“Just had a headache,” he said. I went toward the bed to sit beside him but he stood before I reached it. “I’d better say bye. You should too, if you don’t want Pete to blacklist you.” And then he was leaving the room and I was left there alone. I went closer to the bookshelf. Four framed pictures sat along the top. One of a baby with dark eyes surrounded by fluffy fake clouds and under a soft focus. The next was Pete and Maggie, a good thirty years younger, with sunglasses on top of their heads and a little boy in sandals standing between them. Over his head, between Pete’s and Maggie’s shoulders, a sliver of the Cinderella Castle was visible.
The third picture was much older, a sepia-toned portrait of a grinning little girl with dark curls and one dimple. The fourth was a team picture, little boys and girls in purple jerseys all lined up next to a younger, slimmer Pete, wearing a whistle around her neck and a cap low over her eyes. I found Gus right away, thin and messy with a bashful smile that favored one side.
Voices filtered up from downstairs then. “… sure you can’t stay?” Pete was saying.
I set the photo down and left the room, closing the door on my way out.
We were quiet for the first couple of minutes of the drive home, but Gus finally asked, “Did you have fun?”
“Pete and Maggie are wonderful,” I answered noncommittally.
Gus nodded. “They are.”
“Okay,” I said, unsure where to go from there.
His hard gaze shifted my way, softening a little, but he jammed his mouth shut and didn’t look my way again.
I stared at the buildings whipping past the window. The businesses had mostly closed for the day, but there’d been a parade while we were at Pete’s, and vendor carts still lined either side of the street, families clad in red, white, and blue milling between them with bags of popcorn and American-flag pinwheels in their hands.
I had so many questions but all of them were nebulous, un-askable. In my own story, I didn’t want to be the heroine who let some silly miscommunication derail something obviously good, but in my real life, I felt like I’d rather risk that and keep my dignity than keep laying everything out for Gus until he finally came right out and admitted he didn’t want me the way I wanted him.
More than once, I thought miserably. Something real, even if a little misshapen.
When we reached the curb in front of our houses (markedly later than we would have, due to the increased pedestrian traffic), Gus said, “Let me know about tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” I said.
“The New Eden trip.” He unlocked the car door. “If you still want to go, let me know.”
This was all it had taken? He was now totally disinterested in me, even as a research companion?
He climbed out of the car. That was it. Five PM, and we were going our separate ways. On the Fourth of July, when I knew no one in town apart from him and his aunts.
“Why wouldn’t I want to go?” I asked, fuming. “I said I wanted to.” He was already halfway to his porch. He turned back and shrugged.
“Do you want me to?” I demanded.
“If you want,” he said.
“That’s not what I asked you. I asked you if you want me to come with you tomorrow.”
“I want you to do whatever you want to.”
I folded my arms over my chest. “What time,” I barked.
“Nine-ish,” he said. “It’ll probably take all day.”
“Great. See you then.”
I went into my house and paced angrily, and when that didn’t do the trick, I sat at my computer and wrote furiously until night fell. When I couldn’t get out another bitter word, I went onto the deck and watched the fireworks streak over the lake, their glitter raining down on the water like falling stars. I tried not to look Gus’s way, but the glow of his computer in the kitchen caught my eye every once in a while.
He was still working at midnight when Shadi texted me: Well, that’s it. I’m in love. RIP me.
I AWOKE TO a house-shaking boom of thunder and rolled out of bed. It was eight o’clock, but the room was still dark from the storm clouds.
Shivering, I dragged my robe off the chair at the vanity and hurried into the kitchen to put the water on. Great slashes of lightning leapt from the sky to hit the churning lake, the light fluttering against the back doors like a series of camera flashes. I watched it in a stupor. I’d never seen a storm out over a massive body of water, at least outside of a movie. I wondered if it would affect Gus’s plans.
Maybe it’d be better if it did. If he could effectively ghost me. I’d call and cancel the event at the bookstore, and we’d never see each other, and he could stick to his precious once-only non-dating rule, and I could go to Ohio and marry an insurance man, whatever that meant.
Behind me, the kettle whistled.
I made myself some coffee and sat down to work, and again the words poured out of me. I had reached the forty-thousand-word mark. The family’s world was coming apart. Eleanor’s father’s second family had shown up at the circus. Her mother had had a rough encounter with a guest and was more on edge than ever. Eleanor had slept with the boy from Tulsa and been caught sneaking back into her tent, only for the mechanic, Nick, to cover for her.
And the clowns. They’d nearly been outed after a tender moment in the woods behind the fairgrounds, and they’d gotten into a huge argument because of it. One of them had left for the bar in town and wound up sleeping it off in a holding cell.
I didn’t know how things were going to come together but I knew they needed to get worse. It was nine fifteen by then, and I hadn’t heard from Gus. I went and sat on the unmade bed, staring out the window toward his study. I could see warm golden light pouring from lampshades through his window.
I texted him. Will this weather interfere with research?
It probably won’t be a comfortable trip, he said. But I’m still going.
And I’m still invited? I asked.
Of course. A minute later he texted again. Do you have hiking boots?
Absolutely not, I told him.
What size do you wear?
7 ½, why? Do you think we wear the same size?
I’ll grab some from Pete, he said, then, If you still want to come.
Dear GOD, are you trying to kick me out of this? I typed back.
It took him much longer to answer than usual and the wait started making me feel sick. I used the time to get dressed. Finally he replied, No. I just don’t want you to feel obligated.
I waffled, debating what to do. He texted me again: Of course I want you to come, if you want to.
Not of course, I replied, simultaneously angry and relieved. You haven’t made that clear at all.
Is it clear now? he asked.
I want you to come, he said.
Then go get the shoes.
Bring your laptop if you want, he replied. I might need to be there for a while.
Twenty minutes later, Gus honked from the curb, and I put on my rain jacket and ran through the storm. He leaned over to open the door before I’d even gotten there and I slammed it shut again behind me, pulling the hood down. The car was warm, the windows were foggy, and the back seat was loaded with flashlights, an oversized backpack, a smaller waterproof one, and a pair of muddy hiking boots with red shoelaces. When he saw me looking at them, Gus said, “They’re eights—will that work?”