“Oh, I doubt it,” I say. “Your lies will be much more colorful.”
This delights Mom, obviously: candy, meet baby.
“Once we get the fence up,” Dad says, “he’ll tell everyone we’re running a meth lab.”
“Oh, stop.” Mom smacks his arm, but they’re both laughing. “We’ve got to video-call with the boys later. Parker wants to do a reading of the new screenplay he’s working on.”
I narrowly avoid a spit-take.
The last screenplay my brother’s been brainstorming in the group text is a gritty dystopian Smurfs origin story with at least one sex scene. His reasoning is, someday he’d like to write a real movie, but by writing one that can’t possibly get made, he’s taking the pressure off himself during the learning process. Also I think he enjoys scandalizing his family.
At two fifteen, I ask to take the car and head up to my old high school. Only at that point, I realize the tank’s empty. After the quick detour for gas, I pull into the school parking lot at two fifty. Two separate anxieties are warring for domination inside me: the one that’s composed of terror at the thought of seeing Alex, saying what I need to say, and hoping he’ll hear it, and the one that’s all about being back here, a place I legitimately swore I’d never waste another second in.
I march up the concrete steps to the glass front doors, take one last deep breath, and—
The door doesn’t budge. It’s locked.
I sort of forgot that any random adult can’t walk into a high school anymore. Definitely for the best, in every situation except this one. I knock on the door until a beaky resource officer with a halo of gray hair approaches and cracks the door a few inches. “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to see someone,” I say. “A teacher—Alex Nilsen?”
“Name?” he asks.
“Your name,” the officer says, correcting me.
“Oh, Poppy Wright.”
He closes the door, disappearing for a second into the front office. A moment later, he returns. “Sorry, ma’am, we don’t have you in our system. We can’t let in unregistered guests.”
“Could you just get him, then?” I try.
“Ma’am, I can’t go track down—”
“Poppy?” someone says behind him.
Oh, wow! I think at first. Someone recognizes me! What luck!
And then the pretty, lean brunette steps up to the door. My stomach bottoms out.
“Sarah. Wow. Hi.” I’d forgotten that I could potentially run into Sarah Torval here. Borderline monumental oversight.
She glances back at the resource officer. “I’ve got it, Mark,” she says, and steps outside to talk to me, folding her arms across herself. She’s wearing a cute purple dress and dark denim jacket, large silver earrings dancing from her ears; she has just a splash of freckles across her nose.
As ever, she is completely adorable in that kindergarten-teacher way. (Despite being a ninth-grade teacher, of course.)
“What are you doing here?” she asks, not unkindly, though definitely not warmly.
“Oh, um. Visiting my parents.”
She arches a brow and glances at the redbrick building behind her. “At the high school?”
“No.” I push the hair out of my eyes. “I mean, that’s what I’m doing here. But what I’m doing here is . . . I was hoping, I mean . . . I wanted to talk to Alex?”
Her eye roll is minimal, but it stings.
I swallow an apple-sized knot. “I deserve that,” I say. I take a breath. This won’t be fun, but it’s necessary. “I was really careless about everything, Sarah. I mean, my friendship with Alex, everything I expected from him while you were together. It wasn’t fair to you. I know that now.”
“Yeah,” she says. “You were careless about it.”
We’re both silent for a beat.
Finally, she sighs. “We all made some bad decisions. I used to think that if you just went away, all my problems would be solved.” She uncrosses her arms and recrosses them the other way. “And then you did—you basically disappeared after we went to Tuscany, and somehow, that was even worse for my relationship.”
I sway from foot to foot. “I’m sorry. I wish I’d understood what I was feeling before it had a chance to hurt anyone.”
She nods to herself, examines the perfectly painted toenails poking out of her tan leather sandals. “I wish so too,” she says. “Or that he had. Or that I had. Really if any of us had really known how you two felt about each other, it would’ve saved me a lot of time and pain.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “So you and he aren’t . . .”
She lets me wait for a few seconds, and I know it’s not an accident. A semidevilish smile curls up her pink lips. “We aren’t,” she relents. “Thank God. But he’s not here. He already left. I think he was talking about getting away for the weekend.”
“Oh.” My heart sinks. I glance back at my parents’ minivan parked in the half-empty lot. “Well, thanks anyway.”
She nods, and I start down the steps. “Poppy?”
I turn back, and the light’s shining so bright on her that I have to shield my eyes to look at her. It makes her look like she’s a saint, earning her halo by unwarranted kindness toward me. I’ll take it, I think.
“Usually on Fridays,” she says slowly, “teachers go to Birdies. It’s a tradition.” She moves, and the light lets up enough for me to meet her eyes. “If he hasn’t left, he might be there.”