The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 28

Hayden hadn’t seen me yet but my cheeks still went red. His eyes were on his sister, a small smirk on his mouth like he really wasn’t surprised at all the screaming coming from her room.

“We’re exorcising our demons,” Bec said, looking at me.

That’s when Hayden’s gaze drifted to me and his eyes went wide. “Gia. What are you doing here?”

“I just told you,” Bec said. “We’re expelling evil from our bodies.”

“Wait, you were screaming too?” he asked as if he didn’t believe that.

“Yes, she was,” Bec answered for me. “Now leave us be. We might need to scream about you next. Do we need to scream about him?”

“No, we don’t,” I said.

“Too bad. I had some good ones,” Bec said.

Hayden crossed his arms. “I’m so confused.”

“Her brother’s a jerk. Her parents are proud of that fact. We’re screaming about it. What’s so hard to understand about that?”

“Your parents weren’t upset?” he asked me.

“Not even a little bit.”

“Ouch. I’m sorry.”

I shrugged one shoulder. “It’s not a big deal.”

Bec sighed. “Gia, it is a big deal. We’re angry about it. That’s why we’re screaming. Aren’t you mad at your parents for denying their feelings? Stop doing what they’ve taught you so well.”

Hayden smiled. “You came to the right place. We don’t hide feelings around here. There’s a bucket of baseballs in the backyard if you’re interested.”

Bec sat up. “Ooh, yes. Let’s take them to Will’s place.”

“Will’s place?” I asked.

Hayden looked at his phone, probably checking the time.

“You don’t have to take us anywhere,” I said. “If you’re busy.”

“He’s not busy. Let’s go,” Bec said.

“I am, actually,” he said. “But seriously, it helps. You two should go.” He gave me a small wave and left the room, disappointment taking his place.

“What’s he busy with?” I asked, trying to sound casual.

The look Bec gave me proved I’d failed. “Who knows? Maybe he’s going out with his friends or something. He does have a couple of those.”

“Right.” I ran my finger along the rim of the jar that held her sea glass. “Do you know if he’s talked to Eve since the party? Or did our efforts pay off?”

“Are you worried about that?”

“No . . . I mean, yes. I met her and you were right—she’s not good for him. But I know his going to her party with me really did make her jealous. I guess I’m worried it did the opposite of what you were intending.”

“You think she broke up with Ryan to pursue Hayden again after seeing the two of you together?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm.” She scrunched her lips to the side. “Then we better make sure he won’t want her back. Tomorrow after school. You, me, and Hayden throwing baseballs at Will’s place.”

I shook my head. “Bec, I’m done scheming.”

“Scheming? This isn’t scheming. It’s just spending time with my brother. Where’s the harm in that?”

Spending time with her brother. I could feel the tug in my heart at the thought and knew that any more time spent with her brother might lead to a lot of harm on my side. I was starting to like him. Too much. And I usually didn’t let myself do that with so little assurance that the feeling was mutual. But I found myself saying, “Okay.”

We had driven a good twenty minutes and had reached a country neighborhood where every house looked in need of a face-lift. Hayden pulled up a long dirt drive. The property was lined with large trees and even more junk. Rusted-out old cars, broken appliances, large pieces of farm equipment.

Dogs, several of them, ran up to the car as we drove, barking and chasing us.

“Where are we? This looks like the setting for a mass murder.”

Hayden smiled at me. “This is Will’s house. He’s a member of our church, and for twenty bucks, he lets us throw baseballs in his yard.”

“Couldn’t we have thrown baseballs in your yard for free?”

“Yes, but he lets us throw baseballs at his stuff.” Bec pointed to an old car we were passing with a large hole in its windshield. “It’s very satisfying.”

Hayden honked the horn and an old man came out of the dilapidated house and called to the dogs. They all barreled toward him. He locked them behind a gate and then went back in the house with a grumpy face that seemed to say he really didn’t want us here.

“He’s in a good mood today,” Bec said.

“That was his good mood?”

“Normally he makes us lock up the dogs and it’s not as easy as he made it look.”

“If he doesn’t like you coming here, why does he let you?”

Hayden turned off the car and grabbed the bucket of baseballs from the backseat. “He loves us.”

“He loves our money,” Bec said, holding up a twenty. “I’ll go pay him.”

“That was the saddest attempt to throw a baseball that I’ve ever seen,” Hayden said after my . . . sad attempt to throw a baseball. It didn’t even shake the windshield let alone put a crack in it.

“Just picture your brother’s face behind that windshield,” Bec said, tossing a ball and catching it over and over.

“Imagine him holding up his video camera,” Hayden added.

“Do you guys keep this bucket of baseballs just to use over here?” I asked.

“No, we have it because Hayden tried to play once in high school like all his friends. But not all the baseballs in all the world could make him athletic.”

“Thanks, Bec.”

“What? It’s true.”

“You didn’t make the team?”

“My heart wasn’t into it.”

“He’s been friends with the same group since elementary school. They all got athletic. He got . . .”

“Don’t say it,” he said to her.

“Geeky.”

“She said it.”

I laughed.

“He felt left out and lonely. That’s why he tried out for the team. Not because he liked it.”

Lonely. Hayden felt lonely with his group of friends. Was that why he thought I was when he first met me? He seemed to sense what I was thinking because he squeezed my arm and said, “I’m not lonely. Now, throw the ball.”

I got ready to throw again and he said, “Okay, come here. You need direction.” He pulled me closer then positioned himself behind me.

Bec groaned. “Are you really using the ‘let me help you learn something’ move?”

I couldn’t see Hayden’s face so I wasn’t sure if he was blushing as much as I was.

“This isn’t a move, Bec. She really needs help.”

“Hey.” I elbowed him in the stomach and he laughed.

“If I wanted to make a move, I’d do something like this.” He put his hands on my waist, pulled me back against his chest, then leaned in close to my ear. “Hey, baby, you need help learning how to throw a baseball?” He said it in his low, husky voice.

I froze, the entire back of my neck and right ear tingling to life. Bec must’ve seen my face because she started laughing. Hard.

He stepped back. “What? Was that not very good?”

“Oh no, I think that would’ve worked if you were trying to pick up Gia,” Bec said through her laugh.

“Whatever. It wasn’t that good,” I said.

“Okay, so now the real lesson.” His hands were on my waist again positioning me. “You want to angle your body slightly. Then you’ll step with this foot and then throw. Use the step to add energy to the throw.” He backed away completely now and I was tempted to tell him I didn’t quite understand so he would show me again.

“I don’t know if I should be taking advice from someone who didn’t make the baseball team.”

“Throw the ball,” he said in an even voice.

I smiled and threw the ball.

“Better.”

“Except you need to scream something at it while you throw.” Bec picked up a baseball and yelled, “Wake up and see what you’re missing!” as she threw the ball.

Hayden raised his eyebrows. “Who was that directed at?”

“Stupid boys.”

“Got it.” He passed me another ball.

“Don’t forget to yell,” Bec said.

It was more embarrassing with Hayden here but I tried anyway. “How hard is it to ask?” The ball bounced off the windshield.

Hayden twisted a ball between his palms. “Would you have said yes if he asked your permission to use the footage?”

“I’m not sure. Probably not.”

He nodded.

“Hayden?” Bec said, pointing at the ball. “Have any demons to exorcise?”

Hayden stared at the windshield for a long moment. Several balls littered the tall yellow grass around the rusted car. Unlike Bec and I, Hayden didn’t yell anything angry, but the speed at which his ball hit the glass made me think that maybe he did have a few demons. The glass let out a loud pop and several spiderweb cracks formed from the point of impact all the way across the windshield.

It was my turn to raise my eyebrows at him. “What was that about?”

“It’s fun to break things” was his answer but I wasn’t sure it was the real one.

We all threw several more, and after a few minutes, Hayden held up his hands. “Okay, stop.”

“Why?” I asked.

“It’s going to shatter,” Bec said.

Hayden grabbed a ball out of the bucket and tossed it in the air. When he caught it he held it out to me with a wicked little smile. “It’s all you.”

I took the ball from his hand. “If I don’t break it, I’m going to be really embarrassed.”

“You’ll break it.”

I angled my body slightly, stepped, then threw. The windshield shattered with a satisfying crack. I smiled. “That was awesome!”

“So cathartic, right?” Bec asked.

“Yes.” I let out a happy sigh.

Bec picked up a few balls from the ground. “I’ll go play fetch with the dogs for a little bit. Be right back.”

Hayden started picking up the balls, throwing them back into the bucket. I helped him. “You guys do this a lot?”

“Not really.” The amount of broken or cracked windows on the surrounding cars seemed to say the opposite.

“Did he recently bring that car in?” I asked, pointing to an equally rusty but completely free-of-damage car that sat by a tree across the yard.

“No. We don’t touch that one. It’s a ’68 Camaro. I’ve been trying to convince Will to sell it to me since we started coming here, but as you saw, he’s kind of a grumpy old man set in his ways.”

“But I thought Bec said he liked money.”

“She was kidding. I think what he really likes is visitors. Come on, you should see this car.”

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