The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 35

I awoke to humming. Off-key humming. I cracked one eye open and saw my mom putting stacked clothes of folded laundry on my dresser.

“You should be awake,” she said.

I pulled my pillow over my head. “I’m not going to school today.”

“Yes, you are.”

“Mom, I don’t want to. I had a bad day yesterday.”

“You can’t hide from your problems.”

“Why not? You do.”

The room became so silent that I thought maybe she had left. I moved my pillow to see her standing in the middle of my room, staring out my window, a look of sadness on her face. I wanted to take back what I’d said, but I didn’t.

“You can use Dad’s car today,” she said, then turned and left my room.

I somehow got myself showered and ready for school. I went to the kitchen to eat breakfast with my mom like I always did, thinking I could apologize, but she wasn’t there . . . like she always was. Instead there was a note on the counter. Went to work early. There’s cereal in the pantry.

Drew stumbled into the kitchen after me and read the note over my shoulder. “You broke Mom.”

I clenched my teeth. “You broke Mom.” I pushed past him, grabbed the keys off the hook in the laundry room, and left the house.

Drew was right. I’d broken everything, but today I was going to fix it. So when I pulled into the lot, I parked in the section where Claire always did. Her car wasn’t there. I waited with no luck until the bell rang. The second bell didn’t magically produce her either. My eyes drifted to Laney’s car, parked a few rows over. Had they driven together? I knew I needed to fix things with Laney and Jules as well, but I wanted to start with Claire.

I sighed and climbed out of my car. As I headed to class, an idea took over. I was student body president. I usually didn’t abuse that title, but today I was going to make it work for me. I changed my direction and went to the front office.

If I acted like this was normal, it would work. I pasted on a smile and approached Mrs. Fields. “Hi, I’m working on last-minute details for the rally this Friday and I need to borrow Claire Dunning from her first-period class.”

“What class is she in?” Mrs. Fields asked like I did this all the time.

“Calculus. Freeman.”

My heart raced, but it must not have shown because she picked up the phone and dialed. “Hi,” she said after a moment. “I need Claire in the front office please.” She gave a few hums then hung up. I waited for her to tell me that Claire wasn’t at school today.

She didn’t. She smiled up at me and said, “She’s on her way.”

“Oh. Great. I’ll just wait outside for her. Thanks so much.” I stepped out the door and tried to think of what I was going to say. There was no excuse for what I had done. What I’d said. That would be a good opening line. There really wasn’t. If I were Claire, I’d be mad too. But we’d been best friends for ten years—that fact had to count for something.

I heard her shoes on the cement before I saw her round the corner. Her calm, curious look immediately hardened when she saw me. Then she stopped in the middle of the hall still forty feet away. I didn’t hesitate to close the gap between us.

“Can we just talk?”

“Did you seriously just call me out of class for this? Did you lie to Mrs. Fields to get me here?”

Maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. “No. Yes, but just barely.” What was wrong with me? I went with my preplanned line. “There’s no excuse for what I’ve done.”

“For lying to get me out of class?”

“No . . . well, maybe that too, but actually I think wanting to talk to you is a halfway decent excuse.” I shook my head. “I’m talking about lying to you about Bradley.”

“I know what you’re talking about.” Her expression hadn’t softened at all. “Is that all?” She started to back away.

“No. And for what I said at the restaurant. I didn’t mean we’ve never been friends. You’re my best friend, Claire. I’ve been so selfish. I just want to talk about this. I messed up and I wanted to say sorry.”

“Well, you said it.” She turned and headed back up the hall.

“That’s it?” I called after her. “I’m trying to fix this.”

She didn’t turn back around.

Time. I knew she just needed time. I’d hurt her and she wasn’t going to get over it that quickly. That’s what I was telling myself to hold it together. But when I heard two girls whisper the word “liar” when they passed me during break later that day, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I marched straight to the portables and found Bec.

“I need you,” I said, pulling her up by the arm and back through the crowded hallways toward the parking lot.

“Be careful. The whole school is seeing this.”

“I’m having a breakdown.” My chest was tight and I barely squeezed the words out.

She pressed her darkened lips together. “So . . . you want to go throw some baseballs? I actually drove to school today.”

“Yes,” I said without a second’s thought.

“Cool. Let’s go.”

As Bec drove toward the old country house, she hummed a song that was playing on the radio. After several minutes she said out of nowhere, “Do you believe in second chances?”

“No,” I said immediately because I knew she was talking about Hayden.

“So you don’t think Claire should give you a second chance?”

I sighed. “Yes, I do.”

“I do too.” That’s all she said. I wasn’t sure if she meant that she thought Claire should give me a second chance or if she was just saying that she believed in them in general.

I was tired of talking about me, of thinking about my problems. I needed a break from them. “How is Nate? What’s going on there? Have you told him you’re madly in love with him?”

“Am I? Madly in love with him, I mean? I’m not sure that I am. That would be the only kind of love that would make me want to tell him at this point. The kind that would drive me to do something crazy like that. The mad kind.”

“Why is it crazy to tell him?”

“Because he’s a great friend. I don’t want to make that weird. You know?”

“Yeah, I know. Losing friends is the worst.”

“Hayden’s a mess, Gia.”

I groaned. We had changed the subject. She wasn’t allowed to change it back.

“Here’s the thing—”

“Please, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Just hear me out and then I’ll shut up.”

“Fine.”

She nodded once. “Thank you. So here’s the thing,” she said again with a smirk in my direction. “He didn’t want to be Ryan. He didn’t want to choose a girl over a friend. He had just been on the wrong end of that and knew how it felt and he didn’t want to do it to someone else. To the only friend he had left after everything with Eve blew up. He needed to believe Spencer. But it doesn’t matter anymore because he confronted him. Like, really confronted him and the truth about you came out. And he’s a mess, Gia.”

“He hasn’t tried to call or text or anything.”

“Because he screwed up and he knows it. He doesn’t think he deserves a second chance. So please, you have to talk to him.”

“I shouldn’t have to be the one to initiate this.”

“I know, believe me, I know. But you told him not to call you. And now he’s playing the ‘I don’t deserve her’ card. I swear, I don’t know if all actors are this dramatic or just him but I’m ready to kill him. You have to forgive him before he drives me insane.”

“But I don’t know if I do forgive him.”

“Fine. I guess I have to kill both of you, then.” She pulled up the long dirt drive of Will’s house. We passed the truck we had thrown baseballs at last time and I thought maybe this trip was a bad idea after all because the memories came pouring in.

The four big dogs surrounded our car, barking. Bec honked but no one came out to put them away.

“It’s all you this time,” she said.

“What? You really are going to kill me? I thought that was a joke.”

“They won’t kill you. I can’t promise they won’t bite you.”

I looked into the backseat. “Where are the baseballs?”

“You know, I didn’t think I needed to bring a bucket of balls to school this morning.”

“I thought that’s why we took your car. Maybe we should just leave.”

“No, we’re here. There are always a few we accidentally leave behind. I bet there’s a couple inside our last target practice.”

I chewed on my lip, watching the dogs jump up on the car.

She patted the center console. “Can I borrow your phone for a sec? Mine ran out of juice.”

I dug my phone out of my pocket and handed it to her then watched her start to dial in a number. She noticed me watching, reached over, and unbuckled my seat belt. “Come on. Out.”

“Fine. When these dogs maim me, I’m giving your name to the police.”

She didn’t respond and I stepped out of the car. The dogs immediately jumped on me, knocking me several steps backward. I caught myself on the car.

“Show them who’s boss,” she said, reaching over and shutting the door I’d left open.

I grabbed one by the collar and led him toward the fence. The others followed, nipping at my heels and barking. They were so loud my ears rang. I was convinced Will wasn’t home or he would’ve thought an army was coming to rob his house. Once they were safely behind the gate, I turned with a proud smile to see that the car and Bec were gone. I walked slowly back to the road, thinking maybe she’d just parked it somewhere. I instinctively reached for my pocket to pull out my phone and remembered she’d borrowed it . . . stolen it! She’d set me up. For what I wasn’t sure, but I did not have to go along with this.

With my best friendly face on, I knocked on Will’s door, hoping I was wrong about him not being home. Maybe he just enjoyed watching his dogs terrorize people. His house may have looked older than dirt but he had to have a phone in there. Nobody answered. I peered through the dirt-smudged window to the right of the door and saw nothing but a darkened hallway.

How had people ever lived without cell phones? I was stuck in the middle of nowhere. I sank to the porch and put my forehead on my knees. Bec had to come back sometime. At the very least, someone would have to wonder where I was when school got out. Maybe. As I sat there, alone, I thought about what she’d said about Hayden. He was a mess, she’d said. That thought twisted my heart and for one moment I thought that maybe she was right. That I really did need to give him a second chance, give us a second chance. It’s what I was asking for from Claire. How could I not offer the same thing to someone else? But as soon as that thought came, the night on the beach pressed on my shoulders. This was different from my fight with Claire. He’d called me a liar when I’d never lied to him. He didn’t believe me after his friend had been a major jerk.

Anger surged through me. No. I couldn’t get over what had happened so easily. My eyes zeroed in on the ’68 Camaro across the yard. I pushed myself to my feet and went in search of some baseballs.

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