Copyright 2020 by Cheyanne Young
“We are failing the Bechdel test right now.”
At the sound of my voice, my best friend tears her gaze from Shawn Beck’s backside, an act that is frankly a miracle, because she’s just spent five minutes telling me all about how sexy those Varsity butt cheeks look in track shorts. Maggie lifts an eyebrow. “The what?”
A warm gust of wind blows my hair all in my face for the hundredth time since we sat down. I wanted to suggest that we study in the library, or at the snow cone place off Main Street, but today is a track meet day. Track meet days are always spent on the bleachers next to Maggie. I’m here to cheer on my boyfriend and she’s here to check out the athletic eye candy. It’s a tradition. You can’t skip tradition. The foundation of my entire life is built upon traditions.
“The Bechdel test,” I say, nudging her textbook with my knee to draw her attention back to the task at hand. The book is open on her lap, but she hasn’t actually looked at it since we sat down ten minutes ago. “It’s a theory that points out how in movies, every time there are two women together, they always talk about a guy. They’re never talking about anything of substance, like quantum physics or curing cancer or something. It’s always a guy. We’re better than that, Mags.”
“But talking about guys is so much more fun than physics… or homework.” Her thick English accent is more pronounced when she’s complaining. She sneaks one last glance at Shawn’s butt as he leaps over a hurdle before reluctantly looking at her textbook, her bottom lip poking out in protest. “This stuff is so easy, love. Why do we have to keep going over it?”
“Because your smart techie brain understands all of this computer programming crap and my pathetic brain doesn’t.”
“Hey look! We’re not talking about guys anymore.” Maggie wiggles her eyebrows, throwing back her shoulders in this haughty way as her chin tilts toward the sky. “We have passed the Bechdel test.”
“And you just ruined it by bringing up guys again!” I flatten my hands on top of my textbook. “Quiz me on the vocab words and then we can quit for the day.”
We go through the vocabulary list ten times until I finally have it memorized. Our computer programming class was supposed to be an easy A elective class to fill out my senior year schedule, but it turned out to be less playing on the computer and more memorizing technical terms, thanks to the two jackass football players who poured an energy drink on the computer lab keyboards for their internet fans.
Maggie is not only one of the greatest teenage makeup artists on Instagram, she’s also naturally skilled at all things technical. If she didn’t study with me before most tests, I’d be nowhere near passing this boring class.
“Okay, where is that gorgeous boy…” Maggie says after she shoves her textbook into her backpack. She leans forward, her eyes narrowing as they scan the track in front of us, searching for Shawn Beck. Today’s track meet is smaller than usual, with only three nearby schools competing in the track and field events.
“He’s in line for the boy’s relay,” I say, nodding toward to the field where Shawn stands next to Luca. They’re both varsity track stars, in nearly all of the same events together, and they’ve been friends since junior high when Shawn moved here from Houston. I think this is part of the reason Maggie has such a huge crush on Shawn. He’s Luca’s best friend. And she’s my best friend. It’s a proximity crush.
“I need you to promise me something, Honey.” Maggie rests her chin in her palm while she stares longingly at the tall, dark, and handsome object of her affection. “If school ends and I still haven’t gotten the courage to ask him out, I need you to pull some strings. Maybe hint that I like him or something. I can’t go off to NYC without having at least one date with him. He’s gorgeous, Honey.”
Her head tilts to the side and she’s in full on boy crush mode. I expect her insides to come melting out of her any second now. “Can you imagine our little mixed-race children? They’d be so freaking cute. What if they got my curly dark hair and his perfect cheekbones?” She breathes in deeply and sighs, shaking her head slowly.
“So ask him out, already! Nothing’s going to change if you don’t make a move.”
“It’s not that easy.” She shakes her head. “I’m not sure he even likes me? He’s always making fun of my accent.”
“I think that’s just playful teasing, love,” I say in my best imitation of her English accent. “Everyone thinks it’s cool, Mags. You sound more sophisticated than the rest of us small town Texas darlin’s.”
I say that last part with a thick southern drawl that I definitely don’t have in real life, and it makes her laugh. Maggie moved here two years ago when her dad was promoted at a nearby architectural firm. In a town as small as Stonebrook, where everyone knows everyone and we’re all just teeming with Southern Charm, a girl from England was a pretty big deal. It was the most exciting thing to happen in my sophomore year, and we all thought she was cool as hell. I still think she’s cool as hell. I’ve never exactly had close girlfriends until Maggie came along.
Maggie’s fingers wrap around my arm and she rests her head on my shoulder. Her massive curly hair most definitely gets in my mouth and I try to spit it out without her noticing. “You should ask Luca to put in a good word for me.”
The aluminum bleachers wobble as two of our friends climb up to where we’re sitting. Aidyn and Leigh are on the girl’s track team, so they’re dressed in matching Wildcats uniforms—dark blue shorts and silver tank tops with a large, ragged paw print on the front.
“Oh my god,” Aidyn says as she drops down one bleacher seat below and turns to face us. “Jacob from Wimberly High is here and he is so freaking, unbelievably, undeniably, ridiculously, hot.”
“Does anyone ever pass the Bechdel test?” Maggie asks, but I’m the only one who seems to notice.
“I think that guy from Klein Cain is hotter,” Leigh says, untwisting the cap off her sports drink.
“Can we please talk about anything else besides guys?” I beg. “Why can’t we talk about my moms’ graduation parties or celebrity gossip or—literally, just anything else?”
“Honey is such a killjoy,” Aidyn says, turning a snarky look to Leigh. “She’s like this old married lady killjoy.”
Leigh nods eagerly and Maggie nods right along with her. I throw her my most betrayed glare and she chuckles. “You don’t care to talk about guys, Honey, because you already have the perfect guy. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.”
I sit up straighter. “I think if you like someone you should ask them out. Talking about it all day long isn’t going to do anything.”
Aidyn rolls her eyes. “That’s easy for you to say. You’ve never had to ask anyone out.”
“Has Luca always been this hot or did he grow into his looks after puberty?” Maggie asks, her eyes narrowing on the field as if she can decipher Luca’s genetics through sight alone.
“A little bit of both,” Leigh answers.
I don’t know why it’s bothering me, but I can feel my cheeks get warm as I twirl my moonstone ring around my index finger. It happens every single time my friends start talking about my hot boyfriend. I just want to throw up my arms and scream I get it! He’s hot! You don’t have to keep saying it!
I hold my tongue but it’s not like it matters. Now that Luca has been brought up, my friends are all too happy to keep talking about him, comparing him with the other hot guys at our school as if I’m not sitting here being forced to listen to it.
If you were to cut Luca out of real life and cast him as the star in a Netflix original teen romance, then yeah, I’d binge watch every episode, because at face value, my boyfriend is hot. But when I look at him, I don’t see the forearm muscles Maggie raves about or the tall, muscular athlete who won the Cutest Couple superlative with me last month.
When I look at Luca, I see that jagged scar on his lip from the time we climbed too high in the tree behind Nana’s backyard and he fell down trying to reach for my hand so I wouldn’t be scared. I see the golden brown eyes that widened in horror when I got my first period while playing X-box on the floor of his game room when we were twelve and his parents weren’t home and he handed me maxi pads from his mom’s bathroom and said, “Here, I think this is what you need.”
When I look at Luca, I don’t just see my boyfriend. I see my childhood. My best friend. Every birthday party and every Christmas and every single holiday from the day I was born. I don’t get all swoony-eyed and boy crazy like everyone else seems to get when they’re around him. When I look at Luca, I no longer see all his good qualities. All I see lately is the person holding me back from going after the only thing I want in this life.
The fake pistol pops, sending a poof of smoke into the air and the boys’ relay race begins. My friends stop gushing over the guys and focus on the track instead. The Wildcats track team is Stonebrook High’s only claim to fame. Luca is the last one in the relay race, like always. He has enough speed to shave off a few seconds if his teammates are lagging behind the other team.
Someone’s dad cheers from the sidelines as he walks up the bleachers, a toddler holding onto one hand while he balances a box of pizza in the other. They walk right past us and sit a few rows back. The smell of the pizza lingers in the air until a breeze carries it away, but by then it’s too late. I’ve been reminded of something my aunt Bree said last year. And now the very thought of it burrows into my thoughts, taking all my attention away from Luca’s relay race.
Aunt Bree is eight years younger than my mom, and she’s always felt more like a slightly older best friend than my aunt. She’s a stunning six-foot-tall woman with long golden-brown hair and—I kid you not—a perfect little mole on her right cheek. She lucked out in life, somehow getting just the beautiful traits from my grandparent’s DNA and none of the bad ones. I bet she could have been a model if she wanted. Instead of marrying and having kids, she decided to stay blissfully single and travel the world.
Last summer when she returned home from months in Italy, she and I stayed up until three in the morning looking at all the photos she’d taken and hadn’t yet posted to Instagram. Almost a hundred of them were shot from the balcony of a pizza place that was next door to her Airbnb. I remember so clearly how Aunt Bree had described Italian pizza.
A “true” Italian pizza is simple: paper-thin crust, fresh marinara sauce, and slabs of mozzarella topped with a sprig of fresh basil—nothing else. She said the pizzeria’s stone oven had been baking pizza for centuries so all the thousands of pizzas that came before this one had worked together to season the oven, which in turn gave the crust a delicious, irreplaceable flavor that we in the States would never ever experience. Because our pizza ovens aren’t that old yet.
The way Aunt Bree described this pizza had my mouth watering, and if there had been enough money in my bank account, I might have bought a round trip flight to Italy right then and there to I could eat the pizza myself. When I told her that, she laughed. She said the thing about the most amazing pizza you’ve ever had is that it’s only earth-shatteringly good the first few times you eat it. Since she was staying next door, she’d eaten there nearly every day. By the last day of her trip, she took a bite of that golden crust, and while it was still just as perfect as all the pizzas she’d eaten before, somehow, she’d felt a bit of her passion for it slipping away. After a while, tasting this pizza wasn’t the same life-altering out-of-body experience because she’d grown used to it.
After a while, it was just pizza.
“Go Wildcats!” Aidyn yells, letting out a whoop of triumph. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
Looks like our team took another win. Luca drops the relay bar and then pulls off his track jersey, using it to wipe the sweat from his face. He turns toward the bleachers, his eyes zoning in right to where I’m sitting. He blows a kiss.
Something inside of me recoils. It hasn’t always been this way. I’ve been pathetically in love with my boyfriend for most of my life. These last few months have changed everything. It started when I got my college acceptance letter.
Not the acceptance to Texas A&M, which is both our parents’ alma matter and the college we’ve always known we’d be attending…getting into that university was a given. My acceptance to Fault Line University was unexpected. It’s my dream school. My long shot. The Hail Mary application I sent off just to pay homage to the type of girl I’d like to be. The girl who breaks tradition and goes out of state to pursue my dream instead of staying home and working at the family business with Luca.
“Is he coming over here?” Leigh asks as Luca jogs across the track, heading our way.
“I think so.”
“Tell him to bring all his hot friends,” Maggie says with a laugh. “And by hot friends, I mean Shawn.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Aidyn says, her hand touching my arm. “But your boyfriend looks like a Greek god.”
“Mmmhmm,” Leigh says.
Maggie nods. “You’re so lucky.” That statement earns her a round of agreement from our friends.
I love Maggie, but I really wish she would shut up. I wish everyone would shut up. I don’t need to be reminded about how supposedly lucky I am. I get it. I really do.
My smile is reluctant, but I shove it in place as Luca takes the bleacher steps two at a time, the afternoon sunshine glistening off his sweat-covered abs. Yeah, he’s gorgeous. He’s got muscles for days and forearm veins that should be photographed in black and white and plastered on a billboard. His jawline could cut glass, and those piercing azure eyes are the color of a stormy ocean that makes you want to dive right in.
“Congrats on the win,” I say, tilting my head up.
He places a quick kiss on my lips. “Thanks.”
All three of my friends are staring at him, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I notice. I’m not sure if I’m feeling annoyed or just really guilty.
Luca is my built-in date to every school event. My best friend. My other half. Maggie is right. What more could a girl ask for?
But now, when my friends are giving me serious jealous vibes, and the girls’ track team is staring daggers at me from the sidelines, I get this weird little knot in my stomach. This acute ache that starts off small and then widens, bigger and bigger, until all I can think about is how it doesn’t matter how delicious it is… sometimes a pizza is just a pizza.
And when it comes to my ultra-hot boyfriend? Sometimes he’s just a guy. A guy standing in the way of my dream college. He doesn’t know I was accepted into FLU. I haven’t told him, or my parents, or anyone. In our families, you don’t break tradition. Tradition is here in Texas, going to A&M and then working at the greatest construction business this small town has ever seen. Tradition is not in Colorado.
That ache in my chest tightens and I can’t seem to make it go away.
Then it happens.
I glance over at Luca and it’s like I’m not even seeing him clearly. For the first time in my entire life, I want to break up.
Rollins & Blackwell Construction is the second largest employer in our small town, right after the grocery store. I’ve spent most of my life here since the business opened a few months after I was born. The dads do remodeling, construction, and custom projects while the moms are the most well-known real estate agents in the county. I only have one mom and dad, but my parents are lifelong best friends, neighbors, and business partners with Luca’s parents. We live next door to the Rollins and I’ve known them my whole life, so in a way, I have two sets of parents. Luca and I just call them “the moms” and “the dads.”
My mom does most of the actual real estate paperwork and Luca’s mom, Jill, is more into staging homes and taking photography for the listings. All of the R&B Realty For Sale signs feature a picture of the moms, their backs together in a classic “we’re a team” pose. One day when I’m an official licensed Realtor, they will no doubt redo the signs with me in the middle.
The front desk is empty when Luca and I get to work on Saturday morning. This modern front desk was the brainchild of the moms a few years ago, after R&B had been hit with a particularly bad review online. Someone had walked into the office wanting to sell their house, but no one was up front to greet them, and although you can clearly see Mom and Jill working in their offices across the lobby thanks to the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, this person decided to walk right back outside and type a nasty review.
Two weeks later, this sleek custom desk was installed. They hired Maddison to sit behind the desk as the official company receptionist. Unfortunately for me, Maddison actually does get weekends off and I have to fill in for her when my parents decide to work.
“I’m needed in the shop,” Luca says, slipping an arm around my waist in a quick hug. “Love you.”
Luca’s forehead has this slight little crease right down the middle between his brows. It’s faint, but almost identical to the deeper one in his dad’s forehead. The two men look so similar, both broad-shouldered, with dark auburn hair. Both have light colored skin that tans easily (and is always tan due to working outside), and both have that little forehead wrinkle. When I look at Tony Rollins it’s like I’m seeing Luca in the future. I wonder if Luca thinks the same thing about me when he sees my mom.
That faint crease in his forehead deepens. “What’s wrong…?”
“Huh?” I say, then I quickly add, “Nothing.”
One anti-perk of having dated the same guy your entire life is that he knows everything about you. He demonstrates this now by giving me a look. “Something’s wrong.”
I roll my eyes and smile and push away that clawing guilt in my stomach that grows angrier each day I keep my FLU acceptance a secret. “Nothing is wrong. I was just distracted. Luca is a good eight inches taller than I am so I have to lift up on my toes to kiss him on the cheek. “Love you, too.”
He doesn’t push the issue and I watch him walk through the clean lobby that smells faintly of coconut sunshine, or whatever summery wax is in the warmer today, and slip out the double doors that lead into the warehouse.
I’m jealous he gets to work the construction side of the job, working with tools and lumber and paint and sheetrock, while I’m stuck here answering phones and posting on R&B’s Facebook page as the unofficial social media manager.
I slink into Maddison’s buttery soft leather office chair. Dad bought it for her after she complained about getting back pain from the original chair. It’s probably the nicest office chair in existence—all soft and plush and huge. Closing my eyes, I lean my head back and spin the chair around just for fun.
When my eyes open I realize I’m not alone. An older woman with silvery hair tied into a tight bun is sitting in one of the waiting chairs against the wall. She looks vaguely familiar, but then again, everyone in Stonebrook knows everyone else in some small way. Her lips crinkle into a grin.
“You two are the most adorable couple.”
“Aren’t they the cutest?” Jill appears, holding a manila folder. She flashes me a warm, deep red-lipsticked smile. “I always knew they’d fall in love one day, but I had no idea how cute they’d be together. Here are the comps for your house, Mrs. Beck.”
Ah, that’s how I know her. She’s Shawn’s grandmother. Volunteer for every single PTA event from kindergarten through high school.
The older woman thanks Jill for the paperwork and then turns to me. “I wish Shawn would find a nice girl like you. He spends too much time playing video games when he could be out dating and making something of himself.”
I bite the inside of my lip. I could easily tell her that my best friend has a huge crush on her grandson, but I’m not about to go spilling Maggie’s personal business all over the place. “Maybe I’ll set him up with one of my friends,” I say instead.
Mrs. Beck nods. “That would be wonderful.”
After she leaves, Jill turns to me with an overly exaggerated look of exhaustion. “I’m so ready to go home,” she says, sprawling her arms over the desk like she’s about to pass out. “I’ve been here since six! On a freaking Saturday!”
I glance back toward the hallway where I can just see the edge of my mom’s profile through her office window wall, where she’s diligently at work on her computer. “What was so important that we all had to come in to work today?”
“Hell if I know,” she says, rolling her eyes. “We have some new listings and Amber just couldn’t wait until Monday. I love your mom, but she works way too hard.”
Although they’ve been best friends since they were little kids, my mom and Jill are opposites in so many ways. Mom is a perfectionist, soft spoken, and really into following all the rules. I have never seen my mom drunk, even though she sips wine with Jill every single weekend around our backyard firepit. Jill is the carefree one, just like her son. She’s always in a good mood. Even when she’s complaining about work, she finds a way to do it in an upbeat way. I can’t help but think that she would be on board with me going to Colorado. I wish I could tell her. I wish I could tell my parents.
I wish I could tell Luca.
Jill perches on the edge of the desk and reaches out, running her fingers through my hair. “So what’s up in teenager world? Ya’ll got big plans for tonight?”
“I don’t think so,” I say, turning slightly so she’ll play with more of my hair. The great thing about my life with Luca is that I basically have two moms and two dads. Lately I’ve felt closer with Luca’s mom than my own mom. “Maybe I’ll kick Luca out of the house tonight so we can finish binge watching our show.”
“Ooh, now that’s a good idea!” Jill says. How easily she can betray her own son when it comes to a handsome fictional hitman on the big screen TV. She laughs and gathers my hair into one hand, then divides it in thirds and twists it into a loose braid. “I better get back to work before your mom slaughters me.”
Alone once again, I lean back in Maddison’s chair and scroll through the business Facebook page. The dads have a reputation for posting these cheesy videos of themselves giving home improvement advice in an attempt to get more follows and likes. They are both terrible actors, but you can’t argue with the results. In our town of six thousand people, they have forty thousand Facebook fans.
My phone rings and Aunt Bree’s name pops up on the screen. “Hey,” I say, pressing the phone to my ear while I spin around in Maddison’s chair. “What’s up?”
“Honey Bun. I have brookies.”
“Ughhhhh. I’m stuck at work,” I whine, tossing my head back. Brookies are Aunt Bree’s dessert specialty, consisting of brownie mix and cookie batter all baked into one delicious brookie that we eat straight out of the pan with scoops of vanilla ice cream on top. Gorging ourselves on the sugary monstrosity is our tradition when she comes back home from another one of her worldly adventures.
“I’ll keep it warm for you.”
“You’re the best.”
“Psh, I know.”
When work is over, Luca drives me to Aunt Bree’s apartment. He knows these brookie dates with Aunt Bree are more of a girls’ only thing, but I still feel bad that I don’t invite him to come up with me. All this guilt I have over keeping my college secret is seeping into every other aspect of our relationship.
He parks in front of Stonebrook’s only laundromat, which is right below Aunt Bree’s studio apartment. “When do you need me to pick you up?”
“I don’t know. I’ll text you?”
His smile is soft and sweet and totally oblivious to the whirlwind of thoughts wreaking havoc in my mind. “Cool.”
I head inside the empty laundromat and walk to the back where an employees only sign hangs on the door that leads to the narrow stairwell that goes up to my aunt’s apartment. The owner of the laundromat used to live up here but then he died, (not in the apartment, luckily) and his daughter took over the business and rented it to Aunt Bree. They were dating at the time, but after they broke up they stayed friends and my aunt got to keep renting the place.
I was really worried when I first found out that they were splitting up. Stonebrook is smaller than small, and there’s not exactly a bustling apartment complex nearby. This little laundromat apartment might be the only one-bedroom place to rent in town, and it’s what keeps my aunt here, near her family when she’s not traveling. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t get to see her every few weeks. She’s the only member of my family who lives as freely as I wish I could.
“There she is,” Aunt Bree says when she opens the door. She salutes me with her glass of wine. “My little college-bound niece. I’m so proud of you.”
“Huh?” I step past her slim figure and wander into the kitchen in search of the brookie. “I’ve always been college-bound.”
The studio apartment only has two rooms: the bathroom, and the rest of the place. A kitchen area is on the far wall, and Aunt Bree’s antique wooden dining table separates the area into the living room, which has just the one fluffy denim couch. Across from that is her bed, which is piled high with colorful pillows and a patchwork quilt that she made herself from different hand-dyed fabrics she bought in India.
My aunt prefers handmade, eclectic décor that she’s collected from her travels over cheap mass-produced crap like the décor we use to stage the homes we sell. She’s a freelance graphic designer, but she’s friends with artists from all over the globe. Their artwork hangs on the walls.
Last year she briefly dated this guy named Thom, who painted photo-realistic canvases of people and landscapes. His art was some of the best I’ve ever seen, and the painting of Aunt Bree sitting on the kitchen counter, sipping wine with one hand while painting her toes with the other still hangs on the wall. It’s right where a normal person would put a TV, but my aunt doesn’t have one—she says she’s never home long enough to justify it. I had begged the moms to buy some of Thom’s art so we could stage homes with it, but they both said no. Houses are supposed to be staged in basic, boring color schemes so potential buyers can visualize their stuff in the home.
That’s just another reason I don’t want to be a real estate agent. Basic and boring is not fun.
“Coffee table,” Aunt Bree says.
I turn away from the small kitchen area and find the brookie in a glass baking dish with an opened carton of vanilla ice cream that has two spoons stuck in the top. I grab one of the spoons and plonk down on the couch. Aunt Bree doesn’t join me. She just stands there, this weird-ass look on her face.
“What?” I say. A sinister tingle creeps up my spine. I haven’t done anything wrong—I’m not in trouble. So why is she staring at me like this?
“Why haven’t you told me you’re getting out of this dumbass town?” She plants her hands on her hips. “Hell, maybe I’ll move to Colorado too.”
My skin turns cold. “How do you know about Colorado?”
She bends down to the MacBook that’s open on her coffee table, spinning it around to face me. The browser is open to an email platform. My email.
Right there at the very top of my inbox is that one Fault Line University email I haven’t been strong enough to delete. But can you blame me? How do you delete something that basically says: Congratulations, you could actually do something with your life!
“I guess you logged in when you were over here last time,” she says, finally sitting next to me. “I take my iPad travelling, so I only just saw it when I got home.”
Heat floods into my cheeks. She was never supposed to know this. Aunt Bree would keep a secret for me, no matter how dark or twisted or awful. I know she would. But this secret is mine. It’s not dark or twisted or awful. It’s a good secret, which makes everything worse.
I shake my head and stare at the cold spoon in my fingers. “I can’t go. I don’t even know why I applied.”
“Excuse you?” Aunt Bree folds herself onto the overstuffed denim couch and points her spoon at me. “Why can’t you go? You’ve been accepted! If you need money, there are student loans, and I could help you—I have some savings—”
“No, it’s not that.” I shrug. “Or maybe it is that? I don’t know. I didn’t think about any of that. I never thought I’d get in.”
“Of course you got in! You’re brilliant, Bun.” Her words are too happy, too blissfully upbeat. Too eager to see me leave this town and do something unexpected of me, probably so she won’t be the only black sheep of the family.
I don’t say anything. Instead, I lean forward and stare at the brookie, willing myself to be as excited to eat it now as I was a few minutes ago. It smells amazing, but my stomach is a solid rock.
“I did some research, kid. This school is legit. You’d be right in the middle of nature, learning about the earth instead of being stuffed into some stupid, cold, fluorescent-lit building in Texas.” She takes a long sip of wine, her gaze piercing into me the whole time. “This college is you. It’s so you. You love nature. You love science. Why the hell aren’t you going?”
Finally giving up on the dessert, I drop the spoon and run my fingers over my eyebrows. “You know why I can’t go.”
“No, Honey. I don’t.”
I give her a look that says yes you do.
But my aunt is as stubborn as she is beautiful and she just stares right back at me for the longest few seconds. She’s going to make me say it.
“I can’t leave Luca.”
Her gaze doesn’t change, so I have to step up my excuses. It’s easy to name them all—I’ve been doing it in my head for weeks. “I’m already accepted at A&M. I can’t leave the family business, Aunt Bree. You know this. I have to get my real estate license. Dad is already cleaning out space from the storage closet at R&B to build my own office. I will take over Mom’s job one day and Luca will take over his dad’s job and that’s just how it will be. There’s no room for an out-of-state college in the middle of that.”
“There is always room for college.”
I sit up a little straighter. Aunt Bree is usually the cool one, the person I turn to when I need advice that’s not too motherly or grown up. But right now she’s giving off serious parental vibes and I’m not okay with it. “I have to get my real estate license. Being a geophysicist will not help me sell houses.”
That stern expression slides right off her face. I thought I hated that look but the one that replaces it is worse. Pity.
“Bun…” She draws in a slow breath, staring at the wine glass clasped in her hands. “When will you start living for yourself?”
“I do live for myself,” I grumble.
“Do you?” She snorts, shaking her head a bit as she gazes at a family photo on the wall. “My sister and her best friend are obsessed with doing everything together. They found boyfriends and got married together. They had kids together. They put the two of you to work at the family business when you were toddlers. You’ve spent your whole life thinking you have to follow in their footsteps, but Honey, you don’t.”
“I want to,” I say, even as the moment the words leave my mouth, I know I don’t really believe them. I don’t truly want to work at R&B my whole life, but what Aunt Bree is saying is practically heresy. I don’t even want to picture the look on my mom’s face if I told her I didn’t want to work alongside her after graduation. It would gut her. It would gut both moms and both dads. All of their hard work creating a life for us would have been for nothing.
“I have a job lined up for me after graduating from A&M. I’d be stupid not to take it.”
“So fine, be a real estate agent,” she says. “But go to college first and then come back and do that. You’re so young and you have your whole life to work at R&B.”
“I can’t just leave for four years.”
She rolls her eyes. “What the hell is stopping you? And don’t say Luca. I love the kid, but he’s not worth it if he’s gonna chain you down to this stupid town. What did he say about it?”
“Nothing. I haven’t told him. I haven’t told anyone, because this doesn’t matter.”
Aunt Bree reaches over and grabs my hand. Her skin is soft and smells faintly of vanilla lotion. “Talk to that boy of yours. He loves you, and he’ll help you figure it out. Together you can find a way to tell your parents that you’re going to college.”
“You think so?” I ask. My voice is filled with this fresh and vibrant hope, a kind of hope I haven’t had at all since getting that acceptance email.
Aunt Bree’s long thin lips press into a sardonic smirk. “Bun. It’s Luca. You know he will do anything for you.”
Welp. This is happening. I’m going to ask Luca to help me convince my parents to let me go to college in Colorado.
And I’m going to wing it.
“Talk to that boy of yours. He loves you, and he’ll help you figure it out.”
I’m too late for Jill’s Sunday morning waffles, but the smell of maple syrup lingers in the air in Luca’s house. His German Shephard is the first to notice me when I let myself into their kitchen from the backdoor. Rudo’s tail wags happily when he sees me, and he rushes over for some ear scratches. I wish I could stay here and pet the dog forever but there’s only a few weeks until the deadline to accept my college application.
I snort to myself as I debate spending the next few weeks petting Rudo and ignoring my responsibilities. It would be a hell of a lot more fun and I don’t think Rudo would complain.
“Luca?” I call out. Might as well get this over with.
“He’s out front,” Jill calls back from somewhere in the house. “Washing his truck.”
I venture into the living room and find her and Luca’s dad watching TV while they work on a puzzle on the coffee table. His dad is sitting on the floor, squinting at the pieces.
“That’s what I get for going through the backyard,” I say with a weak laugh. I’m trying to act extremely normal but I fear I’m failing.
Jill smiles and places a corner piece of the puzzle. “I saved you a waffle in the fridge. Just microwave it for a few seconds and it should be good.”
“Thanks.” I’m far too nervous to eat, but she doesn’t need to know that.
Outside, Luca is shirtless and barefoot, wearing board shorts while he hoses off his truck, a bucket of suds on the driveway next to him. “Hey, beautiful,” he says over the rushing spray of water from the hose.
“Hey, hot stuff.”
He kneels down and starts scrubbing the grime off his wheels. “You still in a brookie hangover?”
Those are the words I’d used last night when he picked me up from Aunt Bree’s. Too many thoughts were flooding my mind and I needed time to sort through them, so I’d faked a stomachache so we didn’t have to hang out.
“I’m better now,” I say.
“Good, because I missed you.”
My heart squeezes at his sweet words. I watch him, his tanned skin in the sunlight, his muscles flexing as he washes his truck, a cleaning effort he’s only making because I’d complained about his dirty truck the other day. Luca is great. I don’t know why I thought about breaking up with him. He loves me, and he’ll support me. I just need to get this college confession over with.
“Can we go somewhere when you’re done?” I ask, shielding the bright morning sun with my hand.
“Sure. Where to?”
He glances at me curiously and then moves to the next wheel, dragging his soap bucket beside him. “Dog park?”
I smile. “Perfect.”
Rudo is nearly ten years old, which makes him seventy in dog years, but he acts like a puppy every time we bring him to the dog park. Luca unhooks the leash and lets him run free around the small man-made pond. He slings an arm around my shoulders while we walk. His steps are leisurely, but my whole body is tense.
“I shampooed the inside of my truck,” he says, tossing Rudo’s foam ball back into the pond for him to fetch again. “Now it won’t smell like old track uniforms.”
“Finally,” I say with a snort. His truck has been smelling like a locker room for days.
Luca pulls back, those deep blue eyes looking into mine. “You okay?”
He knows me as well as I know myself. I’m doing my best acting here, but I’m surprised it took him this long to pick up that I’m a little off today.
“Yes,” I say, my voice sure. “I do need to talk to you, though. But it’s good news.”
“Okay…” Rudo brings the ball back and Luca takes it, then hurls it to the far side of the pond. “What’s your good news?”
I gnaw on the inside of my lip. My plan to wing it is officially in action.
“So… that Colorado college? Um…. I got in.”
Luca stops walking. Rudo runs up to us, tail wagging as he sets the ball at Luca’s feet. His human doesn’t notice it because he’s too busy staring at me. I know all of Luca’s expressions—his happy ones, his sad ones. I know the look he gets when someone says something that could totally be a “that’s what she said” joke but he can’t say anything because adults are around. I know every face he’s ever made, but I haven’t seen this one before.
His lips flatten, and then he says, slowly and carefully, “What does that mean?”
“My dream school,” I say quickly putting on a bright smile so he’ll know that this is supposed to be fun and exciting. “They accepted me. I got in.”
“I heard what you said, but I don’t understand why you said it.”
Rudo’s tail stops wagging. He looks at us with eager puppy eyes and I bend down and take the ball, then throw it. “I know it’s not exactly the plan, but I really want to go.”
“You want to leave me and go to another state for four years?”
“No,” I say, grabbing his arm. “I was thinking you could come with me.”
Actually, I wasn’t thinking that. I don’t know what I was thinking. Winging It is officially the Worst Plan Ever.
“And I’m supposed to do what in Colorado?” Luca scoffs. “Sleep in your dorm room like some kind of house pet?”
“Luca, no… you could get a job or something.”
“I have a job!” Luca pulls his arm from my grasp and takes a step back. Rudo drops the ball at Luca’s feet and he kicks it so hard it soars right over the lake and lands in a bush.
He cuts me off with a sharp shake of his head. “You have a job too, Honey. You’re supposed to get your real estate license.”
“I can still do that,” I say defensively. “Just after I graduate from FLU.”
“I’m not leaving R&B,” he says. “You know my dad can’t work much longer. He doesn’t have four years left for me to jet off to Colorado. I can’t believe you would do this to me. To him. He’s practically your dad, too.”
A bitter, awful guilt sinks in my stomach. In all my excitement over being accepted to my dream college, I hadn’t even thought about Luca’s dad. Two years ago, he discovered his glaucoma had progressed so much that eye drops and surgery wouldn’t help him anymore. The doctors have given him only a few years until he loses his sight completely.
What was I thinking? Luca can’t leave home. He has to take over for his dad. He wants to take over for his dad.
“I… I’m sorry,” I say, dropping my head. “I forgot about your dad’s vision.”
“You forgot about a lot of things, apparently. Like me. And your family. And our future. How could you do this to us?”
Tears pool in my eyes. “I know it’s crazy, but this is my dream school, and it’s only four years. We can figure this out together.”
He bends down and throws Rudo’s ball. When he turns back to me, his eyes are watery. “What is there to figure out? You go off to college and what? I spend every dime I have flying up to see you once a month?”
I gnaw on my lip. “We’ll take turns flying to each other. I’ll be home every summer and I’ll come home for every long weekend, I promise.”
I can tell he’s thinking it over, playing out the idea of it in his mind, and it only encourages me to keep talking. “It’s just four years, babe. We’ve been together for eighteen. Four years will be nothing.”
“It’s not just four years, though. It’s college. I’ll be at A&M. How am I supposed to have a fun college life when you’re not there with me?”
I don’t know how to answer that because now I’m visualizing it. Luca, with his gorgeous face and heart-melting smile, at some college party with everyone tossing flirty looks his way. Luca, hanging out on campus without me. Me, in Colorado with exactly zero friends.
Rudo gruffs his annoyance at our feet but Luca doesn’t acknowledge the old dog. My mouth opens and then it just stays there, frozen like this because I can’t think of anything to say.
His eyes flicker. I’ve lost him. “There’s no way that would work.”
Rudo gruffs again. I grab his ball and fling it as far as I can, then I turn back to Luca. “Can we please try? I want to go to FLU. I want this degree.”
Luca flinches. “I thought you wanted me.”
“I do,” I say. “Of course I do.” My voice cracks.
Luca’s jaw tightens, his gaze cutting me like glass. I wish I could go back in time and take it all back. But I can’t. It’s out there now. The truth is hanging in the air between us, hidden in the space between the words I just said.
I know he heard that trace of doubt in my voice. It was impossible to miss.
He blinks quickly and looks away, his expression full of disbelief and… anger? “You know what, Honey? Do whatever the hell you want. I don’t care.”
“Luca…” I reach for him but he steps out of the way.
“Don’t touch me. Don’t try to make this right.”
Rudo drops to the grass and chews on his ball.
“Please, Luca. Let’s talk about this.”
“There’s nothing else to talk about. You’re leaving me. You’re leaving the family. I thought you loved me, but apparently you don’t.” He throws his arms up, walking a few paces away before turning sharply back around. A bitter realization flashes across his face. “Did you bring me out here to break up with me?”
“What? No!” Tears flood my eyes. I reach for his arm, hoping to convince him that none of this is going the way I’d hoped, but he steps back and grabs Rudo’s ball. The sinking feeling in my gut tells me he avoided my touch on purpose.
“You applied to that college before Christmas,” Luca says, his jaw tightening. “How long have you kept this from me? Was this your plan all along? Just wait until graduation and leave me?”
“Luca…” I put my hand on his chest and peer up into his eyes, wishing he would see the truth in them. “I didn’t plan anything. I wasn’t expecting to get into FLU but I did and…I thought I could somehow make it work. We can make this work.”
“I don’t want to,” he says, his voice so soft it blends into the breeze. “I want you, here with me. And if you don’t want that then…”
I blink and tears roll down my cheeks.
Talk to that boy of yours. He loves you, and he’ll help you figure it out.
Aunt Bree’s words are on repeat in my mind. I hear her voice encouraging me to trust Luca to help me achieve what I want. She believed it, and I did too. I can’t remember a time in my life where being next to Luca didn’t bring me a sense of comfort and security. He’s the one person on this earth that I trust to catch me if I close my eyes and fall. Now, for the first time in all eighteen years of my existence, I can feel that once-strong cord of trust starting to fray. Luca and I have argued before. We’ve called each other names and disagreed about this or that over the years. Which movie to watch, which shirt looks best, if a friend is fun or annoying.
But we’ve never, ever, fought like this.
That muscle in his jaw flexes again and he looks at me with eyes that have never quite looked at me like this before. This vast black hole between us is fresh new ground, a place we’ve never navigated, not in all of our years together. It’s an uncharted territory.