The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 23

When I opened my eyes, the car was still. Bright overhead lights made me squint and blink a few times. I sat up and stretched.

Bec cleared her throat. “You’re awake.”

“Where is Hayden?”

She pointed out the window where Hayden and Nate stood at a gas pump.

“Oh. Gas.” I reached to the floor, picked up my purse, and dug for my wallet. Pulling out a couple of twenties, I stuck them in the cup holder in the center console.

Bec stared at them for a moment then said, “I’m going to tell you something and I’m mostly telling you because I feel sorry for you after what happened tonight but I’m also telling you because it’s true.”

“Okay,” I said, wary. That didn’t seem like the kind of lead-in that would result in something I wanted to hear.

“You said that the reason you were so upset is because you are that person, the one your brother was railing against in his stupid film.”

“Yes.”

“And it’s true. You were that person.”

“Thanks, Bec.”

“I said ‘were.’ You aren’t anymore.”

I understood what she was trying to say, how she was trying to cheer me up, but I knew better. I was no less shallow today than I was when my brother filmed me six months ago.

She must’ve sensed I didn’t believe her because she went on. “You seem to be trying harder lately. You said hi to me at school in front of your friends. You helped my brother out with Eve. And we’ve been together for eight hours now and I don’t want to strangle you. That’s got to mean something.”

I gave a short laugh. Her list of my supposed good deeds was painfully short.

Hayden got in the driver’s seat and his eyes found mine. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” That was the third time I’d said it and the third time it wasn’t true. I pointed to the cup holder. “Thanks.”

He looked at the cash sitting there. “What’s that for?”

I made myself smile. “A good time.”

Nate snorted a laugh and Hayden smiled but it looked forced as well.

My phone rang and I gasped, remembering I’d forgotten to call my mom when I got in the car like I promised. I answered immediately. “Sorry, Mom, I’m on my way home. We’re, like, an hour away.”

“I was worried.”

“I know, I’m sorry. I forgot to call.”

“Well, I thought maybe you went out to celebrate with your brother afterward, so when I couldn’t get a hold of you, I called him.”

“You did?” I squeaked. “What did he say?”

“He didn’t answer so I left a voice mail. He must’ve been busy.”

“Yes. I’m sure he’s out with friends or something. . . . What did you say in the voice mail?”

“I just asked if you were with him because you hadn’t checked in even though you promised you would.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again, but all I could think about was that my brother now knew I had been there. I wondered how long before he listened to that message and what he’d say when he called me. “I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“Okay. Drive safe.”

“Thanks, Mom.” I hung up.

Bec said, “He knows?”

I checked my phone to make sure I didn’t have any missed calls from him. “Not yet. But he will.”

An hour later, after dropping off Nate, we pulled up to Hayden’s house and I met his eyes once again, confused as to why he wasn’t taking me home.

“Out,” he said to Bec.

“Fine. Whatever.”

I got out too and pulled her into a hug before she could go in the house. “Thank you for coming today and for trying to make me feel better.”

She squeezed me once. “I said I didn’t want to strangle you. That doesn’t mean I want to hug you.” I could hear the smile in her voice when she said it. “Thanks for helping me with Nate,” she said right before she was gone.

Hayden had stepped out of the car too and he gestured for me to follow him. He led me to a swing on the porch. “Sit,” he told me.

“You still think you’re in charge of me?”

“I don’t like the words ‘I’m fine.’ My mom tells me those two words are the most-frequently-told lie in the English language. And I don’t need her to tell me that. There is no way you are fine after what happened tonight.”

“Hayden, I appreciate what you did for me today. So much. But I really can’t talk about this right now.”

The look he gave me then made my heart ache. He felt sorry for me . . . again. “I’m worried about you. And I can’t send you home like this because you’ve told me how little you talk to your parents and I know the kind of people your friends are. And now I’ve seen your stellar brother. This is going to eat you alive. I just want you to talk it out. Let it out.”

“That’s not how I deal with things.” For a small space of time I’d thought I understood my brother. I thought I’d discovered this great mystery about why he fought with my parents—that he was just trying to express his opinions. But if this was how expressing opinions made the other person feel, I was perfectly fine with going back to the strategy of keeping the peace. Keeping everything inside.

Hayden sat on the porch swing and it was obvious he wasn’t moving until I said something. I wasn’t sure what was left to say. Nobody had ever tried so hard to get me to open up before. Maybe if I just started talking about other things, he’d realize I didn’t want to dwell on this. If I did, I wouldn’t be able to contain my emotions. I sat down next to him. “We’ve never had a porch swing. Do you sit out here a lot?”

“Not as much as you’d think a person with a porch swing should.”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever analyzed how much a person with a porch swing should use it.”

“Well, I have and it’s underused.”

I smiled. “Is it a surfboard?”

He paused for a moment as if confused then nodded. “Yes.”

“Seventeen questions.”

“That was eighteen.”

“No, because you didn’t answer the sport competition one. You just analyzed it.”

“True.”

I brought my knees up onto the swing with me. “Do you like to surf?”

“I do.”

“I was just surfing the other day.”

“I know. Bec said she saw you out there.”

Bec had told him she saw me out there. I wondered if she told him how badly my friends had treated her. How badly I had treated her. I had been so proud of myself that day over nothing. I had done nothing for her, only for myself. I wondered if Hayden was starting to add up all the negatives he was collecting on me.

He didn’t seem to be thinking about the injustices delivered to Bec when he said, “That’s what made me think of a surfboard for the game. Very anticlimactic, I know.”

He looked at my mouth, and just when I thought he was thinking about other things, better things, things that were going to make me forget tonight completely, he lowered his eyebrows with a frustrated sigh.

“What?”

“You’re smiling.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Gia.” He paused and took my hand. “It’s not how you’re feeling.”

“I don’t cry, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“I was thinking about surfing. Now I’m thinking about the fact that your hand is warm.” And that I really like holding it.

“That’s it. You’re talking to my mom.”

“What?”

He didn’t answer me, just stood up and went inside. He couldn’t have been serious. I was not talking to his mom. And yet a couple of minutes later, Olivia came outside and joined me on the porch swing.

I spoke first. “I’m so sorry. Your son is overreacting. I really just want to go home.”

“Okay, let me drive you.”

“Thank you.”

It’s like Hayden knew that his mom was the easiest person in the world to open up to because after I told her where I lived and before we had even made it down the block I was rambling on about how that video made me feel. “I’m the most shallow person on the face of the earth, I’ve decided. I have absolutely no depth. And I don’t know how to get it. My life is normal. My parents are together. They don’t beat me or anything. Death has never taken anyone close from me. I do well in school. We’re not poor but we’re not rich either. I’ve never had a life-threatening illness or injury. I’m devoid of tragedy and therefore have no wisdom or insights to offer.”

Olivia laughed. Not the mocking kind of laugh but just a warm, gentle laugh that lightened my mood a bit. “Oh, Gia, honey. You’ll have enough trials to get through in life without wishing them upon yourself.”

“But I’m flawed. I’m flawed because I haven’t experienced anything to teach me any valuable life lessons that make me a better person. My brother captured that so well and easily.”

Olivia was quiet and I was convinced it was because I was a lost cause. She had no advice to offer the naive, shallow girl. But then she gave a small hum and said, “We rarely find depth by looking inside of ourselves for it. Depth is found in what we can learn from the people and things around us. Everyone, everything, has a story, Gia. When you learn those stories, you learn experiences that fill you up, that expand your understanding. You add layers to your soul.”

I nodded even though she was driving and probably couldn’t see me. She pulled up in front of my house and turned toward me.

“What your brother did? It wasn’t right. He should’ve asked your permission.”

“He kind of did. On the video itself.”

“You and I both know he should’ve asked in a better way. Mocking someone else to make us seem deep or intelligent only proves the exact opposite.”

“He knew it would bother me. It’s not like he thought I’d be fine with it. Otherwise he would’ve wanted me to come.”

“I’m sorry, Gia. And I know you’re embarrassed. I hope you’ll talk to your parents about it. Tell them how it made you feel. Let them bring your family together over this.”

I gave a humorless laugh. “We’re not like your family. We keep everything on the surface. Or completely inside.”

“Well, maybe you’re the one who’s going to change that with your newfound depth.”

I smiled. “Maybe.” I reached for the door handle.

“And Gia?”

“Yes?”

“My son doesn’t like shallow girls, so there must be a lot more to you than you think.”

“Hayden doesn’t like me. We’ve just had a mutually beneficial arrangement that is now, unfortunately, over.” He had felt like he owed me a favor after the party. But now that favor was paid. We were even. And I realized after spending the day with him that I was sad about that. I wanted him to like me because as much as I’d tried, I could no longer deny the fact that I liked him.

I gave her a half smile and climbed out of the car. “Thank you so much for the ride.”

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