My heart trips over itself. After the tree farm, I wasn’t sure whether he’d keep his distance.
“This looks like a good idea,” he says, turning his face up to the branches overhead. His profile is illuminated with blues and yellows, reds and greens. A few lights make flashing patterns through the ornaments and onto his cheekbones. “Smells good, too.”
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?” I shift a little, scooting deeper beneath the branches. I wonder what we look like from the outside: two sets of legs, sticking out from under the tree like the Wicked Witch of the East trapped beneath Dorothy’s house. “A good thinking spot.”
“And what were you thinking about?” he asks.
“I was thinking about how much I like this tree.”
He reaches over, eyes unfocused as he moves his thumb across my cheek. An echo of electricity lingers on my skin once he’s lifted his hand, and it takes me a second to focus on the thumb he’s showing me. “Drop of water,” he says.
“Must have dripped from the tree.”
I laugh. “Are you saying I have a moisture problem again?”
Andrew blinks before he bursts out laughing. “What?”
Oh, crap. That wasn’t this timeline. That was before. This Andrew isn’t in on the inside joke. “Pretend I didn’t say that.”
His eyes gleam in delight. “Did you actually just say you have a moisture problem?”
“No.” I might die from this. “Yes.” I bite my lip, trying not to laugh. “Ignore it. Let’s move on.”
I can tell he’s a cat who’d like to play with this mouse a bit longer, but he gives me a little shrug, gamely singing, “Okay.” Andrew turns his attention to the branches above him, using his old-man voice. “Maisie?”
“You know what just occurred to me?”
“What just occurred to you?”
“We brought this tree in, like, two hours ago. What if there’s a squirrel still living in there?”
We stare at each other, wide-eyed, and shout in unison: “Ahhh!”
I’ve completely forgotten that my phone is in my pocket until it buzzes, interrupting our laughter. There is no one in the world I need to talk to right now who isn’t in this room with me, so I ignore it. It immediately buzzes again.
“Your butt is vibrating,” Andrew says.
“If it’s my boss replying to me right now, I’m going to need something stronger than sparkling water.” I pull it out and look. It isn’t Neda, thankfully; it’s a text from Theo.
No punctuation, no context. Just Theo, typing like a teenager.
I realize Andrew is reading over my shoulder when he lets out a little laugh through his nose. “See?”
I feel myself recoil. “See what?”
He lifts his chin, indicating my phone. “You haven’t spent any time with him, and he’s grumpy.”
“We were just talking earlier,” I counter, not quite a lie.
“Are you mad at him?” he asks.
I swallow, staring up at the lights. A scattered view blinks in and out of focus. “Not exactly.”
“What does ‘not exactly’ mean?”
I turn my head, and Andrew blinks, brows pulled low.
“It’s hard to explain,” I admit. “I’m not mad at him, I’m just aware that he and I are close because we’ve known each other forever, but not because we’re actually close anymore.” I shrug. “Just normal drifting that happens when people grow up, I guess.”
He smiles at that. “Mae . . .”
I grin back at him. “Yes?”
Andrew clears his throat, a sweetly pointed ahem. “About what you said earlier.”
“Yeah?” The paradox of a hammering heart and dissolving stomach makes me feel light-headed.
“I appreciate your honesty,” he says.
Ugh. The worst thing he could say right now.
“You don’t have to let me down easy, Andrew.” I reach over and playfully smack him and the tree trembles above us.
“Andrew, Mae, what are you doing in there?” Mom calls out.
“Nothing!” we answer in unison.
“Well, don’t shake the tree,” she chides.
Again, we answer together: “We won’t!”
He turns back to me, whispering, “Are you sure Theo doesn’t think you’re into him?”
“Are you saying I’ve given him the impression that I am?”
“No, but if I assumed . . . maybe Theo assumed, too.”
Well, huh. I guess if Theo thought I was into him, it might explain why he was so cold the morning after I pushed him away.
I shake my head, and Andrew turns his face back up to the lights so it’s hard to read his expression. “Is it weird that I sort of worried you’d . . .” He flounders a little. “I don’t know, get together and then get hurt?”
I can’t even wrap my head around this. Andrew worried that I would date Theo and get my heart broken? Am I in the Upside Down? “Um, yes, it is very weird.”
Andrew gives a helpless shrug in response. “He’s a player. You’re good.”
This actually makes me laugh. “I’m good?”
“I don’t mean—romantically, or, like, sexually,” he says, chuckling with the slightest edge of discomfort. “Not that I would know about that. I meant your soul.”
“What are you even talking about?” It’s a good thing I’m lying down.
“Okay, bad word choice. I mean, you’re a good person.” He turns and looks right at me. We’re so close. “You love being here, you love each of us for exactly who we are. You’re, like, the most generous and least judgmental person I’ve ever known.”
“You moved home when your parents split,” he rolls on. “You loved your crappy apartment and gave it up because your family needed you. You took care of Miles, you were there for your mom.”
I bite my lip, glowing from his compliments.
“Do you remember when the developers built those condos behind us?” he asks. “You were so sad because Dad liked to look at the trees while he drank his coffee in the morning, and you worried the deer wouldn’t have anyplace to go. Theo was just happy he’d have fewer leaves to rake up.”
I laugh through the fog of feelings. This is the most extensive letting-her-down-easy I could possibly imagine. It is both incredibly tender and incredibly awkward. “Well, it’s a non-issue. I’ve never been into Theo. But I’m sorry if what I said made things weird.”
He reaches up, scratches his cheek, and I’m having a hard time looking away. I never get to be this close to him. He has light stubble, but it looks soft. I can make out at least four different shades of green in his eyes. When he licks his lips, it does something electric to my pulse.
“I guess that’s what I’m saying. Had I known it was a—” He stops and seems to chew on his words. Meanwhile, my brain is a nuclear reactor, melting down. Had he known it was a what? “I’ve always really admired you,” he starts again. “You’re one of the few people in my life I hope I’ll be close to forever, and I didn’t want things to be weird after the tree farm.” He glances at me, his face illuminated. “I wasn’t sure if I responded the way I should have. I was really surprised when you said it.”
“That’s okay. I was surprised when I said it, too.”
He grins. “It took a lot of bravery to tell me how you feel, though, and I just wanted you to know—” He gestures between us. “It won’t change this.”
I know exactly what he means—we’ll be the same as we’ve always been—and of course I’m grateful for that.
But even though I never—not in my wildest dreams— imagined he would share my affection, when he says this I am consumed with rejection. I mean, of course the entire point of telling him how I felt was so that nothing would stay the same.
“Let’s move on,” I say, pushing forward.
Andrew laughs. “Okay, good idea.”
“You can travel anywhere, where do you go?”
He doesn’t even have to think about this conversational pivot: “Budapest. You?”
Andrew rolls his eyes. “Yes, besides here.”
“Okay, fine.” I mentally scroll through postcard images of various locations, feeling vaguely uninspired by my own game. “No idea. Maybe Hawaii?”
“You have the entire world to choose from and you go to Hawaii?”
“What’s wrong with Hawaii?”
He shrugs. “It just feels so easy. What about Tahiti? Mallorca?”
“Sure, they sound nice.”
Andrew laughs. “Okay, it’s settled. With that attitude, I’m in charge of all of our future travel.”
The words settle heavily between us, and we both go still.
“I made it weird,” he says finally, grinning over at me.
I burst out laughing, relieved that this time it wasn’t me.
“You totally did.”
Our laughter dies away and silence engulfs us. I don’t know how to read the mood. I told him how I felt, giving him an opening to reciprocate, but he didn’t. And yet . . . there’s a strange understanding blooming between us.
“Okay, I have an idea,” he says. “No speaking for five minutes. Let’s just look up at the tree together.”
“And hope we don’t get our faces eaten off.”
He bursts out laughing again and then wipes a hand down his face, saying playfully, “God. Why can’t you ever be serious?” He wipes at his eyes. “Okay. Five minutes.”
I follow his lead and focus on the tree. “Five minutes.”
As odd an idea it is, it’s also brilliant. It saves me from having to think about what to say, which is good, because my mind is a mortified blank sheet of nothing.