“Doesn’t really matter,” I say, “since I left the condom crate at home.”
He shudders and drops onto one of the beds, satisfied that it’s bug free. “If I hadn’t had to witness that, it would actually be pretty sweet.”
“I would have still had to witness it, Alex. Don’t I matter?”
“Yeah, but you’re her daughter. The closest my dad ever came to giving us a sex talk was leaving a book about purity on each of our beds around the time we turned thirteen. I thought masturbating caused cancer until I was, like, sixteen.”
My chest squeezes tight. Sometimes I forget how hard Alex has had it. His mom died from complications during David’s birth, and Mr. Nilsen and the four Nilsen boys have been wife- and motherless since. His dad finally dated a woman from their church last year, but they broke up after three months, and even though Mr. Nilsen was the one to end it, he was still so torn up that Alex had to drive home from school in the middle of the week to get him through it.
Alex is the one his brothers call too, when something goes wrong. The emotional rock.
Sometimes I think that’s why we’re so drawn to each other. Because he’s used to being the steadfast big brother and I’m used to being the annoying little sister. It’s a dynamic we understand: I lovingly tease him; he makes the entire world feel safer for me.
This week, though, I’m not going to need anything from him. It’s my mission to help Alex let loose, to bring Silly Alex back out of Overworked, Hyperfocused Alex.
“You know,” I say, sitting on the bed, “if you ever want to borrow some overbearing parents, mine are obsessed with you. I mean, clearly. My mom wants you to take my virginity.”
He leans back on his hands, his head tipping. “Your mom thinks you haven’t had sex?”
I balk. “I haven’t had sex. I thought you knew that.” It seems like we talk about everything, but I guess there are still a few places we haven’t gone.
“No.” Alex coughs. “I mean, I don’t know. You left a few parties with people.”
“Yeah, but nothing serious ever happens. It’s not like I dated any of them.”
“I thought that was just because you didn’t, like, want to date.”
“I guess I don’t,” I say. Or at least so far I haven’t. “I don’t know. I guess I just want it to be special. Not like it has to be a full moon and we’re in a rose garden or anything.”
Alex winces. “Outside sex isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”
“You little minx!” I cry. “You’ve been holding out on me.”
He shrugs, ears reddening. “I just don’t really talk about this. With anyone. Like even just saying that made me feel guilty, like I’m wronging her somehow.”
“It’s not like you said her name.” I lean forward and drop my voice. “Sarah Torval?”
He bumps his knee into mine, smiling faintly. “You’re obsessed with Sarah Torval.”
“No, dude,” I say. “You are.”
“It wasn’t her,” he says. “It was another girl from the library. Lydia.”
“Oh . . . my . . . god,” I say, giddy. “The one with the big doll eyes and the same exact haircut as Sarah Torval?”
“Stoooop,” Alex groans, pink spreading over his cheeks. He grabs a pillow and hurls it at me. “Stop embarrassing me.”
“But it’s so fun!”
He forces his face to relax into the On-the-Verge-of-Crying Puppy Face and I scream and fling myself backward on the bed, my whole body going limp with laughter as I drag the pillow over my eyes. The bed dips under his weight as he sits beside me and tugs the pillow off my face, leaning over me, hands braced on either side of my head, insinuating his Sad Puppy Face into my line of sight.
“Oh my god,” I gasp through a mix of tears and laughter. “Why does this have such a confusing effect on me?”
“I don’t know, Poppy,” he says, the expression deepening sorrowfully.
“It speaks to me!” I cry out through laughter, and his mouth pulls into a grin.
And right then. That.
That is the first moment I want to kiss Alex Nilsen.
I feel it all the way to my toes for two breathless seconds. Then I pack those seconds into a tight knot, tucking them deep in my chest where I promise myself they will live in secret forever.
“Come on,” he says softly. “Let’s go get you on a mechanical bull.”
WE GET THE thermostat down to seventy-nine and set it for seventy-eight before we leave for a Mexican restaurant called Casa de Sam, which has a great score on Tripadvisor and only one dollar sign signifying its cost.
The food is great, but the air-conditioning is the real MVP of the night. Alex keeps leaning back in the booth, closing his eyes, and making contented sighs.
“Do you think Sam will let us sleep here?” I ask.
“We could try just hiding in the bathroom until closing,” Alex suggests.
“I’m afraid to drink too much and get heat exhaustion,” I say, taking another sip of the jalapeño margarita we ordered a pitcher of.
“I’m afraid to drink too little and not be able to knock myself out for an entire night.”
Even thinking about it has my neck crawling with sweat. “I’m sorry about the Airbnb,” I say. “None of the reviews mentioned faulty air-conditioning.” Though now I’m wondering how many people stayed there in the dead of summer.
“It’s not your fault,” Alex says. “I hold Nikolai fully responsible.”