The Fill-in Boyfriend

Chapter 9

His outgoing message ended, followed by the loud beep. I took a breath and said, “Hey, Bradley, it’s me. Call me back when you get a minute.” I wasn’t going to tell him in a voice mail that I wasn’t regretting our breakup.

I pressed End and threw the phone on the passenger seat. When I pulled up to my house, Claire’s car sat out front and she sat in it, waiting for me.

“Hey,” I said as we both stepped out of our cars.

She held up a cup. “A few days late, but here it is.”

I joined her. “What is it?”

“A milk shake.”

I smiled and gave her a hug, holding on for a couple of seconds too long before pulling away. “You’re the best. Let’s go inside.”

“I can’t, I’m going surfing. Wanna come?”

I laughed. “Are you going to ask me that every time you go? It’s as though you like to hear me say no.”

She smiled. “I just feel like you’re missing out on one of the true joys in life.”

“What’s that? Super-freezing water, gross salty hair, and washing away sand for days?”

“Well, when you put it like that, it sounds bad.”

“Exactly.”

She swatted my arm. “It’s fun. Peaceful.”

“You know what’s also fun and peaceful? Drinking a shake.” I took a big sip from mine.

“That’s true. Or eating brownies.”

“Or pedicures.”

“Naps.”

“Music.”

“Guys,” we both said at the same time then laughed.

Well, normally guys are, I thought. Not so much lately.

“We are so the same person,” she said. “Well, except for that surfing thing.”

“Yeah, come on, get past that so we don’t have this wedge between us.”

My smile turned a little forced as I thought about the only wedge between us and who had put it there.

“So how did your make-up tests go yesterday?”

“Make-up tests?” I remembered one moment too late that she was talking about the excuse I’d used to stay behind on campus and talk to Bec. “Yeah, they went well. . . .”

“That doesn’t sound like they really did. Are you worried you’re failing something?”

Our friendship. I couldn’t tell any more lies. I was turning over a new leaf, starting fresh. “I wasn’t taking a make-up test.”

“Okay . . . what were you doing?”

“I had to talk with someone on campus.”

“Who?”

“Her name is Bec. I just didn’t want the whole gang coming. She hangs out by the portables.”

“With the stoners?”

“I’m pretty sure they’re not stoners.”

“Well, they act like—” Her phone chimed and she stopped mid-sentence to check it. “They’re waiting for me. I probably better go.”

“Who’s waiting for you?”

“Jules and Laney. Remember, I told you we’re surfing.”

“I thought you were surfing by yourself, peacefully.”

She laughed. “No, they wanted to come this time.”

“Jules surfs?”

She shrugged. “She wants to learn.”

It took everything in me not to run inside and put my suit on like I now wanted to. I wasn’t going to change my mind just because the three of them would be there without me. And I also wasn’t going to rush telling her about prom right now. I’d tell her when she had more time. “Have fun.”

As Claire got in her car I yelled out, “Thanks for this,” and held up my shake.

“May it bring you peace,” she said with a smile, then drove away.

In Government the next morning as I sat down, Bec immediately turned around in her seat. “Change of plans. It’s time to pay up.”

“Uh . . . what?”

“You owe my brother a favor and I’m here to collect.”

She wanted me to do something for her brother when I’d just banned him from my brain? “I can’t.”

“You owe him.” She pulled something out of her bag and slapped it onto my desk. It was an envelope, its top edge jagged.

“What is it?” I asked without picking it up.

“It’s not going to bite you.”

“And you didn’t poison it?”

“Open it.”

I picked it up and took out the single page inside. An invitation, printed on gold-bordered paper. “Are you inviting me to your birthday party?”

“You’re just a regular comedian this morning, aren’t you?”

I read the invitation. You’re invited to a graduation party for Eve Sanders. Saturday, May 7th at 7pm. “Am I supposed to know who this is?”

“My brother’s ex.”

My eyes zeroed in on the address included on the invite. Eve lived only, like, twenty minutes away. Bec and her brother had moved from across town?

Bec continued, “I found it on the counter last night and then I heard him calling her to confirm that he is actually going to that thing. She invited him. And he is going. She’s trying to sink her claws into him again when she is the one who left him. She is awful, Gia. Worse than you.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re just clueless. She’s intentionally mean.”

“Was that supposed to make it better?”

The bell rang and Mrs. Rios stood in front of the class, her eyes narrowing in on me. Bec turned around to face the front. My attention drifted to the invitation still on my desk. When Mrs. Rios turned to write something on the whiteboard, I leaned forward. “So, I don’t understand. What do you want me to do about this?”

Mrs. Rios must have supersonic hearing because her head whipped toward us. I leaned back. Half of class passed and I swore Bec was just trying to drive me insane by not saying a word. Finally she slipped a note back to me.

You are going to be his date to the party. His new “girlfriend.” You owe him.

My heart thumped loud in my chest. I had told him I owed him a fake date on prom night. He’d taken me up on it. Why had he taken me up on it?

The day passed excruciatingly slowly as I thought about Saturday. I hoped seeing him again wasn’t going to screw up my plans. No, this was good. Like I said before, he could answer my questions and it would be over.

It was hot as I headed toward Claire’s car at the end of the day. Had it been this hot all day? I peeled off my sweater and laced it through the strap of my backpack. When I looked up, Logan Fowler was standing in front of me, blocking my path. His easy smile and confident posture reminded me why I had told Claire to ask him to prom. He was definitely A material. I returned his smile.

“Logan.”

“Gia. What happened at prom? You were supposed to be my queen.”

“Are you rubbing it in that you won and I didn’t, Logan?”

He let out a loud laugh. “I was just surprised you didn’t, that’s all.”

Why did everyone else keep bringing this up? Did they want me to be upset? “I guess you’ll have to dance with me another time.” I moved to go around him but he held out his arm, stopping me.

“I’m having a party this weekend. Come.”

“This weekend?”

“Saturday.”

The invitation that Bec had left sitting on my desk for all of first period flashed in my mind. Of course it would be the same day. She’d kill me if I bailed now. “I can’t, but thanks for the invite.” I pushed his arm away and left him, throwing a smile over my shoulder to let him know I wasn’t trying to be mean.

“I see how you are. Playing hard to get.”

I laughed and kept walking.

Claire was already in her car when I got there. I collapsed into the passenger seat.

“Well, hello to you too,” Claire said.

“Hey, baby.”

“Oh, now you talk sweet to me.” She started the car. “So, check out my hair.”

I looked at her hair but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. It was long and black and shiny just like it always was. “Yep, it’s still perfect.”

She shoved my shoulder. “I want you to note that there are still no aftereffects of surfing yesterday. No—how do you put it? —saltwater trauma.”

“Well, that’s because you have beautiful magic Asian hair. Mine wouldn’t be as kind.”

“Magic Asian hair?”

“Don’t try to deny it. How did it go yesterday? Did you all have fun?”

“We did, but Jules and her mom are fighting again so it turned into a therapy session.”

“Did you tell her that no one gets along with their mom?”

“Except you.”

“You didn’t tell her that, did you?” As if Jules needed another reason to hate me.

“No, I didn’t. But her issues with her mom go beyond the norm and there really wasn’t much I could say that made her feel better.”

“What’s going on? Is she okay?”

“I really don’t feel like it’s my place to tell you. Maybe you could try talking to her.”

“She doesn’t want to talk to me. And what makes you think I’d be able to help?”

“I don’t know. You’re good with people.”

“Not with her.” Claire was probably just trying to get Jules and me to talk more. She’d probably given Jules some story about me as well that she was supposed to help me with. But Jules didn’t want to be my friend so I wasn’t sure why Claire thought anything I said to her would make a difference. I knew it meant a lot to Claire, though, and maybe it really would help so I said, “I’ll try.”

“Thank you.”

The first thing I noticed when Claire pulled up to my house was my brother’s beat-up car sitting at the curb.

“Drew’s here?” Claire said. “I should probably stay.”

“Funny,” I said. “And gross.”

“Come on, you know he’s cute. I can’t help it.” She turned off her car and got out with me. I rolled my eyes but laughed.

Inside, Drew had a plate piled with food like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Maybe the last good meal he had was here, three weeks ago. He had some new growth on his face that made him seem so much older than me when really we were only three years apart.

“You’re home,” I said unnecessarily.

His mouth was full of food but he smiled anyway. He even added a “Hey, sis.”

“Hi.”

“Hi,” Claire said as well.

He swallowed. “How’s it going? And yes, I’m home for the weekend.”

“It’s only Thursday.”

“I don’t have classes on Fridays.”

I wondered if his being here would change my plans for Saturday. Would Mom want us to have some sort of family dinner that night?

Claire sat down at the table in the chair across from him. “How is UCLA? I’ll be there in a hundred days with Gia.”

He gave her an amused look. “And how many hours?”

Her cheeks went pink. “I don’t have that figured out.”

“Well, you’ll love it. It’s great.” Drew took another bite of food then he turned toward me. “I ran into Bradley the other day.”

“Oh?” My face went numb. I didn’t want to talk about Bradley right now, in front of Claire. I was worried something might come out. When I told Claire the truth, it needed to be just her and me. My brother wouldn’t help.

“He said you guys are fighting?”

“That’s what he said? That we’re fighting?” I wasn’t sure what that meant. That he thought we might get back together? He hadn’t called me back since I left the message the day before.

Drew’s brows went down. “I think that’s what he said. Are you not fighting?”

“He broke up with me.”

“He cheated on her,” Claire added.

Crap. “Well, I mean, that’s what it seemed like,” I said to smooth things over in case my brother relayed this back to Bradley.

“What do you mean that’s what it seemed like?” Claire said, indignant on my behalf. “There was that other girl there. He basically admitted to it.”

“Right. But we didn’t see anything and I haven’t really let him explain.”

“You’re going to forgive him?” Claire asked, standing to face me.

“No.” It was nearly impossible to convey two different things at the same time. I couldn’t let my brother go back to Bradley with the cheating story, but I didn’t want Claire to think I was getting back together with him after he “cheated” on me.

“Huh,” my brother said. “I hadn’t heard that side of the story.”

“What did you hear?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity about how Bradley was telling the story.

“He just said you had a fight and he’d been trying to call you. He asked how you were. I said I hadn’t talked to you in a while but that according to Twitter you were . . . um . . . how did you put it? ‘Chillin’ at home’?”

“You really said that to him?”

“That’s what you wrote on Twitter. You’re okay with the world reading it but not Bradley?”

“The world doesn’t read my Twitter,” I mumbled.

“Do you want me to find out if he’s cheating on you? I have connections.” He said this in a mob-boss kind of voice.

“No,” I said, but Claire said, “Yes” right over me.

He looked between the two of us.

“No,” I said again. “Please, I don’t need my brother policing my relationship.”

He leaned into the table. “Gia, I hope you’re not trying to pretend everything is fine if a guy cheated on you. You should be pissed about that.”

“I am. I mean, I would be if he really had.”

Claire’s mouth dropped open at this point. Drew shook his head. “Claire, in case you haven’t learned this about my sister, everything in her world is perfect. Even if it really isn’t.”

I had almost forgotten how Drew was. He liked to stir up trouble. It was like he lived for it. He got some sick, manic pleasure from it.

“You’ve at least talked to the parents about this, right? Or someone?” He looked at Claire with his last sentence.

“Claire was there that night. And yes, Mom and Dad know we broke up.”

“And I’m sure you had a real heart-to-heart about it. Dad told you some overused metaphors, Mom told you not to stir up trouble, and you smiled like they are the best parents in the world.”

“Stop it.” I wanted to get along with my brother, but the only thing he wanted to do was make me feel bad about myself.

“Or what?” He smiled at me.

“Just don’t. Please.”

He held up his hands. “Fine, I’ll stay out of it.”

“Thank you.”

He put his plate in the sink. “Gotta do some laundry. We’ll catch up more later.”

When he was gone, Claire said, “You’re not really thinking about getting back together with Bradley, are you?”

“No?”

She shook her head. “That doesn’t exactly sound like conviction. Don’t let his dreamy blue eyes and perfect smile make you forget what he did.”

I felt my face wrinkle into confusion before I remembered she was describing my fill-in date. I nearly laughed at her description. He did have dreamy blue eyes and a perfect smile. And was too skinny and had shaggy hair. “Right. I won’t forget what he did.”

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