He could be any one of these people.
After all, I don't know what Alex looks like. I don’t even know his real name. I mean, we’ve been talking online for months now, so I know things that matter. He’s smart and sweet and funny, and we’ve both just finished our junior year. We share the same obsession—old movies. We both like being alone.
If these were the only things we had in common, I wouldn’t be freaking out right now. But Alex lives in the same town as my dad, and that makes things . . . complicated.
Because now that I’m descending a Central California airport escalator in Alex’s general vicinity, watching strangers drift in the opposite direction, endless possibilities duke it out inside my head. Is Alex short? Tall? Does he chew too loud or have some irritating catchphrase? Does he pick his nose in public? Has he had his arms replaced with bionic tentacles? (Note to self: not a deal breaker.)
So, yeah. Meeting real-life Alex could be great, but it could also be one big awkward disappointment. Which is why I’m not really sure if I want to know anything more about him.
Look, I don’t do confrontation well. Or ever, really. What I’m doing now, moving across the country one week after my seventeenth birthday to live with my dad, is not an act of bravery. It’s a masterpiece of avoidance. My name is Bailey Rydell, and I’m a habitual evader.
When my mom traded my dad for Nate Catlin of Catlin Law LLC—I swear to all things holy, that’s how he introduces himself—I didn’t choose to live with her instead of Dad because of all the things she promised: new clothes, a car of my own, a trip to Europe. Heady stuff, sure, but none of it mattered. (Or even happened. Just saying.) I only stayed with her because I was embarrassed for my dad, and the thought of having to deal with him while he faced his new postdump life was too much for me to handle. Not because I don’t care about him either. Just the opposite, actually.
But a lot changes in a year, and now that Mom and Nate are fighting constantly, it’s time for me to exit the picture. That’s the thing about being an evader. You have to be flexible and know when to bail before it all gets weird. Better for everyone, really. I’m a giver.
My plane landed half an hour ago, but I’m taking a circuitous route to what I hope is the backside of baggage claim, where my dad is supposed to pick me up. The key to avoiding uncomfortable situations is a preemptive strike: make sure you see them first. And before you accuse me of being a coward, think again. It’s not easy being this screwed up. It takes planning and sharp reflexes. A devious mind. My mom says I’d make a great pickpocket, because I can disappear faster than you can say, Where’s my wallet? The Artful Dodger, right here.
And right there is my father. Artful Dodger, senior. Like I said, it’s been a year since I’ve seen him, and the dark-headed man standing under a slanted beam of early afternoon sunlight is different than I remember. In better shape, sure, but that’s no surprise. I’ve cheered on his new gym-crafted body every week as he showed off his arms during our Sunday-night video calls. And the darker hair wasn’t new either; God knows I’ve teased him about dyeing away the gray in an attempt to slice off the last few years of his forties.
But as I stealthily scope him out while hiding behind a sunny CALIFORNIA DREAMERS! sign, I realize that the one thing I didn’t expect was for my dad to be so . . . happy.
Maybe this wouldn’t be too painful, after all. Deep breath.
A grin splits his face when I duck out of my hiding spot.
“Mink,” he says, calling me by my silly adolescent nickname.
I don’t really mind, because he’s the only one who calls me that in real life, and everyone else in baggage claim is too busy greeting their own familial strangers to pay any attention to us. Before I can avoid it, he reels me in and hugs me so hard my ribs crack. We both tear up a little. I swallow the constriction in my throat and force myself to calm down.
“Jesus, Bailey.” He looks me over shyly. “You’re practically grown.”
“You can introduce me as your sister if it makes you look younger in front of your geekazoid sci-fi friends,” I joke in an attempt to diffuse the awkwardness, poking the robot on his Forbidden Planet T-shirt.
“Never. You’re my greatest achievement.”
Ugh. I’m embarrassed that I’m so easily wooed by this, and I can’t think of a witty comeback. I end up sighing a couple of times.
His fingers tremble as he tucks bleached platinum-blond strands of my long Lana Turner pin-curl waves behind my ear. “I’m so glad you’re here. You are staying, right? You didn’t change your mind on the flight?”
“If you think I’m going to willingly walk back into that MMA fight they call a marriage, you don’t know me at all.”
He does a terrible job at hiding his giddy triumph, and I can’t help but smile back. He hugs me again, but it’s okay now. The worst part of our uncomfortable meet-and-greet is over.
“Let’s collect your stuff. Everyone on your flight has already claimed theirs, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find,” he says, gesturing with a knowing dart of his eyes toward the luggage carousels, one brow cocked.
Oops. Should’ve known. Can’t dodge a dodger.
Having grown up on the East Coast, I’d never been farther west than a single school trip to Chicago, so it’s strange to step into bright sunlight and look up at such a big, überblue sky. It seems flatter out here without all the dense mid-Atlantic treetops blocking out the skyline—so flat, I can see mountain foothills girding the entire Silicon Valley horizon. I’d flown into San Jose, the nearest airport and actual big city, so we have a forty-five-minute drive to my dad’s new house on the coast. Not a hardship, especially when I see we’ll be cruising in a glossy blue muscle car with the sunroof wide open.
My father is a CPA. He used to drive the most boring car in the world. California has changed that, I suppose. What else has changed?
“Is this your midlife-crisis car?” I ask when he opens the trunk to stow my luggage.
He chuckles. It totally is. “Get in,” he says, checking the screen on his phone. “And please text your mother that you didn’t die in a fiery plane crash so she’ll stop bugging me.”
“Aye, aye, Captain Pete.”
He nudges me with his shoulder, and I nudge back, and just like that, we’re falling back into our old routine. Thank God. His new (old) car smells like the stuff that neat freaks spray on leather, and there’s no accounting paperwork stuffed in the floorboards, so I’m getting the posh treatment. As he revs up the crazy-loud engine, I turn on my phone for the first time since I’ve landed.
Texts from Mom: four. I answer her in the most bare-bones way possible while we leave the airport parking garage. I’m finally coming down from the shock of what I’ve done—holy crap, I just moved across the country. I remind myself that it’s not a big deal. After all, I already switched schools a few months ago, thanks to Nate LLC and Mom moving us from New Jersey to Washington, DC, which basically means I didn’t have a notable friend investment in DC to leave behind. And I haven’t really dated anyone since my dad left, so no boyfriend investment either. But when I check the nonemergency notifications on my phone, I see a reply on the film app from Alex and get nervous all over again about being in the same town.