The second-oldest Petropoulos brother had clearly just climbed out of bed – messy brown hair, sleep lines on his face, no shirt, and basketball shorts that defied gravity by barely clinging low on his hips. He had the kind of body I hadn’t been entirely sure until that moment actually existed.
Is this what Elliot would look like in a couple of years? My mind could barely handle the idea.
“Hey, Macy,” he said. It sounded like a growl, like a sin. He stood back, holding open the door and waiting for me to follow. “You coming in or not?”
I willed my eyebrows to inch back down my forehead. “Oh, sure.”
It did smell like cookies inside. Cookies and boy. Andreas smiled and lazily scratched his stomach. “You guys are up for the weekend?”
I nodded and his smile widened. “And very talkative, I see.”
“Sorry,” I said, and then stood there, arms at my sides, fingers pulling at the hem of my shorts, still not sure what to say. “Is Elliot home?”
“I’ll grab him.” Andreas grinned and walked toward the staircase. “Hey, Ell! Your girlfriend is here!” His voice echoed in the wooden entryway as my body exploded into a scorching blush.
Before I could answer, there was the sound of feet pounding on the floor above us.
“You’re such a douche!” Elliot said, barreling down the stairs and into his brother. Andreas grunted with the blow and grabbed Elliot, putting him in a headlock. Andreas was taller and pretty muscular, but Elliot seemed to have the desire to avoid public humiliation on his side.
The two boys wrestled, came dangerously close to knocking over a lamp, said a bunch of words I wasn’t even supposed to think, and then finally broke apart, panting.
“Sorry,” Elliot said to me, still glaring at Andreas. He adjusted his glasses and straightened his clothes. “My brother thinks he’s funny and apparently can’t dress himself.” He motioned to Andreas’s bare chest.
Andreas messed up Elliot’s hair even more and rolled his eyes. “It’s barely noon, prick.”
“I think Mom should have you tested for narcolepsy.”
With a dull punch to Elliot’s shoulder, Andreas turned toward the stairs. “I’m heading to Amie’s. Nice seeing you, Macy.”
“You, too,” I said lamely.
Andreas winked over his shoulder. “Oh, and Elliot?” he called.
His booming laugh filled the upstairs hall before finally disappearing behind the click of a closed door.
Elliot started toward the stairs but then stopped, turning around to frown at me. “Let’s go to your house.”
“You don’t want to show me around?”
With a groan, he turned and pointed around us. “Living room, dining room, kitchen through there.” He pivoted in place, indicating each room with a jab of his index finger. He walked up the stairs and I followed him as he mumbled, “Stairs,” and “Hallway,” and “Bathroom,” and “Parents’ room,” and a list of other monotone labels until we stood in front of a closed white door with a periodic table taped to it.
“This one’s mine.”
“Wow, that’s… expected,” I said with a laugh. I was so happy to see his space, I felt a little dizzy.
“I didn’t put that there, Andreas did.” His voice took on an edge of defensiveness, as if he could only stand to be seen as ninety-eight percent nerd.
“But you haven’t taken it down,” I pointed out.
“It’s a good poster. He got it at a science fair.” He turned to me and shrugged, dropping his eyes. “It would be a waste to get rid of it, and he’d give me endless crap if I put it inside my room.”
He opened the door and said nothing, only stepping back to let me move past him into his bedroom. Anxiety and thrill hit me in a blast: I was entering a boy’s bedroom.
I was entering Elliot’s bedroom.
It was sparse and immaculate: bed made, only a few dirty laundry items in a basket in the corner, drawers of his dresser neatly closed. The only disorder was in a pile of books stacked on his desk, and a box of books in the corner.
I sensed Elliot’s tense presence behind me, could hear the jerky cadence of his breathing. I knew he wanted to get away from the chaos of his house and into the solitude of the closet, but I couldn’t tear myself away. Behind his desk was a bulletin board, with a few ribbons pinned there, a photograph, and a postcard with a picture of Maui.
Moving closer, I leaned in, studying.
“Just some science fairs,” he mumbled behind me, explaining the ribbons.
First place in his category at the Sonoma County science fair, three years in a row.
“Wow.” I looked over my shoulder at him. “You’re smart.”
His smile came out crooked, his cheeks popped with color. “Nah.”
I turned back, examining the photograph tacked in the corner. In it were three boys, including Elliot, and a girl on the far left. It looked like it had been taken a few years ago.
Discomfort itched in my chest. “Who’re they?”
Elliot cleared his throat and then leaned in, pointing. He brought with him a burst of deodorant – mildly acidic and piney – and something else, a scent that was completely boy and made my stomach drop. “Um, that’s Christian, me, Brandon, and Emma.”
I’d heard these names in passing: casual stories about a class or a bike ride in the woods. With a sharp pang of jealousy, I realized that although Elliot was becoming my person, my safe place, and the only human other than Dad who I could truly trust, I didn’t know his life very well at all. What side of him did these friends see? Did they get the smile that started out as a raised eyebrow and slowly spread to an amused twist of his lips? Did they get the laugh that overrode his tendency to be self-conscious and shot out in a loud haha-haha-haha?
“They look nice.” I leaned back, and felt him quickly step away behind me.
“Yeah.” He went quiet and the silence seemed to grow into a shimmering bubble around us. My ears started to ring, heart thudding as I imagined this Emma sitting on the floor in the corner, reading with him. His voice came in a whisper from behind me: “But you’re nicer.”
I turned and met his eyes as he did his quick wince-nose scrunch maneuver to get his glasses up higher.
“You don’t have to say that just because —”
“My mom’s pregnant,” he blurted.
And the bubble popped. I heard the stomping of feet along the hallway, the barking of the dog.
My eyes went wide as his words sank in. “What?”
“Yeah, they told us last night.” He shoved his hair off his forehead. “Apparently she’s due in August.”
“Holy crap. You’re fourteen. It’s going to be, like, fifteen years younger than you.”
“Elliot, that’s crazy.”
“I know.” He bent down, retying his shoe. “Seriously though, I don’t really want to talk about it. Can we go to your place? Mom has been queasy for a few weeks, Dad is acting insane. My brothers are dicks.” Nodding to the box of books, he added, “And I have some classics to add to your library.”
Dad gave us a knowing glance as we tromped inside and up the stairs.
“Isn’t your birthday on Tuesday?” Elliot asked, following me down the hallway. His shoes were falling apart – his favorite pair of checkered Vans – and one sole made a flapping sound every step.
I looked back over my shoulder at him. “I told you that once, like, five months ago.”
“Shouldn’t you only have to tell me once?”
I turned back, leading us into my room and all the way back into the closet. Since we’d moved in, the space had slowly taken on a life of its own, and was now complete: of course there were the shelves along one entire wall, the beanbag chair in the far corner, and the futon couch on the wall opposite the bookcase. But only a couple of weeks before, Dad had painted the walls and ceiling a midnight blue, with silver and yellow stars dotted in constellations overhead. Two small lamps illuminated the space – one near each of the seating options. In the middle of the floor were blankets and more pillows. It was the perfect fort.