Page 37

Josh is nearly upon us. I’m beginning to think I might toss Danny into oncoming traffic myself to end this agonizing little tableau.

“Okay, talk to you tonight. Bye, Josh. Good luck in your interview.” Danny continues along the footpath.

Josh and I don’t say a word to each other as we get into the elevator. He’s so livid it’s a visceral thing. Meanwhile, I’m still partially deceased by what Danny said. You know he’s in love with you, right?

“He’s so nice. What a nice guy. I think I get what you see in him.” He speaks so sharply I bump backward. “I must have had a vivid dream last night.”

“Hey, what can I say? I lied. I’m a good actor.” I spread my arms wide and push ahead to my desk.

“So, you’re embarrassed of me?”

“No. Of course not. But no one can know. I think he’s a gossip. Oh, don’t give me that sourpuss face. People will talk about us.”

“Newsflash, people have always talked about us. And you don’t care if people talk about you and him, but not you and me?”

“You and I work ten feet from each other. It’s different. I want to reestablish some level of professionalism in this office.”

Josh pinches the bridge of his nose. “Fine. I’ll play it your way. If this is the last personal conversation we ever have in this building, then I’ll tell you now. Bring your bag on Friday.”

“What? What’s happening on Friday?”

“Bring in your stuff for the wedding. Your dress and stuff.”

At my walleyed stare, he reminds me. “You’re coming to my brother’s wedding. You insisted, remember?”

“Wait, why am I bringing my dress on Friday? The wedding is on Saturday. Is there a rehearsal? I didn’t agree to go to the wedding twice.”

“No. The wedding is at Port Worth and we have to drive there.”

I look at him, doubtful. “That’s not too far away.”

“Far enough away that we need to leave after work. Mom needs my help with a few things the night before.”

I’m filled to the brim with annoyance, terror, hurt feelings, and absolute certainty this is going to be a disaster. We stare into each other’s eyes.

“I knew you wouldn’t be happy but I also wasn’t expecting such complete horror.” Josh leans back in his chair and assesses me. “Don’t freak out.”

“We’ve never even gone to a movie together, or to a restaurant. I was nervous getting a ride in your car. And now you’re telling me I’m driving several hours with you and to bring my pj’s? Where are we staying?”

“Probably a seedy hotel.”

I am close to hyperventilating. I am this close to running down the fire escape. I’ve had a fair idea we’d at some point get around to playing the Or Something Game. I imagined it in his blue bedroom, or while hissing hurtful insults at him in the cleaner’s closet. But too much has happened today.

“I was kidding, Lucy. I have to talk to my mom about where we’re staying.”

“I didn’t properly think about meeting your parents. Look, I’m not coming. You were a real asshole to me just now, remember? You don’t need help beating me, remember? I’d have to be crazy to help you now. Go by yourself like a big loser.”

“You made the commitment. You promised. You never break your word.”

I shrug and my moral fibers strain uncomfortably. “Like I care.”

He decides to play his ace card. “You’re my designated moral support.”

It is the most intriguing thing he could have gone with. I can’t resist.

“Why exactly do you need moral support?” He doesn’t answer, but shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

I raise my eyebrows until he relents.

“I’m not dragging you along as my sex slave. I won’t lay a finger on you. I just can’t walk in without a date. And that’s you. You owe me, remember? I helped you vomit.”

He looks so grim I have a chill of foreboding.

“Moral support? Will it be so bad?”

His cell begins to ring, and he looks between it and me, torn.

“The issue here is timing. I have to take this.”

He walks down the hallway, and I resign myself to looking up the route, because unfortunately it’s true. I promised.

ONCE, A TINY eternity ago, I could lie on my couch like any other person. I could watch TV, eat snacks, and paint my nails. I could call Val and we’d go try on clothes. But now that I’m an addict, I have to hang on to the cushions with my chipped fingernails to stop myself from standing up, putting shoes on, and running to Josh’s building. The effort is making me ache. I weigh myself down with my laptop on my chest and halfheartedly flick between news sites, my interview presentation, Smurf auctions, and my favorite retro-dork clothing site.

I get a pop-up notification that my parents have just logged into Skype, and I dial so quickly that it’s a little embarrassing. My mother appears onscreen, frowning and too close.

“Stupid thing,” she mutters, and then brightens. “Smurfette! How are you?”

“Fine, how are you?” Before she replies the screen fills with the fly of her jeans as she stands up and calls out repeatedly to my dad for one very long minute. Nigel! Nigel! Even the familiar tone and cadence her voice takes has me shriveling in homesickness. Finally, she gives up.

“He must still be out in the field,” she tells me, sitting back down. “He’ll wander in soon.”

We look at each other for a long moment. It’s so rare to have her to myself, without my dad’s gale-force personality propelling the conversation, that I hardly know where to start. I can’t seem to talk about the weather, or how busy I’ve been. As her shrewd blue eyes narrow as I choose my words, I realize I’d better ask the question I’ve been torturing myself with for these last few weeks, and perhaps all of my life. It’s something I should have asked her years ago.

“Before I was born, and when you met Dad . . . how could you give up your dream?”

The question clangs in the dead static air between her and me. She doesn’t speak for a long moment, and I think maybe I’ve said something I really shouldn’t. When she locks eyes again with me, her gaze is steady and resolute.

“If you’re asking me if I regret my choice? No.” She sits back into her chair, I sit up properly on the couch, and suddenly it’s like there’s no screen between us. No frame surrounding her face, or mine, and no strangely intrusive preview screen distracting us with our own faces. I feel like I could reach out and take her hand. It’s the closest we’ve been since I saw her last, when I hugged her at the airport and breathed her shampoo and sunshine smell. I watch her thinking, and the clock is ticking before my dad walks in and interrupts.

“How can I regret it for a second? I have your father, and I have you.” It’s the answer and the smile I knew she’d give me. How can she say anything differently?

“But don’t you wonder where you’d be now if you chose your career instead of him?”

She avoids answering again. “Is this about your job interview? Are you worried about what happens if you miss your big chance?”

“Something like that. I’ve just started thinking that even if I get it, I could lose out on other . . . opportunities.”

“I don’t think you need to give up your dream for anything. You want this, I can see it. I can hear it in your voice. Times have moved on, honey. You don’t have to give up anything. You don’t have to make a choice like mine. You just need to give it your all.”

A door bangs in the background on her end of the conversation, and her eyes flick offscreen. “That’s your dad.”

I’m starting to feel frantic. I can’t tell her about the change in my relationship with Josh, our competition, and what I will lose no matter what the outcome is. There’s no time. There’s only time for this.

“If I were in the same position, walking through an orchard, possibly about to derail myself somehow, what would you tell me to do?”

She looks offscreen and I can hear heavy boots clomping up the stairs to the office. Her answer convinces me of the cherry seed of what if that has always been lodged in her heart. “For you? I’d tell you to keep walking. I want things for you. Keep your eye on the prize and whatever you do, just keep walking.”

“What’s going on?” Dad appears, kissing the top of my mom’s head, and he sees me on the screen. “You should have come got me! How’s my girl? Ready to beat Jimmy at the interview? Imagine his face when you get it. I can just see it now.” He drops into the seat beside Mom and then beams at the ceiling, relishing my fictional victory and his own cleverness.

I can see it on the tiny preview screen; my face falls. It could be seen from space and Mom definitely sees it. “Oh. I see now. Lucy, why didn’t you say?”

Dad forges onward without a response from me. Next topic. “When are you coming home?”

I admit I pause for a second longer, for greater effect.

“The long weekend.” It’s the answer that my heart has been aching to give, and when I watch my dad’s face break into his chipped-tooth grin I’m glad I’ve said it. Mom continues to hold my gaze, steady.

“Just keep walking, unless what’s up that tree is as special as this.”

“What on earth are you talking about? Did you hear her? She’s coming home!” Dad’s seat squeaks under the rhythm of his chair dancing, and just like my mom, I’m at the gates of a frighteningly momentous orchard, and I need to focus my gaze forward on the far exit, laser strong, never looking up.

IT’S FRIDAY. IT should be a terrible mustard shirt today, but it’s not. I have my bag packed in the trunk of my car, and over the past two days I’ve been so nervous about this weekend I haven’t been able to stomach solids. I’ve subsisted entirely on smoothies and tea. I slept two hours last night.