Day Three Hundred and Sixty-Five.
Exactly one year after I first set my eyes on Rainie, I had a new target in mind. Exactly one month after Pep told me she was in love with me, I was ready to admit it, too. Weird how that worked out.
But of course, God wasn't going to make this easy for me. That would be like surrendering, huh, Big Guy? I was itching to see Pep that morning, jiggling my leg up and down as I wolfed my way through my cereal, but I had to go to work and I knew she'd be at school. There were so many times on set when Joe asked me why I was so anxious, and I was bursting to tell him. Still, I felt like Pep should hear it first. When we got home after what had felt like three weeks on set, I changed my clothes and literally had one foot on the door when my dad asked, "Where do you think you're going?"
"To Pep's," I answered.
"Not now," he replied. "You guys are scheduled to rehearse for the award show."
Yeah. That award show. The very same one where I'd set eyes on Rainie for the very first time. It was coming up, and we were performing... again.
I stepped back inside, closed my eyes in pain and cried woefully, "Nooooo."
I never complain about my job, like I said. This was an exception. Right now, my job could fuck itself. I would quit. With God as my witness, I would quit!
"This isn't like McDonald's, Princess," Joe told me as I declared this with passion during the drive to the venue. "You can't just quit."
I told him he could watch and learn. Fucknut.
"You'd have to get a job at Mc-D's if you quit. Aktch," Kevin snorted from the front.
Sighing in displeasure, I uttered under my breath, "Please, no abbrevs today."
Unsurprisingly, my pleas went unanswered.
As we were setting up, I casually asked, "What song are we playing, by the way?"
"Personally, I think we should play sauce," Kevin said in passing.
Though I'd been plugging my guitar into my amp, I straightened to glare at him. "What the hell is sauce, Kevin?"
"S-O-S. Obvs," he replied with a roll of his eyes.
That was it. I couldn't take this. It was all such a waste of time.
I exploded. Just a little bit. Throwing my arms in front of me for dramatic effect, I cried, "You can't abbreviate SOS! It's already abbreviated you dumb FUCK!"
A couple of our band members chuckled quietly to themselves as Kevin stared at me in confusion. "Well, whatev," he brushed it off. "How about Poison Ives?"
I knew he was doing this to piss me off. With a grimace, I balled my hands into fists and forced myself to turn around, away from him. I glanced at my father, and he nodded. Grin and bear it. Complex dental surgery would be required by my twenty-fifth birthday.
After we'd wasted an extraordinary amount of time rehearsing a song that I knew like the back of my hand, it was time to pack up. Every time I heard Kevin's voice, I blinked in annoyance. I feared that I was developing another twitch. More annoying still, he made all of us wait impatiently in the car while he answered a private phone call a hundred yards away. He was actually killing me. With every word that came out of his mouth, with every second wasted because of him, I was dying inside.
Finally, he jumped into the car, all smiles.
As the car set in motion, he asked excitedly, "Guess who has a date with Rainie this weekend?"
"What?!" Joe and I exclaimed in unison. I glared at Kevin. Joe glared at me.
"I asked her if she was seeing someone, and she said no. Sa-weet! This day is turning ridic. All my good karma is piling up. It's like God is saying, ‘Kev, you're a gem. Here, have a good day. It's on me'."
God would be on Kevin's side, if only to spite me.
Shuddering at the sound of abbreviated words, I said very clearly, "Kevin, you can't go out with her."
He gave me a look that told me I was crazy. "Yeah, okay, bro."
First Jesse, then me, and now Kevin. I had to hand it to Rainie: she knew what she was doing, and she knew exactly which targets to hit. Only Kevin would be stupid enough to ask her out after she'd walked all over Jesse and I.
Oh, Kevin. You meathead, you.
"Dude, I'm looking out for you," I told him. "Just stay away. There are other fish in the sea."
Kevin ignored me. "Hey, you know what's awesome? You know that girl Rainie's always with? The photographer?"
"Yep," Joe answered shortly, suddenly immersed in the wonders of his cellular phone.
"They're always together, right? So I asked if she wanted to bring her along, and I'd bring one of my friends or something. You know what Rainie told me?"
I snorted to myself, glancing out the window. My guess: that she's a lesbian?
"That she's a lesbian!" Kevin finished with glee.
My head shot around to look him in the face. My eyes widened. I grinned, almost as excited as Kevin. "I knew it!" I cried. "Are you serious?!"
"Yeah, yeah!" Kevin exclaimed. "Isn't that hilar? It's like, every guy's dream!"
Unable to contain my smile, I warned, "Just you wait. Just you wait."
He had no idea what he was getting himself into. But one year ago, neither did I. Sometimes people have to make their own mistakes. Imagine if Voldemort had listened when Harry told him he wasn't the true master of the Elder Wand.
The good news was that my Chaucer-ness was back. Who called it, right from the beginning? I knew Callan was strictly into girls; it was written all over her face. Finally, I was Chaucer again! It felt right.
Joe turned his head around from the front seat, his expression grave. "Kevin..." he trailed off, waving his cell in the air. "I think you're making a mistake."
"Are you kidding? This is the best decision of my life!"
Joe held up a hand to silence him. "Now, I've typed out a formal apology to Danielle. All you have to do is press ‘send'."
Kevin grabbed the cell from his hands, muttering, "Let me see that."
You know, when I wasn't the one Joe was lecturing, it was pretty amusing to sit back and observe him in action. What a jerkoff; butting into everybody's lives.
"Pft," Kevin scoffed. "I'm not sending this!"
"I highly recommend that you reconsider," Joe said, his eyes shifting to mine only for a second. I smiled in amusement. "Think about it. If you don't send her this text, you know what other guys are gonna be sending her? Sext messages, Kevin. To your Danielle."
Joe was kind of like a younger, less magical and (surprisingly) less hairy Dumbledore and Gandalf combined into one. And Kevin was SamNOTwise Gamgee. And I... well, I was the eye of Sauron. The eye of Sauron sees all. The eye of Sauron knows all. The eye of Sauron is Geoffrey Chaucer in a burning, beady-eyed form.
Grabbing his phone from Kevin, Joe turned around in the front seat and began to type, murmuring to himself, "Hey... gorgeous... lookin'... good... wanna... meet... up..."
"Gimme that!" Kevin cried, jetting forward to reclaim the phone again. Our father was oblivious to this kind of stuff now. He just sat there, going over his notes. And I leaned back in my seat and watched as Joe held his own phone out of the window, threatening to throw it away. I wasn't even surprised that Kevin unbuckled his seat belt and reached over the seat, desperately grabbing for it, as if Joe throwing his own phone out the window would somehow impact Kevin's relationship with Danielle.
While this fiasco was taking place, I took my own phone out of my pocket and sent a simple text message to Danielle, informing her that Kevin was on the verge of doing something stupid and could use a girl like her to help him through these tough times.
With a smirk, I closed my phone and stuffed it back into my pocket. There. I helped out a bro. Kevin may never know what I'd done for him. Whatever harm I had previously caused, the Bro Code could consider itself repaid.
Shazaam. I didn't need a wand to work magic, after all. I've got one word for you, JK Rowling: Poned.
While I waited for someone to answer the Shanahans' front door, I bit the inside of my lip and looked up at the doorframe impatiently. How long does it take to answer a door, anyway?
Pep's dad appeared, his expression neutral as he took sight of me. Le sigh. I was hoping he wouldn't be the one to get the door.
I understand that fathers are protective of their daughters, and I understood why Pep's father wasn't my biggest fan. I did spend an extraordinary amount of time alone with Pep in her bedroom. It made sense that he was suspicious of me, even though he'd never had any reason to be.
... well, he had a reason now.
"Hi, Mr. S," I said politely as he held the door open for me. "Nice day outside."
He watched me take off my shoes and place them neatly next to the others. "Sarah's upstairs."
"Thanks!" I exclaimed. As I was taking the stairs two at a time, I shook my head, disappointed in myself. My thank-you was curiously overenthusiastic. He was probably even more suspicious than before.
As I passed his bedroom, Carter was sitting on the edge of his bed, guitar in his arms. His orangey hair was surprisingly long; it was long enough to shield his eyes. Huh. I guess it had been a while since I'd been here. He now resembled Ron Weasley circa Harry Potter 5. As long as he never let it get as bad as Harry Potter 4, he'd be okay. I'd give him a gentle prodding in the right direction if it came to that.
"Hey," I said, poking my head into his room. "Tuner working alright?"
Instantly, he stopped playing and raised his head, shaking the hair out of his eyes. (Side-note: Such an awkward fourteen-year-old-boy thing. So glad I was past that stage and into my wonder years). "Long time no see," he remarked sceptically.
"Yeah," I nodded in agreement.
"Where you been?"
My quick thinking led me to an elaborate lie. Fooling gullible people was too much fun. I was going to say, ‘I got thrown in prison for theft overseas.' Then he'd say, ‘What'd you steal?' Then I'd say... well, I hadn't gotten there yet, but ‘Girls' hearts' was the pending answer.
Instead, I sighed and admitted, "Nowhere interesting."
"Cool," Carter said with a shrug. Then, giving me my cue to leave, he lowered his head and returned to strumming.
His reaction baffled me, mostly because I expected him to question me further. That's what I would have done, anyway. And then, I realized, I would have chastised myself for acting like a teenaged girl.
I wandered down the hallway and peered into Pep's room with interest. It was untidy. And it was also laundry day, I noted. Her bed was stripped and the comforter lay in a heap on the floor. Even though the window was open and I knew she was on the roof, I knocked on the open door.
She heard. "Come in!" she called.
I took a few steps inside, a frown forming on my face. I didn't realize that Pep went up on her roof alone. I thought it was just a Pep-and-Nick thing. What if she wasn't up there alone? What if Lance was back? No, that was ridiculous. What about that obnoxious shit Jake Lancaster?
I could take him.
"... Dad?" Pep asked in confusion, her voice filtering into the window.
Not exactly sure how to respond, I stepped tentatively towards the windowsill. I got on my knees and leaned forward, glancing immediately to the left where I knew Pep would be. I meant to say ‘hello' right away, but I held my tongue. I wanted to watch her for a moment.
Pep was on her stomach on the slant of the roof, a pen in her hand and papers in front of her. Homework was my guess. I never knew she did homework up here. Her legs were bent at the knee and scissoring in the air. She hummed quietly to herself - after a few seconds of listening, I could distinctly recognize the tune of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody'.
Only Pep would do this, and it made me smile.
Suddenly, even though I was hanging halfway out the window and there was no turning back, I started to fear that this would be an awkward encounter. I had no idea why I hadn't thought of this before. Obviously it would be awkward. Uncomfortable. I wanted to squirm just thinking about it. Pep probably never wanted to see me again. Otherwise she would have called, right? It was insensitive of me to show up without an invite. I broke her tiny heart.
Except it wasn't a tiny heart. It was a really big heart for such a small proton.
As I was contemplating what to say, I inflated my cheeks with air and then blew out quickly. Pep gasped in surprise, jerking her head in my direction.
I'm not sure what I expected. Maybe I thought she'd burst into tears, or maybe I thought she'd shy away from me, but Pep defied all my expectations, as usual. A wide, welcoming smile crossed her face as she said evenly, "Hey, Nick."
I tried not to look so creepy, but it was hard. Honestly, if I was brought back to reality by some jerk poking his head out my window and staring at me, I'd be pretty freaked out.
Sheepishly sucking in a breath, I put my hand on the frame of the window to steady myself as I took a seat on the ledge. "Hey," I replied.
Pep abandoned her homework, sitting up straight and throwing her pen down. Both of us watched as it rolled off the roof and landed in the eaves trough.
I figured it was my job to initiate conversation. "I didn't know you did homework up here," I remarked lamely.
"When it's nice out," she answered, squinting at me as the sunlight hit her eyes. It made her red hair glow.
Drawing a blank was a weird feeling. I wasn't used to it. Momentarily, I forgot what I came here to say. "What are you working on?"
Pep glanced at her papers before looking back at me. "Questions for English. We're reading Merchant of Venice."
"Shakespeare. I've been into him lately," I noted. Taking another look at Pep's glowing form in the sun, I added, "All that glistens is not gold."
She slid down a notch on the roof. "I like, ‘all things that are; are with more spirit chased than enjoyed.'"
I nodded. "I think he knew what he was talking about."
Pep paused for a moment. "But you've finally got your Rainie," she said quietly.
One of the things I liked most about Pep was that no matter how much she was hurting, she always looked concerned for other people over herself. I didn't know how she did that.
"Nah," I said. "She was never really mine."
Pep was reluctant to ask the next question, but I could tell it was on the tip of her tongue. She just had to say it. (Side-note: It was great to have my Chaucer-ness back. I'd always found it helpful). Finally, she blurted out, "What happened?"
I shrugged as casually as possible, gliding my hand against the ledge. "Something made me realize it wasn't written in the stars."
Pep shifted down another notch before asking innocently, "What?"
The corners of my mouth twitched and I fought back a smile, replying, "You."
I'm not going to lie: it was hard to say, and it was harder to swallow. I didn't like the way it sounded when the word came out, so I quickly added, "Well, the absence of you."
In confusion, Pep chirped, "What does that have to do with you and Rainie?"
From where I was chipping away at the paint on the window ledge, I looked at Pep. It was hard, not being a jerk and muttering some sort of sarcastic or indifferent comment. But Pep wasn't like Rainie. She wasn't making it harder than it had to be. She was genuinely interested in what I had to say.
I shook my head slowly. "It has nothing to do with Rainie." Noting the perplexed glare on Pep's face, I elaborated with a grin, "I'm happier when you're around. That's all."
Pep wasn't allowing herself to return the smile as she gathered her papers and straightened them out on her knees. "I haven't gone anywhere."
Though we'd started off alright, I was gradually beginning to understand that she was still upset with me. Maybe not upset; but guarded. It made sense, but it was frustrating. I liked it better when Pep was full of sunshine and... well, pep. I liked not being able to keep up with her and I liked that she always saw the good in people I was trying to insult. It was a different kind of frustration, but it was worth it.
Suddenly, as if she could read my thoughts, Pep asked brightly, "Did you miss me?"
If I was my brother Kevin, I would prattle on senselessly for a while, pretending to be philosophical. ‘Does the moon miss the stars when they don't shine?' ‘Does the grass miss the...?' I couldn't even finish; it was all such bullshit.
Instead, I nodded and answered honestly, "Yeah."
It might have been the glowing sun playing tricks on me, but I thought I saw a little tinge of pink on Pep's cheeks as she lowered her head, producing another pen from her pocket and pretending to carry on with her homework.
"In the end," I continued, pausing to make sure she was listening, "it didn't matter how things were with Rainie. Even if things were awesome, it would have sucked because you weren't there. You know?"
Pep nodded, fiercely training her eyes to the papers. Her knee jiggled nervously.
I chuckled softly. "Was that what it was like with you and Lance?"
Still jiggling, Pep bit her lip before sighing. "Nick, I told you why I was with Lance. Don't make me say it again."
I wished she would look at me. I wanted her to look at me even if her scary blue eyes would suck out my soul. She could have it, anyway. It was hers, as much as it killed me to admit it.
"Please say it again," I pleaded.
With this, she raised her head, not at all amused. "I feel shitty enough about it, alright?"
"Say it, Pepper."
She groaned, spitting out as fast as possible, "I went out with Lance because I wanted to convince myself I didn't love you."
I caught myself leaning back out of the window just before I fell too far. (Side-note: It would have been horrible if God had chosen that time to send me tumbling backwards off of the roof, somersaulting to my death two storeys below).
"Yeah. It was like that," I agreed.
Pep retained her expression of utmost confusion as she scooted further down the roof. Her papers slid below her, right into my hands. I picked them up to put them inside, my eyes catching the first question on the sheet: Discuss Act II Scene 6. ‘But love is blind and lovers cannot see/ The pretty follies that themselves commit'.
Absently, I remarked, "I don't know if love is blind. But maybe I was." While I carefully set the papers inside on the windowsill, Pep let herself fall just one more notch on the roof. Face-to-face. Soul-sucking eyes at the ready.
I gulped. Everything was too quiet all of a sudden. "Before I say anything I might regret - do you still feel the same way you did a month ago?" I inquired.
Reluctantly, she nodded.
"Well... I don't feel the same," I told her, my voice almost a whisper. The last time I said those words, I saw and heard her heart break in two. This time... dammit, she looked confused again. How fucking explicit did I have to get? I wished she had my Chaucer-ness. I wished she just knew. "I think..." I trailed off. That was as far as I got. I never left sentences unfinished, but this was the hardest thing I ever had to say. Jesus, how had Pep said it to me? The little proton was brave.
"I think," I repeated, not to be outdone by a proton, "That what I feel for you is... also the same as... what you felt for me... what you do feel, what I hope you still feel."
Christ. What a waste of words. I hated myself.
As if a light-bulb flicked on in her head, Pep's face lit up and she was back to her usual bounciness. Just from the smile, I felt myself relax. "Just say it then, Nick," she urged.
I gave her a mini-scowl, muttering, "You know what I mean."
"Please say it," she pleaded, turning my own words against me.
It would have been easy to refuse her request. From the look on her face, it was obvious that she knew. Still, I felt that it was only fair to comply - after all, I'd more or less made her say it to me. Twice. And so, I wasted no time and I wasted no words. All I said was a simple, "I love you."
If looks could kill, Pep's smile could have brought someone back to life. And I felt good about that.
Her smile made me smile, and suddenly, I was overwhelmed with the urge to kiss her. It was surprising just how much I wanted to. But there were so many things to think about before that happened. So many things I'd planned in my head to say that hadn't yet been said. But I was afraid that the urge would vanish if I didn't act on it immediately, so I chose to act. While we were both smiling and carefree, I kissed her.
Kissing your best friend is awkward, even more awkward than kissing a stranger. With strangers, you have the assurance of never seeing them again. The kiss doesn't have to exist if you don't want it to. But with a friend, it will sit there between the two of you forever. Even before my lips were pressed to Pep's, I knew this would happen. I didn't know exactly how awkward it would be, but I knew it would happen because it happened before. I wouldn't have done it if it was anyone but Pep. Because with anyone but Pep, it would be hard to get past.
When Pep pulled away, the blush had returned to her cheeks. I decided I liked her that way. And I liked that the blush was because of me.
"That was awkward," she said quietly.
Damn. I had hoped she hadn't noticed.
"Maybe it's an acquired taste," I suggested.
She scrunched up her nose, the freckles crinkling together. "An acquired taste?"
"Like olives. My grandma used to say you had to eat eight olives before you liked them."
Pep looked revolted. "Why would anyone force themselves to eat eight olives? They're disgusting!"
Dramatically, I rolled my eyes. She was really ruining this. I don't know what I expected.
At my reaction, she burst into laughter. "I'm sorry!" she exclaimed. "That's not what I... I mean, I don't think you're disgusting."
"Just mildly unappealing, then," I droned. While she continued to giggle, I let my shoulders sag as I sighed.
"I'm sorry," she repeated, donning a straight face. "Kiss me again."
I frowned. "That's not... no. That's not how I'm gonna do it."
Giggling, she shrugged. "Fine. I'll kiss you."
Just as she moved to place a hand on my shoulder, I shrugged it off and swatted it away. "No!" I protested, grabbing her wrist firmly in my hand. "I'll do it."
So I did. Pep's lips were a little more lenient this time, and I got in some top-lip action. I was almost ready to say that it was less awkward than the first time when I heard Mr. Shanahan speaking to Carter and promptly broke away. A few moments later, Pep's dad walked past the door, curiously glancing inside. I gave him an awkward wave as he passed.
Pep was climbing further down the roof in preparation to enter. As soon as I was sure Mr. Shanahan was gone, I slid towards her and reconnected our lips. She gasped in surprise, and I smiled against her mouth. Then I wondered if we would ever talk again if things went badly today. Probably not. There was no way in hell.
I don't know what happened to her. One minute we were ignoring the awkwardness by engaging in kiss number three (and if grandma was right, there were only five more to go), and the next, she let out a yelp as she slid past me down the roof. Maybe her knees went weak. I'd heard of that sort of thing happening.
Whatever it was, I grabbed a hold of her arm, and then her waist as I pulled her inside, once and for all. She was laughing. Every time she nearly fell off that roof and I saved her from a horrible fate, she laughed.
I didn't get it. With a half-incredulous, half-unimpressed expression, I remarked, "That's twice now I've saved you."
While I stood in front of the windowsill, Pep shuffled forward along the ledge on her knees, retaining her world-class grin. I kept my eyes on her as she wrapped her arms around my neck and closed the gap between us. "Then I guess I owe you a Coke," she murmured.
Until Pep proved me wrong, I never knew it was possible to giggle and kiss at the same time. The vibrations tickled. And then I chuckled and pulled her closer to me, and I could feel her shaking with laughter.
Maybe it was because she was kneeling on a ledge while I stood in front of her, but Pep didn't seem so small all of a sudden. She certainly didn't tower over me, but she fit just right. It was something I had never noticed before.
Pep's house has carpeted floors, so there were no footsteps to indicate Pep's dad approaching for the second time. He called, "Sarah!" I didn't realize that he was referring to Pep until it was too late to back away comfortably. I flew away from her in fear, banging into her dresser along the way. (Side-note: It's nearly impossible to nurse the excruciating and instantaneous pain in one's side while at the same time appearing nonchalant and invisible).
I shut my eyes tightly and winced, applying pressure to my waist as Pep laughed and replied, "Yeah, Dad?"
He appeared in the doorway. Son of a bitch, that fucking hurt. "I'm taking Carter to his guitar lesson. Be back in about-"
I gasped. I didn't mean to be so dramatic, but seriously. It seemed that Pep was bad luck. Every time I was in her presence of late, I severely injured my side on some sort of hard surface with pointy corners.
Mr. Shanahan paused mid-sentence to glance at me in annoyance. I opened my eyes slowly and tried to smile through the pain, urging, "Go on."
He glared at me for another moment before turning his attention Pep, continuing, "We'll be back in about forty-five minutes."
"Okay," she mumbled, crossing her legs on windowsill. Her cheeks were rosy.
As soon as her father had left the room, I muttered while rubbing my side, "Can't you do anything about that?"
"You're blushing," I stated. "Your dad's gonna figure it out."
At this, Pep laughed at me. "So?"
"So!" I exclaimed incredulously. "He already hates me!"
"He doesn't hate you," Pep assured me, rolling her eyes.
"You don't understand," I grumbled, finally able to stand up straight without my side sending a shooting pain through my body. I took a seat next to Pep on the windowsill. "You don't have to deal with fathers because they're not protective of sons like they are with daughters."
"Don't worry about it," she brushed it off. "Either way, you'll be better received than Lance."
I scoffed. "Obviously. That guy was a tool."
She ignored me. "Besides, I can't help if it I blush. Your lips are pink, you know."
I did not know that, thank you very much. Quickly, I raised a hand to my lips, as if I could feel what colour they were. It had only been about five minutes, but already this sneaking around was really putting me on edge. I couldn't possibly live like this; it was too stressful. I would never kiss near an open door again. If I had a daughter and I saw me (well, a different me) making out with her in her bedroom, I'd never let me (the other me) come over again. In fact, I would personally make sure of it by never leaving my house again or hiring a guard or something. If only Mr. Shanahan could call her Pep, it would be so much easier to know when he was coming.
"I'll never call you Sarah," I told her frankly.
Pep looked confused, and I realized that the announcement seemed rather random. But there were some things that I needed to get out in the open so we were both on the same page.
"I know," she answered, looking at me curiously.
"And I feel like it's fair to warn you," I began, "if you expect me to turn into this super romantic bullshitter, it's not going to happen. I can't do it. And I won't, ‘cause I think it's lame. I'm sorry. Whenever I'm forced to watch romcoms, it feels like a little piece of me dies inside."
I didn't even correct myself for the abbreviation. I would never forgive Kevin for slowly integrating these horrible half-assed words into my life.
Again, Pep surprised me by giggling. As she swayed back and forth, she nudged me in the side, (it was sensitive from where I'd hit it before; I was pretty sure it was bruising). "I know you, remember? I like you in spite of that."
I shrugged, unconvinced. "Seriously, all the guys you date are ridiculously sub-par. I figure they must have something I don't, and if it's that they can act like total dipshits and ‘express their feelings'-" (I used air quotes for this), "-or some shit, then I want you to know that I'll never be able to-"
"Nick," Pep interrupted me with laughter. She nudged me again. I winced in pain. Swinging her legs out from under her, she assured me, "I never want you to change. That's what I like about you. No matter what happens, you never change. You're reliable in a weird way."
I nodded, biting my lip in contemplation. After a minute or two, I followed Pep onto her roof. It was getting dark outside. I laid down on the slant next to Pep, placing my hands behind my head and exhaling. My stomach grumbled.
"Hungry?" Pep asked.
With a confused frown, I replied, "I think I forgot to eat dinner..."
Pep shook her head with a laugh, and after she offered to grab me food and I refused, we were quiet for a while. I laid motionless on the roof, watching the sky grow darker, and Pep sat beside me throwing a pebble in the air and fiddling with the overly large hair band on her wrist. After a while, she took it off and designed for herself a game of Cat's Cradle.
It wasn't awkward up here on the roof, and I relaxed. Things didn't have to change, just like Pep said. Me lost in my thoughts, and Pep happily distracting herself while she let me think... it felt like normal.
Everything couldn't stay the same, but that was to be expected. Things changed when Voldemort died, too, but it was a change for the better. Harry and Ginny worked out in the end. Ron and Hermione worked out. And I was pretty sure that Hogwarts existed in real life and JK Rowling was really a witch subtly unveiling the truth, and therefore it's fair to assume that these people are real, and it's fair to apply their cases to mine, hence, Pep and I had a chance.
Besides, Jim and Pam were best friends. And when they were together, they kept on being best friends, but with benefits. That was an arrangement I could definitely get used to.
"Hey," I said softly, to get Pep's attention. I was just about to ask her for the fifth season of The Office when my words took me in a different direction, without much thought. "I'm sorry for not coming over sooner. For not calling. For not following you out the door when you left."
Pep paused her game with the elastic band to shake her head gently. "I didn't expect you to."
"But you should. Those are things I should have done."
She shrugged. "You're here now."
I thought about this for a moment. I asked, "What if I never came back?"
She shrugged again. "I knew you would eventually."
"How did you know?"
Even in the dark, I could tell that she was rolling her eyes in amusement. "How many times do I have to tell you? Jim and Pam are, above all, best friends. No matter what else happens, that's what they'll always be. That's what they'll always fall back on."
It was weird that we were thinking of the same thing at the same time. But it was also comforting, because hearing it from her mouth made it all seem okay.
I eyed her suspiciously. "How come you never get mad at me when I act like a jerk?"
It was true. I always said she was a resilient little proton.
She replied easily, "It takes too much effort to be mad at you when I know you won't even understand what you did wrong anyways."
"Hey," I muttered, offended.
Giggling, Pep laid down beside me. "You never get mad at me."
"Nobody's allowed to get mad at you. You're small and cute and all you do is smile and laugh," I said bitterly.
"You make me sound like I'm four years old!"
Ignoring her, I pressed on. "Seriously. I'm able to recognize that every so often, I'm a jerk to you. Why don't you call me out on it?"
Pep stretched her arms out over her head. "Because," she said through a yawn, "I know you don't do anything on purpose. Your obsession with Rainie made you do dumb things, and you have the stupidest fights with your brothers, but you're not a mean or spiteful person. You just like to live in your head, and sometimes you forget about the rest of us out here."
I sighed in surrender, wondering whether I should take her last words as an insult. I hated when people tried to slyly dig at me, as if they didn't think I'd catch on but I'd somehow also change my ways to please them. Earlier that morning, my father loudly told my mother as I was shoving cereal in my face that a wolf had replaced his son. It was clear that he was indirectly criticizing my eating, but there was no way I'd take it slow just because of that.
(Side-note: Maybe Pep was right. I was never going to change, because people who tried to change me pissed me off. If anything, I'd stay the same just to spite them).
She elaborated, "Besides, every once in a while you do or say something really sweet. You don't even know you're doing it, and you'd never be able to admit it. And every time you do something stupid, I think of those times instead."
I smiled to myself as silence consumed us again. When Pep grew bored of standing still, she started to stretch. She did it lying down at first, but eventually she sat up and twisted her back around. It cracked, and I cringed. Still, it didn't seem to bother her, and she reached for her toes as I watched her, thoroughly entertained.
Pep was pretty flexible. That boded well. I'd never really noticed her in this way before (and thank God I'd learned to control Nick Jr. in the last year, or things would get awkward again). I wondered if she'd thought of me like this for a long time. Or if she pushed the thoughts away. Or if she tried to let me know how she thought of me and I had passed it off as insignificant.
She stopped for a moment to look at me. "You're wondering what I think you're like in bed, aren't you?" she asked.
If I was one for dramatics, this would have been the moment my jaw dropped. "How did you know!" I exclaimed, horrified.
With a smirk, she replied, "You're not the only one who can read people, Chaucer."
And that was why I kept my Chaucer-ness to myself. The last thing I needed was people throwing it back in my face.
"Well? Are you gonna tell me?"
"I thought you didn't care, and my opinion was biased," she said, her voice wavering as she fought back a laugh.
I scowled. "Fuck that. Let's hear it, shrimp."
"You said you never wanted to know," she reminded me.
"Quit stalling." And quit throwing my words back at me, while you're at it.
"Oh, there's no way I'm telling you now."
"Well, can't you figure it out?" she asked. "Don't you know what I think of you?"
"Yes," I replied pointedly, "but then I think of Lance, and everything I thought I knew about you stops making sense."
To this, I received another jab in the side. "I already told you why I went out with Lance. You can stop being threatened by him."
"I'm not threatened," I grumbled.
"Then why do you always bring him up?"
"Because!" I exclaimed. That reason alone should have sufficed, but Pep waited for another answer. "He was weird," I continued. "He asked too many questions, and did he shave his legs? There was something wrong with his legs."
Pep rolled her eyes. "You know, he's actually a nice guy. You never gave him a chance."
Fuck this. I didn't want to talk about Lance. I regretted bringing him up. All I wanted to know was whether girls thought I was a good lay.
With a groan, I said, "If I tell you that I don't think other guys are right for you and I don't trust them because I know exactly what they're thinking about you, will you tell me what you think?"
Pep's face lit up as she replied, "No, because you just told me anyway." Before I could call her out on being unfair, she exclaimed, "Hey, look at all the stars out tonight!"
I glanced at the sky and chuckled. "Pepper, there are like five of them."
"There's more than that," she insisted, laying down again beside me. She was silent before announcing, "When you squint your eyes, they twinkle."
I turned my head to look at her. "Only you would say that."
I watched her crinkle her nose and squint her eyes at the sky. From the way she was trying so hard to see the stars twinkle, you'd think she was half-blind.
"Do it, Nick," she ordered.
Still watching her, I shook my head with a smile.
"How do you ever expect to understand what it's like to feel small when you won't even look at the stars?"
"I feel small right now," I told her, keeping my eyes on hers.
Perplexed, she asked, "How come?"
I shifted closer to her on the roof. When our shoulders were touching, I murmured, "I think you're bigger than I give you credit for. Both physically, and... in other ways."
What I liked about Pep was that even in the dark, her smile had a way of radiating, and I could just feel it. For all I knew, her dad was watching us from the window with a pitchfork, but I kissed her anyways.
I don't know if my grandma's theory was correct. To be honest, olives are so disgusting, I couldn't eat eight of them unless my taste buds were rendered useless. It's hard to say if they're an acquired taste, and it's hard to say if kissing your best friend is an acquired taste - for all I knew, we could be back to square one by the next day. (Side-note: Fuck square one. I always tried to start at square two). However, what I could say for certain was that the roof was free of awkwardness, and nothing felt weird, not even tongue, which could have possibly caused a violent upset in my stomach beforehand.
"Will you please squint your eyes and look at the stars?" Pep pleaded in a whisper. "They twinkle, I swear."
I did. They did twinkle.
As I was marvelling over this new information, Pep's phone buzzed, and she reached into the pocket of her sweater to pull it out. She laughed, immediately handing the phone to me so that I could read the text message. It was from Joe:
found out nick and rainie are over. thought you should know.
I wondered if he had been texting Pep with daily updates this whole time. I kind of wished Joe had followed through on his promise to throw his phone out the window earlier that day. I also wished that he could stop fucking around and find a steady girlfriend and stay out of my life.
"Ask him how he found out," I urged, handing the phone to Pep. "I didn't tell him." (Furthermore, where did Joe think I had gone? Did he really not realize that I was with Pep at this point in time? Maybe he was the most asshatted of us all, Kevin included).
A minute or two later, we got a response. Pep read it out loud to me: "Kev going out with Rainie. She told him there was never anything going on between her and Nick."
This time, my jaw legitimately dropped. "What?!" I cried, jolting upwards.
Liar. Cheater. Faker.
When I noticed Pep's shocked expression, I eased myself back onto the roof. "I mean, that's fine," I corrected myself.
The very first day I saw Rainie, I chose to keep Kevin in the dark about it.
... maybe I should have at least given him a little hint. Shit.
"You should help him out with that," Pep said with a giggle.
"But that would require actually talking to him," I groaned. It was something I avoided at all costs. "Besides, I already told Danielle to take care of it."
"He's your brother," Pep reminded me.
I sighed. "If I legitimately set aside five minutes to explain to him the mistake he'd be making based on my own experiences, will you tell me what you think of me in bed?"
Pep sat up and snorted with laughter. "You're kind of perverted, Nick J. And super paranoid."
The roof was free of awkwardness, and, I decided, it was free of shame. I sat up. "Agreed. Will you tell me?"
Pep nodded, holding out her hand to shake. I took her small hand in mine and planted a quick peck on her lips, heading towards the window right after.
"I'm calling you," I warned as I headed through the window. "I'm calling you tonight. This better be good, small fry. It better be worth it."
It had better be fucking worth it.
Pep grinned. "You had better hope so, Nick J."
Joe was in the office when I approached Kevin in the living room. He purposely slid the stupid desk chair out of the office and across the entire hallway just to not-so-subtly eavesdrop on the conversation.
"Kevin," I began, already regretting making this agreement with Pep. I could tell he was just dying to say something, and I'd hardly given him anything to converse about yet. "About Rainie..." I trailed off.
"Sorry bro. I know you had a crush on her, but she's too old for you," he said.
Christ. Was it ever going to be possible for me to escape this ageism? If I didn't have my date of birth on my driver's license, nobody would have to know. After a few months, I could even convince Kevin that I was almost twenty-one. He'd fall for it; no questions asked.
"Actually, that's what I had to talk to you about-"
"You know what's funny?" Kevin said immediately, and I shut my eyes. Fuck. "The first time I saw her, it was like love at first sight. But Jesse had first dibs, so I stayed away. But all this time, I never thought he was right for her. I never said anything, but she finally came to her senses. Man. It's weird."
He took a moment to shake his head at the amazingness of it all. I wanted to beat him over the head with the lamp sitting on the table. From behind me, Joe snorted. I shot him a threatening glare.
"She's just... I don't know how to describe her. I don't know why I'm drawn to her. There's just something about her, you know? What a story, huh? If I tell my grandchildren I fell in love with their grandmother at first sight? All of that ‘love at first sight' crap was bullshit until it legit happened to me."
The frown on my face deepened as he continued talking. Hadn't I heard all of these words before in my own mind? Kevin was like an older, stupider version of me who was even more oblivious and a year behind everyone else.
And if I knew me from a year ago, there would have been no convincing me otherwise. Unless Danielle did her job like I asked her to, Kevin was screwed.
... what an idiot.