Fifteen

☼►eighteen◄☼

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The impromptu nap that I took with Harry seemed to have drained away any residual anger I felt toward him and his prank. It was too hard to hold onto, anyway. He made it impossible to not want to be around him, though it only made my feelings for him grow stronger.

The weather warmed enough over the next handful of weeks that our heavy coats were no longer necessary, and I took advantage of that as much as I possibly could. Even with a chill in the air, I relished only wearing a thick jumper as I walked around the town with Harry. Our walks were much less comfortable than before, and I only had myself to blame for that.

I was constantly tripping over my tongue, unable to speak without risking telling him everything and making a fool of myself. He often had to repeat himself in conversations, because I was too far lost in my thoughts of him. My hands itched for the warmth of his, fingers begged to lace with his, but that was little more than a one-sided desire. So I kept distance between us.

He didn’t feel for me what I felt for him, and that was fine. Painful to accept, but I did it, anyway.

The nickname I’d given him slowly morphed during that time - from Curly Sue to Curly Q and, finally, just Q. “Curly Sue” was reserved only for times when he was being incorrigible, though it was more of a term of endearment, a gentle and affectionate chiding when I needed a break from him pestering me. He rarely took offence to it any more.

More often than not, I heard him call me by my name, rarely “Star”. Ever since he gave me my Christmas gift, the moniker had become a mere memory, that fact left a bitter taste in my mouth, and the calmness he always brought to me was slowly drowned out by the sharpness of my jealousy, my hurt.

The time we spent together dwindled, the occasional walks all I had left of our pre-holiday relationship. Residing in the same house didn’t seem to matter much in that regard - I’d stay in my bedroom while he hung out with his friends. Even if Liza invited me over, it was almost a guarantee that I’d turn the invitation down. She was a great friend, and I was so thankful for her ever allowing me into the group. She just… wasn’t Harry.

I caught Anne and Robin exchanging worried glances whenever I would read in the living room. The looks, full of meaning and silent conversations, served to only frustrate me. They were concerned over nothing; I was fine. Absolutely fine.

Until I wasn’t.

Until early-April, when everything changed.

“Did you hear?”

Della skidded to a stop next to the table, pushing at Anthony’s arm until he scooted over, and she dropped to the empty space next to him. Her breathing was shaky, rapid, and she reached for Liza’s apple juice. We all waited until she caught her breath, but my skin prickled the entire time, something telling me this was only the beginning of the end.

“Megan asked Harry to the formal! And,” she started, pausing in an attempt to drum up our excitement, “he said yes!”

As Liza and Anthony exploded into speech, asking questions about the how and when and who told you this?, I stayed quiet, stunned speechless. It wasn’t entirely unexpected - I’d known without a doubt that someone would jump on the chance to have an amazing guy like Harry as their date - but still… it hurt.

Forcing a smile when Della caught my eye, I tried to join in on the conversation, but my heart just wasn’t in it. How could it be, when it was reminded that it wasn’t getting what it wanted? I eventually excused myself from the table, though the others didn’t even seem to notice me standing up. I grabbed my bag and rushed off. Liza called after me, but I didn’t bother turning around.

My feet carried me away from the school, no destination in mind beyond getting far from that particular discussion. The news shouldn’t have hurt nearly as much as it did, and Della’s words rang in my ears. My stomach churned violently, twisting over itself and spilling acid in my blood.

It was my fault. If I’d just gathered up the courage to ask him myself, maybe he wouldn’t have agreed to be Megan’s date. No, no “maybe” about it; he would have taken pity on the fact that I had no one to go with, and he’d have gone with me. As much as I hated the thought of his pity being the only reason, I loathed the fact that he was going with someone else.

“Can’t change it now,” I muttered darkly to myself, scrubbing a hand over my cheek when a tear slipped free. “You were an idiot, and now you have to pay the price.”

A stinging sort of numbness had settled over me by the time I decided to turn toward the house. It was unbearable, the prospect of facing the others - of facing Harry - but I knew Anne would worry too much if I stayed out much longer. She might have even told the programme directors that I’d been gone without permission or checking in, and then I’d have been kicked from the programme with only a few months left.

She instantly rounded on me the second I stepped through the door, her hands fluttering around as she helped me take off my jacket. All I could do was let her fuss; after all, who was I to take that from her when she’d obviously been concerned? Her lips were thin lines slashing across her face when she gathered my hands in hers.

“Where have you been? You’re freezing, darling.”

“I, uh -” I winced when my voice crackled, and her frown grew even larger. Chest aching, I cleared my throat and tried again, “I went on a walk.”

She peered more closely at me, her fingers coming up to brush against my cheekbone. “For three hours? What’s wrong, love?”

“Nothing. Just, just lost track of time, that’s all. I’m sorry for making you worry.”

She frowned but let me go. All I wanted to do at that moment was fall into her arms and cry - both from her kindness and from the jagged pieces cutting my chest open from the inside out. Instead, I manipulated my lips into a weak semblance of a smile and headed to my room. Guilt gnawed at my gut. I hated that she was worrying.

As much as I wanted to tell her what was going on, I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell her what I was thinking and feeling. Things were already awkward enough, and I refused to be selfish enough to make it even worse. And telling a mother that you were pretty much in love with her son who you only met because she was nice enough to open her home for you? That would have been the worst thing I could possibly have done.

The next two weeks slipped by. Days were quick, blurring one into the other, but the nights… they dragged on, spent staring at the ceiling or curled into a ball on my bed, wanting nothing more than to tiptoe down the hall to Harry’s bedroom. I never did, though. I barely spoke to him during waking hours, and I often caught him staring at me, confusion in his eyes. He never asked, though, so I never explained.

“Why are you - Seren? Aren’t you going to get dressed?”

I shook my head and finished rinsing the dish I’d just washed. Opening my mouth was an awful idea, especially right now. I’d spent the day listening to all of my friends talking about the formal. I had been asked to go, sure, by a very sweet boy whose name I couldn’t remember now. I said no - partially on instinct, but mostly because he wasn’t Harry.

Liza was annoyed that I declined attending, even as a group, but Della had all but strong-armed her into accepting that I would be at home tonight.

I felt a smidgen of remorse at having rejected him, considering he’d gathered up the courage to even approach me in the first place, and for not having given it all that much thought. I just wasn’t able to entertain the thought of going with anyone else. The worst part of it all, though, had been watching Megan and Harry together, laughing and chatting easily as I felt more of my heart break.

I had to admit that she made a better fit for him than I ever could. She lived in the same town and not an ocean away. She was funny and clever and brilliant. If I wasn’t so jealous of her, I’m sure she and I would have been decent friends. But I was. I envied her for her clear blue eyes, long dark hair, and flawless fashion outside of the school halls.

Most of all, I envied that she caught Harry’s attention in a way I never would.

It hadn’t gotten any easier to deal with the fact that she and Harry were an item now. Even if it was only for tonight, they were a thing, and I couldn’t change that. Harry had stopped trying to talk to me a few days ago, evidently growing tired of waiting for me to say something first. Though it hurt something fierce, I didn’t try to change it.

Anne’s hand on my wrist stopped me from reaching for the next plate, and she tugged me to face her while shutting off the tap. I sighed but forced myself to meet her gaze. Brushing a lock of hair from my face, she frowned at whatever she saw in my expression.

“Darling, talk to me.”

“I’m fine, I promise,” I whispered after a moment, swallowing thickly against the tears. “I’m just… I’m not a big fan of dances.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m okay. No need to worry about me.”

She nudged me to scoot over, and I reached for a dishtowel to dry the clean dishes as she took over the washing. We worked in silence, though my thoughts were far from the task. Maybe she could see that, since she didn’t say a word. Besides, how could I possibly think of anything but the fact that just down the hall, Harry was readying himself for the formal.

“Oh, you look so wonderful!”

I looked back over my shoulder, absentmindedly wiping the dishtowel across the plate in my hand, at Anne’s pride-drenched voice. Something tightened in my chest at the sight of Harry, stood just inside the room, smiling awkwardly under his mother’s compliments. She was right, though. He did look amazing.

The suit he wore fit him like a glove, and his hair had been tamed from the wild curls he usually sported. Not a thing was out of place in his appearance. Even the uncomfortable smile on his face was perfect.

Harry let his mother embrace him tightly, though the long-suffering expression on his face was clearly exaggerated. His green eyes met mine over her shoulder, his grin slipping, and I swallowed before pivoting on my heel. Chest aching and throat closing with tears, I sniffled as quietly as possible as I faced the sink.

The plate slipped from my fingers, bounced off the edge of the counter, and hit the floor with a crash. Shards of porcelain scattered across the tile, a sea of shattered ceramic on white linoleum. My face grew hot and cold simultaneously, and tears welled up in my eyes. Stomach churning, I clapped a hand over my mouth, but it did no good: My sob bubbled out of me anyway.

Anne was at my side in an instant, arms wrapping around me without hesitation. I didn’t have the energy - or desire - to fight her off, so I buried my face against her shoulder and let my tears stain the collar of her shirt.

She made soft shushing noises as she guided me away from the jagged remains of the plate, pushed me to sit in a chair at the table, and ran a hand over my hair before heading off for a dishtowel. I covered my face with the towel, and the room filled with the telltale clatter of a kettle being placed on the stovetop.

The tears kept coming, soaking into the fabric and painting my cheeks. Somewhere under the pain and jealousy, mortification sprang to life, stretched its limbs as it roared its presence. I never wanted any of them to see me like this, least of all Harry.

Eventually, I managed to calm down enough to drag in unsteady breaths, and Anne sat in the seat beside me, her hand comforting as it rubbed circles into my back. A mug of tea slid into place in front of me, and I managed a wobbly, grateful smile in Harry’s direction.

I couldn’t maintain eye contact for long, not with the way he was staring at me with so much - too much - concern. The towel scratched at my cheeks when I wiped away the tears, and I held onto that unpleasant sensation on my skin, kept myself grounded with it.

Nobody spoke, the room damned with the silence, but their gazes were heavy on me. Words failed me. There was nothing I could say to explain my reaction, not without spilling the truth of everything I’d bottled up for so long. I cleared my throat quietly, stared down at the pale yellow towel in my hands.

“You’re going to be late picking Megan up,” I reminded Harry, and the words nearly choked me.

“I want to make sure you’re okay.” He hesitated then rested his hand in my shoulder; I subconsciously, instinctively, leaned into the warmth of his touch. “It’s only a dance. You’re... you’re my friend, you’re more important.”

“I’m fine. Please, go. Have fun.”

“Are you sure?”

I’m not. The small voice in my head rebelled against the lie I so easily told, but the lie worked. He stopped acting as if I was a house of cards on the verge of collapse, heading toward the front door. Anne pressed a gentle kiss to my temple and stood. With an order for me to leave the mess on the floor, she walked out of the room with her son, but I didn’t miss the worried look he tossed back to me over his shoulder.

I waited until they were out of sight before pushing to my feet. My knees shook violently under me, and I had to take a moment to breathe, in and out, measured inhales and exhales designed to ease the turbulence in my soul. Once I was steady enough to walk without falling, I reached for the broom and dustpan.

There was something about the glittering shards of blue-painted porcelain being swept into a pile and dumped into the bin that said more than I could ever understand.