The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 21

As I waited in the kitchen, looking out the window every minute to see if Hayden had arrived yet, I was happier than I’d been all week. I clutched the tickets to Drew’s awards ceremony in my hand.

My mom came in, all dressed up in what I call her realtor clothes, which today was a red jacket paired with a black pencil skirt. “I still don’t really feel comfortable with this. I don’t know these kids very well and your brother is not even expecting you.”

“Mom, it’s a surprise. Please don’t tell Drew. And you talked to Hayden’s parents. I thought you were okay with this.”

“I was. Now I’m feeling uncomfortable again.”

“When he gets here, you can meet him. It will help.”

She looked at her watch, probably wondering if she had time to meet him. Just when I was about to ask her schedule, the doorbell rang. My mom answered the door with me right behind her. I almost wished Bec would’ve stayed in the car because the calming effect Hayden might have given my mom, with his boyish hair flopping over his forehead and his disarming smile, was probably reversed by the anxiety Bec seemed to produce in her.

Hayden extended his hand. “Hi. You must be Mrs. Montgomery. I’m Hayden.”

“Hi, Hayden.”

“Hey, Mrs. M. Good to see you again,” Bec said.

“Hi. I just . . .” My mom’s brain was going to explode, I knew it. Her politeness was battling with her worry.

“Mom, we’ll be fine. Thanks for letting me go. I’ll call you as soon as we get there and the minute we get in the car to come home.”

She wrung her hands together and Hayden directed his smile to her. This made her release a breath and she nodded.

I hugged her before she could change her mind and slipped around her and out the door. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Be good. Love you.”

Bec took shotgun, as if visually showing me where she thought I belonged, and I climbed into the back.

Hayden put the car in reverse. “So your mom doesn’t trust us?”

I rolled my eyes. “My mom doesn’t trust anyone she doesn’t know, but as long as I can get her to mostly agree, I know she won’t say no in front of my friends. She doesn’t want anyone to think everything is not perfect.”

Bec laughed. “I’m glad you know how to manipulate your mom.”

“It’s more creative guidance.”

Hayden pulled out onto the main road. “How was your week?”

“Fine. Yours?”

“Long.”

I tried to interpret that one word. “Busy at school?”

“No, the exact opposite. It was just a really slow week. We’re gearing up for finals and so it’s a lot of review.”

“Right. Us too.”

“Ugh,” Bec said. “You two are boring. Maybe I should’ve taken the backseat after all.” With that she put in some earbuds.

“She has very little of my dad in her,” Hayden said.

I laughed.

“Okay, so what are your must-have road trip snacks?” he asked, pulling into the same 7-Eleven that I had followed Bec to the other day.

“I don’t know that I have any must-haves.”

He opened the door. “Then we better find you some.”

“Get me Corn Nuts and Twix,” Bec said loudly, not seeming to realize we could hear her just fine. “And get Nate licorice.”

Hayden pulled out one of her earbuds. “I’m not your personal shopper and I thought Nate wasn’t coming.”

His comment produced a long-suffering sigh from her. “He just texted me. He’s coming now.”

I thought she’d get out of the car and follow us in but she didn’t.

“Is she coming inside?” I asked.

“No, she knows I’ll feel guilty and get them for her.”

I laughed. “She has you conditioned, huh?”

“She really does.” He opened the door for me and it announced our arrival into the store with a beep.

“So Nate’s coming?”

“Is that okay?”

“Of course. You’re the driver. I have four tickets anyway so it works out.”

“Oh, that’s right. I forgot we had to have tickets for this thing. I’m glad you have enough.” He led me to the candy aisle. “Okay, so something sweet is a must.” He grabbed a bag of M&M’s. “But it has to be offset by something salty.” He picked up a bag of pretzels. “And then, of course, I need some caffeine.” He walked to the fridge and pulled out a Mountain Dew. “And that’s the perfect road trip combination.”

“You go on a lot of road trips?”

“We travel a lot. One summer my mom forced us to take a three-week trip in an RV around the United States. It was sheer torture.”

“How so?”

“Did you not hear me? I said three weeks. In an RV.”

“It sounds fun to me.”

“Says the girl who has never spent three weeks in an RV. It’s like living right on top of people. I felt like I was this close to Bec at all times.” He took two steps closer to me, pressing his chest against my shoulder. I got a whiff of his body spray and nearly closed my eyes because it smelled so good.

“That doesn’t seem so bad to me,” I said, looking up at him.

He offered me a smile. “Well, it was.” Then he put one arm around my back and grabbed a bag of Cheetos off the rack behind me. He held it between us. “These should be your salty. They’re good.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Not a Cheetos fan.”

He finally took a step back, allowing me to breathe again. “Okay, what treat would inspire you to write a letter to its maker?”

I looked at all the colorful packaging filling the aisle in front of me. Either I hadn’t tried enough junk food in my life or I wasn’t easily inspired because nothing looked good.

“Nothing?” he asked. “Tough critic. Let’s do a visualization exercise. We do this in drama sometimes.”

I did visualizations before I gave speeches at school. I’d imagine exactly what I wanted to say and how I was going to say it. I wasn’t going to do that in the snack food aisle at 7-Eleven. “It’s okay, I’ll just get . . .” I reached forward and grabbed the first thing my hand touched.

Hayden raised his brows. “Dried bananas?”

“Yep.”

“Fine, what’s your sweet item, then?”

“I’m fine with the one item. Besides, it’s both sweet and salty.”

“You need two.”

“Nate gets one,” I said, pointing to the licorice Hayden had already grabbed.

“I’m not in charge of Nate.”

I raised one eyebrow. “But you’re in charge of me?”

“Today I am and I don’t think you’re grasping the importance of the road trip snack. Close your eyes.”

A couple of kids had just entered the aisle with us, laughing and searching each shelf for something specific.

“Don’t worry about them. Close your eyes.”

I sighed but closed my eyes.

“Imagine we’re driving along and we make a wrong turn and get lost in a dense forest.”

“Is there a forest on the way to UCLA?”

“Shhh . . .” He pushed a finger to my lips and I couldn’t help but laugh. “We’re visualizing, Gia, visualizing.”

“Right. Forest,” I said sloppily against his finger.

He moved his hand to my shoulder and I wasn’t sure if he leaned closer, but his voice seemed both louder and quieter at the same time. “We run out of gas in our attempt to find our way out and get trapped in the forest for three days straight. I, being fearless and strong, decide to leave the car and search out help.”

“This sounds like the beginning of every horror movie.”

“Another half a day passes and you’re famished. You reach for the 7-Eleven bag and pull out . . .”

“If it’s been three days, I’ve probably eaten all my snacks by now.”

I could hear the smile in his voice when he said, “There’s one thing left.”

“Looks like it’s your bag of M&M’s. You must’ve been too busy being fearless and strong to remember to take it with you. I’m going to eat those.”

He snatched the bag of dried bananas from my hand and I opened my eyes.

“Dried bananas and an extra bag of M&M’s it is,” he said. “You will not be stealing mine.”

“Your game was fun,” I called after him as he marched to the register in a pretend huff.

When we arrived at the car, Bec had moved to the back, probably because her boyfriend was now coming.

“Boring people in front.” She was all stretched out on the backseat. “Now give me my treats.”

“I told you I’m not your personal shopper. I didn’t get them.”

She didn’t say a word, just held her hand, palm up, between the seats.

Hayden shook his head and handed her the items she’d requested. “One day I won’t get those.”

“One day I’ll join the cheer squad and go by Becky.”

“Wasn’t that last year?” Hayden asked.

“Oh yeah. Guess that wasn’t a good comparison, then.”

“You were a cheerleader?” I asked, not sure if they were kidding or not.

“She was. A pretty good one too.”

I remembered how Hayden had said at the party that she liked to put up a front so that people didn’t get too close. I wondered if this was another example of that.

“Pretty good?” She met my eyes. “Don’t look so shocked, Ms. President. I was popular once too.”

“Wait,” Hayden said. “You’re the student body president?”

Bec gasped. “Oh no, were we supposed to bring secret service with us? Is this a security breach?”

Hayden ignored his sister. “I thought you just said you were on the student council.”

“I am. President of the student council.”

“Is this for scholarship purposes or because you like being in leadership?”

“Both, I hope.”

“That’s a pretty great accomplishment, Gia. Congrats.”

I shrugged, feeling like he was making it a bigger deal than it was. “I guess.”

“No, he’s right,” Bec said, surprising me for the second time today. “There are a lot of people who campaign for that. So you are the most popular of the popular.”

“I just happened to be the one on the ballot that the most people knew. I think I only got, like, twenty percent of the vote. The rest was divided between the other two candidates and Mickey Mouse, Elvis, and a hundred other various write-ins.”

“So what was your campaign strategy? Did you promise off-campus lunch for all? No PE?”

“I basically spent a lot of time socializing online with a bunch of people I didn’t know to get my name in their heads.”

“Smart.”

“So let me get this straight,” Bec said. “You used people to get what you wanted? Did you unfollow all those people as soon as you won?”

“No. I didn’t.”

“But you probably stopped talking to them.”

Bec had this very special way of making me feel like the worst person on the planet. It was her talent or something.

“Bec, stop being a brat.”

I was glad Hayden interrupted because I didn’t want to have to explain that now I responded when people engaged but never reached out first.

We pulled into an older neighborhood and up to a run-down house. Bec jumped out of the car and rushed up to the front door. She smoothed her hair before she knocked.

“She has a major crush on this kid.”

“I would hope she’d have a crush on her boyfriend.”

“He’s not her boyfriend. She just wants him to be. Maybe you can help her with that.”

“Huh. I could’ve sworn they were together.” I watched Nate come out the door and shut and lock it behind him. The half a foot of space between him and Bec as they headed for the car was way more apparent now. I hadn’t noticed it before.

“Hey, Nate,” Hayden said as they both climbed into the back.

“Hi,” I added.

“Hello.”

Doors were shut and Hayden started driving again.

“I got you licorice,” Bec said.

Hayden raised his hand. “Well, technically, I got you licorice.”

Bec hit him on the back of the head with the package and then handed it to Nate.

“Cool,” he said. “Thanks.” He tore into the pack right away.

Hayden pointed to the 7-Eleven bag by my feet. “You ready to play copilot?”

“I have no idea what that means.”

“It means you get to open my treats for me.”

“Do I have to feed them to you as well?”

“Ew. No,” Bec said.

Hayden smiled. “I think I can handle that part.”

I opened his treats and put them on the center console.

“Now we play road trip games.”

Bec groaned. “Hayden, this is why that three-week RV trip was unbearable.”

“No, I’m pretty sure that was unbearable because we had to dispose of our own waste and sleep in bunk beds.”

She smiled. “True. But your games came in a close third.”

“Yes, my games.” He took a pretzel and popped it into his mouth. “So, I Spy or Would You Rather? Those are your game choices. Actually maybe we should play Twenty Questions since Gia here lost so handily the last time she attempted that game.”

“Hey.”

He laughed.

“You’re right. I need redemption. I’m actually very good at that game.”

“Prove it,” he said.

“I will.” I opened my bag of dried bananas. “Okay, think of something.”

“You’re not actually going to eat those, are you?”

“Why wouldn’t I eat these? Now think of something.”

He tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel a few times and then he said, “Got it.”

I turned back to Nate and Bec. “We’ll take turns asking him questions about it, first one to guess wins. If it takes us more than twenty questions, he wins.”

“I’m not playing your dumb game.”

“Let’s play,” Nate said.

“Fine,” Bec agreed without another argument.

“I’ll start,” I said. “Is it bigger than a bread box?”

Hayden opened then shut his mouth. “Really? That’s your first question? Do people even have bread boxes anymore? Are you eighty years old?”

“I play this game with my parents. That’s actually a very smart question. Because if the answer is no, I can automatically rule out a person or a place without having to waste two questions. If the answer is yes, I can rule out insects, rodents, and anything else that might fit in a backpack without having to ask multiple questions.”

“That’s what you should’ve asked. Is it bigger than a backpack?”

“Don’t critique my questions. I have a strategy.”

He bowed his head slightly. “I didn’t realize I had played this game with the master last time. Although I should’ve, with the sheer amount of questions you had about a name.”

“So? Is it bigger than a bread box?”

“What size of bread box?”

“I am the asker, you are the answerer.”

He smiled. “Yes, it is bigger than a bread box.”

Nate went next. “Is it a monkey?”

Bec backhanded him across the chest. “You don’t guess until you get more clues.”

“I wanted to guess. It’s part of my strategy.”

“What strategy is that? The dumbest one ever?”

Hayden met my eyes and mouthed, “See, she needs help.”

I laughed.

“No, it’s not a monkey,” Hayden said aloud. “Your turn, Bec.”

“Is it cold-blooded?” Bec looked at me as she asked this, like she was implying something more with the question.

Hayden seemed to think this as well because he gave her a hard look. “No.”

I had a feeling this day might not turn out as fun as I’d hoped.

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