The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 29

Hayden headed toward the car and I followed. “This car is pretty far gone. It would take a lot to restore it anyway.”

One side window was rolled down and the interior was filled with dried leaves, the seats were ripped, their rusty springs visible. It didn’t stop Hayden from grabbing hold of the roof and swinging himself in, feetfirst, through the window. He rested his wrist on top of the steering wheel and put on a model-like expression: squinty eyes, slightly parted lips. “What do you think?”

I laughed. “It looks good on you.”

“I agree. Care to join me?”

The passenger seat seemed even dirtier than the one he sat on. He must’ve seen my hesitation because he reached out and grabbed for me. I jumped back with a squeal. He dropped his hand, patting the outside of the door like it was a beloved pet. I surprised myself by walking forward, and climbing in through the window, headfirst, right over the top of him. He let out a laugh and helped me through. It was a tight squeeze with him sitting in my way, and my hips brushed against his chest and the steering wheel. My pants snagged on something and I was jerked to a halt, my hands on the passenger seat, my feet still out the window.

“I’m stuck,” I said.

“Yeah, you are.” His voice contained a smile.

“Help me.”

He laughed. “But I’m kind of enjoying this.”

“If I weren’t using my hands, I’d beat you right now.” I tried to pull my leg forward again and was greeted with a ripping sound.

Hayden laughed but then I felt him reaching for my ankle, where it seemed the problem was. “It’s stuck on the lock. Let me try to unhook it.”

My arms were starting to shake from holding myself up.

“Got it,” Hayden said, and tugged my leg free, sending me jolting forward and face-planting into the seat.

“Ouch.”

“Oh no. I’m so sorry.”

My legs were draped across his lap, my arms stuck beneath me. The stick shift had bruised my side for sure. I carefully rolled to my right, toward the seat, and he helped me sit up.

“You okay?” He took in my face.

“I’m fine.” I rubbed my hands over my face, sure it was covered in dirt. He picked a leaf out of my hair. “I’m good,” I assured him with an embarrassed laugh.

“That was really graceful.”

I hit his arm and he pretended it hurt.

“Well, I hope this was worth all that,” he said, a smile on his face.

I glanced around at the dirty interior that looked even worse up close. “Yeah, not really,” I said with my own smirk.

He leaned back against his seat then reached over and took my hand in his. Okay, so maybe it was worth it.

“How did your Odd Couple scene go today in class?”

“Really good. Thanks for your help yesterday.”

“You didn’t need my help.”

“I need your help.” The way he said it made it sound like we were no longer talking about practicing lines for a play.

Maybe he wasn’t. “What demons were you working out today?” I nodded my head toward the car we had battered.

“Ones that should already be worked out,” he said vaguely.

I wondered if he was referring to Eve, but there was no way I was going to bring up her name just in case he wasn’t. Not when he was holding my hand of his own free will and not because we were pretending for anyone.

“Do you ever wonder if who you pick as friends says something about who you are?”

So he wasn’t referring to Eve. He was referring to Ryan, who had betrayed him with her. Or maybe he was referring to the fact that he was lonely in his group, an outsider. I thought about his question, thought about my friends and what that might say about me. I even thought about how Bec’s friend had accused me of being mean because of something Jules had said. “Are you talking about Ryan?”

“I’m talking about a lot of things, but yes, he was my friend.”

“It was his choice. You can’t control what he does. His choice says nothing about you.”

“But doesn’t it? He was willing to turn his back on a lifelong friendship for a girl. Shouldn’t I have seen that coming?”

“You couldn’t have predicted that. It doesn’t mean you’d do the same thing just because you chose him as your friend.”

“I know. I just feel like I should be over it already.”

I squeezed his hand. “He hurt you. That’s not easy to get over.”

He sighed.

“What Bec said, about you being different from your friends . . .”

“I’m not lonely,” he answered almost too quickly.

“But you don’t really relate to them like you want to?”

“I like sports and sometimes they come to plays. It works out.”

“But you feel left out?”

I waited for him to tell me that Bec was wrong again but instead he said, “So did the baseball-throwing experiment help? How are you feeling?”

“I had a fun day, and considering everything that happened the last few days, I think that’s a good thing. Thank you for making me laugh.”

He studied my face and I smiled to reassure him. He said, “I don’t want to be thanked for that. You don’t seem to have a problem laughing. You’re good at putting on that face. It’s what’s behind the smile that I wonder about. You don’t have to be perfect all the time.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not, believe me.”

He brushed at something on my face, probably some dirt from the seat. “I like it when you’re not perfect.”

I felt my cheeks get hot again and this time I couldn’t hide it.

“What about you, Gia? Do you ever feel lonely in your group of friends?”

I found myself automatically wanting to say no. But he was right. I did always put on a happy face. This whole day was supposed to be about letting go. Letting my feelings out. It wasn’t something that came easily to me but Hayden made me want to try. “I never used to.”

“But now?”

“I don’t know. I love my friends, but yes, I’m discovering that they don’t know me very well. It’s not their fault, though. I’ve never let them. I’ve never really known myself.”

“Isn’t that part of being a teenager? Discovering who we are? Who we want to be?”

“I hope so because otherwise I’m really far behind.”

“I think you know yourself better than you think.”

From across the yard Bec yelled out, “Where are you guys?”

Hayden backed up and I realized how close we had gotten. “Guess we’d better get going.”

It took me several deep breaths to even out my breathing. Hayden climbed out the window and then turned back toward me.

“Can’t I use the door?” I asked, scooting over to the open window.

“It’s rusted shut.” He reached out his hands. “I won’t let you fall this time. Promise.” His eyes twinkled as if remembering my not-so-graceful entry.

I moved to my knees, trying to avoid the exposed springs, and put my head and shoulders out the window. I used the doorframe to push myself up and twisted so I was now sitting on the frame, my upper body facing the car, my legs still inside. That’s when Hayden scooped me up, putting one arm beneath my legs and the other around my back, and lifted me out of the car. I let out a surprised yelp and threw my arms around his neck for support.

Even when I had cleared the window he held on to me for several breaths. Finally I looked up, wondering why he wasn’t putting me down.

He met my eyes. “I had fun today too.”

“Good,” I said, more breathy than I intended.

Bec appeared behind him. “Did you use the ‘climb over me into the car’ move on her? I swear, you’re pulling out all the stops today.”

My previously fast-beating heart seemed to drop, and as if to emphasize the feeling, he put me down.

“It wasn’t a move, Bec,” he said, steadying me while I took a few wobbly steps.

She shrugged. “I’m pretty sure you don’t have to put on the moves to ask her to the play on Friday.”

Hayden narrowed his eyes at her.

She offered him an innocent smile. “I’m going to get the baseballs. Meet you at the car.”

And then Hayden and I were alone again. He ran a hand through his hair. “She’s really subtle, yes?”

“You don’t have to,” I said at the same exact time he said, “Would you want to?”

“I know,” he said at the same time as I said, “Sure.”

We both laughed. “Okay, let’s try talking one at a time,” he said. “You first.”

“I was saying, don’t feel like you have to ask me just because your sister told you to.”

“I don’t. In fact, I was going to tell you that you had to go to the play because I can’t be friends with someone who’s never seen a live play before.”

“Well, in that case . . .”

He looked to where Bec was throwing balls into the bucket. “I don’t know how you won her over, but you have.”

“Just ten minutes of screaming out our problems seemed to work.”

He smiled. “She wouldn’t have let you in her bedroom in the first place if she didn’t like you.”

“I don’t think I earned it in any way.” I wondered if she really liked me or if I was just the lesser of two evils in her mind. “But I like her.”

“So, Friday? Six.”

“Sounds good.”

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