes to travel from my house to Pep’s on foot, but she took about fifteen from the time we hung up. Since I’d done nothing but pace every hour of the day that was spent unoccupied, waiting those eight extra minutes was torture. I could just imagine Avery sitting by her phone growing angrier and angrier each passing minute, condemning me to Miley and then to the press. And as they interviewed her on Barbara Walters and she told the world what a prick I was, she’d wink at me on-camera. The wink that I feared more than almost anything else. I’m a man of few fears, but that wink struck panic through my heart and chilled my bones like no other.
Pep entered my house clad in jean shorts, a large green hoodie (well, large for her), and Birkenstocks with white socks. It was a bit of an odd combination, but I didn’t have time to analyze her outfit.
“It feels like I haven’t seen you in twenty years,” was the first thing I said to her as she walked in. I shook my head. “No matter. You’ll never guess what happened to me on Saturday.”
She shrugged calmly, playing with her keychain. “Rainie broke up with Jesse and declared her love for you?”
“Way to ruin a story with a fairytale ending, Pep.” I rolled my eyes.
“Oh, this story is fairytale all right,” Joe remarked, making his way past us into the kitchen. “Nick, tell her what a Prince Charming you are. The Prince to Rainie’s Cinderella. The other Prince to Avery’s Snow White. Just an all-around noble, genuine, considerate Prince Cha33;””
“Wanna go outside?” I interrupted, speaking only to Pep. She nodded agreeably. Absently, I gave Joe the finger as we exited through the back door.
“Okay,” I continued, following her to the grass. “On Saturday night, I showed up with Avery. I told you the first part, right? You called me while I was there.”
I hardly noticed that Pep wasn’t quite as peppy as usual. It was much more important to get my story out so that we could make conclusions and figure out where to go from there.
“First of all, Rainie was dressed as Hermione Granger. This is, without a doubt, another sign that we’re meant to be. You know how much I love Hermione Granger.”
Pep chose a spot on the grass near a large tree in the backyard. Instantly, Elvis ran up to her to give her a few welcoming kisses. She accepted him with open arms and a sad smile.
I sat beside her, glaring at Elvis in disapproval because he was snubbing me, and continued, “Then she tried to flirt with Avery. That’s why I’m still convinced she’s into girls. She’s definitely bisexual, if not a total lesbian. After that, we… what’s wrong?” I changed directions mid-sentence because I noticed a couple of tears leaking from Pep’s eyes. Huh. That had never happened before.
She sniffled, allowing Elvis to continue to assault her with kisses. “Nothing,” she insisted, retaining her sad smile.
Bullshit. “No…” I trailed off in confusion. “You’re crying. My story is sad, but not until the very end.”
She shook her head vigorously, shutting her eyes tightly and taking a deep breath to rid herself of tears. When she opened her eyes, Elvis took a seat right up against her, eager to receive some attention. She draped an arm around him and said, “It’s just… it’s Shep. He’s so sick.”
I frowned. “How come?”
She shrugged sadly, leaning her head on Elvis for support. “Thyroid problems… hip problems… old age… everything, really. We took him to the vet on Sunday and stayed there all day. They operated, but it didn’t look like anything was improving like they’d hoped. Then yesterday he just kept getting worse.” Her eyes shifted to the ground as she muttered, “They’re putting him down today.”
I paused, letting this sink in. “Oh,” I said quietly, lowering my head. Now I felt like a real jerk for forcing her to come over to my house while I spit out all my girl problems. It was hard to see her so sad. I never imagined she was capable of this emotion, and it scared me. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to act.
And I was kind of upset that this was happening now, at such an inconvenient time for me.
“Do you want to stay for dinner?” I suggested after a few moments of silence. “I think my mom’s cooking ham. We have mint chocolate chip ice cream that’s reserved for Kevin’s birthday, but I’d be willing to dig it out early without his knowledge.”
Pep smiled again, that sad smile that I was sure I couldn’t get used to. “No, it’s okay. My parents will be home for dinner.”
“Where’s Carter?” I asked, referring to her younger brother.
“He went with them. I just… couldn’t.”
I nodded slowly. “Will you be okay?”
I was thankful that her tears were gone, at the very least. I didn’t like when girls cried, because I never knew how to comfort them. Growing up with two older brothers didn’t exactly provide me with an overly-sensitive side.
“Yeah,” she assured me, wiping her tears with the sleeve of her sweater. “Okay, go on. I want to hear what happened.”
Well, I couldn’t tell her about it now. That would simply be insensitive. My problems seemed small all of a sudden, even though they had consumed my mind and soul for the past seventy-two hours.
I licked my lips. “No, it’s not important.”
“Nick J,” she said firmly, “Tell me what happened.”
I didn’t want her to start crying again, so I continued to recount my evening. Pep chuckled every so often, very loyally scratching Elvis’ head the entire time. He appreciated it. In fact, he laid down beside her and rested his head on her knee, as if he knew there was something wrong. What a good dog, providing all the comfort I couldn’t. We made a great team.
I had just gotten to the point in the story where I found Rainie lurking in an upstairs bedroom when Pep’s phone vibrated. She pulled it out of the pocket on her green hoodie and set it next to her ear.
“Hello? ... hi… it’s, it’s over? … how was he?”
I wondered if it was wrong to study her expressions as she took this call, but I couldn’t help it. I was fascinated by the way her lip quivered as she held back her tears. Fascinated and terrified.
“… he was? … they did? … and did you give him cheese? … did you stay with him, mom? … did you hold his paw?”
It was then that another tear fell from her eye. Elvis raised his head to observe her; apparently we had the same idea. Me and Elvis, we’re just not into crying girls. It’s one thing when you’re trying to show a girl how awesome you are by being there for her when she’s devastated, like the time I found Rainie crying in her hotel room a33;“ but Pep was my best friend, and I wasn’t looking for anything from her. The crying just made my heart beat faster as I struggled to think of some way to react.
“… okay … I’m at Nick’s, mom… I’ll be home soon … I’ll be okay, I promise … I love you too.”
Pep closed her phone and sniffled as she slowly placed it back into her pocket. With a shaky breath, she leaned her head against the trunk of the tree, and Elvis sat up to lick her tear-stained cheek.
I didn’t know what to say, so I scooted towards the tree and leaned against it as well, our knees touching. I sat there with her for a while. I wasn’t sure how long. It was hard to say if Elvis was making her more or less upset. He was, after all, a dog a33;“ which was probably a touchy subject with her. At the same time, he was very loving and supportive, just like any good dog should be. He never left her side.
Stupid dog. Why was he so good at this?
I was afraid of moving or of making a sound while she shook, so I just sat there, immobile. When her sobs quieted down, however, I let my shoulders relax. She stopped shaking, and I felt more at ease. I knew she was still crying, but it was quiet. I took her hand in mine because it was the only kind gesture I could think of. I didn’t really know what else I could do. Hugging was awkward while sitting down, and I didn’t think a pat on the back would do. Hand-holding would have to suffice.
I would miss that dog, now that I thought of it. He was the reason Pep and I met in the first place. He was the reason I asked for a dog for my birthday. From day one, he had always been Elvis’ companion. He was like the wise sensei, while Elvis idiotically hopped around him, eager to please. Shep was always very patient with him.
It was sad that he was gone. I dragged Pep’s hand to my lap as I ran my thumb back and forth over her bony knuckles. Poor Pep. This was a huge downer on her usually bright and sunny life. I wondered if people like Pep could bounce back from something like this with a smile on their face, or if things like this hit them harder than it hit anybody else because they weren’t accustomed to getting smacked in the face by life. I hoped it wasn’t the latter; I liked sunshiney Pep better.
When I noticed the sun was beginning to set, I asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” I leaned forward to look back at her, releasing her hand from mine.
She smiled bravely, wiping away what remained of her tears. “I should probably get home.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
Pep gave Elvis one last pat on the head as she heaved a sigh and stood up. I followed her inside the house, allowing Elvis entrance as well. It was his dinnertime, anyway.
“Oh, there you are!” Mom cried, her head peeking around the corner of the kitchen. “Pep, will you be staying for dinner?”
“No thanks, Mrs. J,” Pep answered, and I think I was the only one who was able to tell that she was forcing the spark back into her voice. “I’m gonna head home. Thanks for the offer!”
“Have you invited Pep for dinner on Thursday, Nick?” Mom asked me as she continued to busy herself over the stove.
“Oh yeah,” I muttered. “It’s Kevin’s birthday, so we’re having steak. A seat’s reserved for you, carrot-top.”
“Count me in,” she agreed with a nod. I followed her to the front door, where she filled up her cheeks with air and exhaled slowly. “I didn’t get to hear the end of your story,” she pointed out, her hand on the doorknob.
“Tell you later,” I promised.
“Nick, will you set the table?” Mom called from the kitchen. “Dinner will be ready in five!”
“Okay,” Pep said with a small smile, burying her hands in the sleeves of her shirt. “Call me tomorrow, Nick J.”
She opened the door and stepped out, and I paused. I still felt guilty for attempting to force all of my problems on her when she had more important things going on. Such a small person couldn’t handle all of my emotional burdens plus her own. The weight would break her tiny back.
“It’s Joe’s turn!” I yelled to my mother. “Start without me; I’ll be back soon!”
I grabbed Elvis’ leash and quickly hooked it onto his collar before jogging out of the house and down the driveway to meet up with Pep. She looked surprised to see me, and I felt proud of myself for doing a good thing and walking her home. Besides, if Pep was right and girls really did judge the way guys behaved in bed by their actions, then I just made myself seem like a star… right?
After I’d eaten dinner, I retreated to my room and stared at my phone for a while, wondering if there was any way I could possibly make this up to Avery. Before I made it up to her, I had to figure out if I really wanted to make it up to her. Did I need her anymore in my quest to make Rainie jealous? It obviously wasn’t working.
Still, I did a pretty shitty (albeit unintentional) thing to Avery, so I felt I should at least try to be friends with her… even if she did scare the hell out of me sometimes with that wink.
While I was contemplating my next course of action, I glanced absently out the window at the night sky. There were a few stars out. I did a double-take, simply because I liked looking at stars. It was nothing like a North Carolina sky, but it was something.
I wondered if Rainie was watching the same stars. I wondered if Pep was watching them, too. Stars were so effing far away, and all they ever did was shine and watch humans on Earth and laugh at us. Maybe they watched creatures on other planets; creatures that were more ignorant than us. Maybe creatures on other planets had more stars because they were more entertaining and stars liked to gather there. Or maybe they had less. Or maybe there were planets with no stars.
Or maybe stars didn’t watch us at all. They were just lights in the sky to make the moon look not so alone. Maybe stars were people, or ‘great kings of the past’, just like Pep said about the Lion King. Maybe Shep was a star now. Maybe he was watching Pep to make sure she was okay. Or maybe he was doing that from dog-heaven.
I arched an eyebrow with my realization. In the countless number of times in my life I had star-gazed, I had never once felt ‘small’. I did then.