“What are you doing?” I snapped, whispering. “My mom’s in the next room!”
He smiled smugly, all lips and no teeth. “I just wanted to see what you smelled like.”
I giggled through my nose, gripping my pencil more strongly. “You’re so weird.” His glasses reflected the setting sun against his brown eyes. The black frames rested on his caramel cheeks and dove behind his small, finely crafted ears. “What problem are you on?”
“Three?! I’m on ten! What have you been doing this whole time?” I frowned, turning from the coffee table to face him.
He leaned on the shin of the couch, lips pursed in jest. “Adoring you.”
“Ha,” I said. “That’s not gonna help you on your test, so you should probably get back to work.”
I turned away, as if I’d been chiding myself instead of him. My fingers pressed into my temples as my elbow rested nervously on the coffee table. I pushed my glasses up on my nose.
He set his textbook down, leaving the pages open to where he should have been working. “Okay,” he said. “I need a break.”
I peered at him over the rims of my frames.
“Okay.” I tossed my pencil down and stood, smoothing my shorts down.
We left the den and walked through the living room, through the kitchen, through the garage, until we reached fresh air. I picked up my brother’s basketball, which lay in the grass next to the driveway.
“I don’t know how you want a break this early,” I said, dribbling, bobbing, and weaving.
“School wears me out faster than you,” he replied, nearly mirroring my moves. “It’s like prison for me.”
“Really? Not me.” I spun around him and shot. Nothing but net.
He rebounded the ball and smiled at me. “That’s because you’re smart,” he dribbled.
I held up my hands to, unsuccessfully, block his shot. “Well, not really.” He passed me the ball and I passed it back. “It’s more of a way out to me.”
He easily shot it over my head and rebounded it again. “I guess.” His voice had lowered, sad. I hadn’t heard him speak that way before.
“If anything, I mean, why not, you know? You don’t have anything better to do.”
“Yeah, I do,” he said, dribbling.
I stopped and placed my hands on my hips. “Like what? Play video games?”
He rushed up to me, stopping just short of touching me. He tapped my mouth with his finger, wiping away my smirk. “Maybe,” he smiled.
I shook my head and rolled my eyes, unable to hold back a smile of my own. I clapped my hands once, and he tossed me the ball. A couple of quick moves and another shot.
“Have you thought about trying out for the school team? You’re pretty good.” He nodded.
I shrugged. “Nah. My mom wouldn’t let me play in middle school since she said ‘those big girls’ would hurt me. I’ve just been too busy in high school.”
“But it’s almost over.”
“For you.” I threw a chest pass and pointed my fingers at him.
He switched his lips to the side momentarily and grunted.
“Have you thought about what you’re going to do afterwards? College or something?”
He bounced the ball once, then held it under his hairy armpit. “Laura Stevens is having a party Saturday. Do you want to go? I’ll drive.”
I looked down. “No, I don’t think I will,” I said to a crack in the cement.
He held the ball in his open palm, dropped it, then caught it. “Why not?”
I dug my sneaker into the ground. “I just…don’t want to.” I felt his eyes on my cheeks. I looked up at him. “There’s going to be drinking and stuff.”
“I just don’t want to.”
He dribbled. “No one’s going to force you to do anything, you know.”
“I know.” I ran up and smacked the ball away. He lagged as I ran and laid the ball up. I rebounded and dribbled, bouncing myself up to him.
With his toothless smirk, he grabbed the ball and me, and kissed me, right there in my driveway.
I pulled away. “My mom!”
I licked my lip, swallowing a grin. “Come on.” I tilted my head toward the house.
He set the ball back in the grass. We walked back inside, back to math, til the sun went down.
“You hungry?” I asked, closing my textbook.
“Kinda,” Jayson said.
I stretched my neck, looking toward the kitchen. “I don’t think my mom is cooking tonight.”
“We can go get burgers.”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “You’ll have to ask my mother.”
My eyes widened, not believing that he was actually going to ask her.
“May I take Ilyn to get a burger and bring her right back?”
“Sure,” Mom called from the kitchen, where she sorted bills rather than cooked.
He stuck his tongue out at me. “Didn’t think I’d do it, huh?” He picked up his backpack and keys.
I smoothed my shorts down again as I stood, smiling. We walked through the den and living room. “We’ll be back, mom!” I called over my shoulder before slamming the front door shut.
In his Camaro, we rolled up to the gate near my house. When he turned to look right, I kissed him quickly. He smiled and peeled out onto the country road. He didn’t turn on the radio. I lowered the window. My palms rested on my bare knees, which were sweating a little before the wind hit them.
After a few lefts and rights and stretches of country, a dilapidated sign that read “That’s a Burger!” grew larger as we approached. I raised an eyebrow as Jayson pulled into the lot. The building must have been at least a hundred years old, with peeling paint crumbling off its splintery rear. A window darkened by soot and time sat in the middle of the wall.
I looked left and right, at woods and wheat field.
“Uhhhh, this place doesn’t sell burgers,” I managed to get out eventually.
“Yeah, it does.” He turned the car around and drove to the front of the building, which was slightly less unappealing to the eye and showed definite signs of life. “Drive-up style.”
Like magic, a woman with feathered blond hair and burnt orange skin appeared with a notebook beside the car. She clicked her pen and smiled with bright pink lips. “What can I getcha, sweethearts?”
“Two cheeseburgers,” Jayson said, “one with everything, one with just ketchup.”
I smiled, glad he’d remembered how I like my burgers.
The waitress turned away fluidly and seemed to glide away. My eyes followed her til they caught sight of the rollerskates wound tightly around her feet. Impressed, I stuck out my lip and nodded.
“Looks like the gang’s here.”
“What gang?” I asked.
Jayson peered into the rearview mirror. I turned to look through the back windshield.
“Laura Stevens, Corey Evans…”
“The gang” sat on their cars, or inside them with the legs dangling from the open doors. The one I assumed was Corey Evans sat at the wheel of a black Mustang, top down, while Laura Stevens, I guessed, sat on the hood, gaffawing at one of the other boys. At least three other carfuls accompanied them.
“So the cool kids hang out behind a burger shack?” I turned to Jayson, who nodded and smiled. I blinked. “You’re not going to college, are you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I stared out the front windshield, waiting for my food.
He sighed roughly, nearly grunting. “I’ll be back.”
He snapped the door open and hopped out. Through his side mirror, I watched him limp up to them, slap the boys’ hands and attempt to pinch their nipples through their jerseys.
I rolled my eyes. How long could it take to make a burger?
“The gang” burst into laughter, loud enough for me to hear them from a good distance with the window just cracked. I tapped my fingertips on the armrest.
Jayson bounded back into the car. “Laura said she really wants you to come to the party. Come talk to them.”
“No,” I said gently, looking up at him.
“Please come to the party? Just this once?”
He poked out his bottom lip and peered at me over the rims of his specs.
“But I won’t know anyone there. It’ll be all Chamberlain kids.”
“You’ll know me.” He poked his lip out farther.
I sighed but held my breath instead of exhaling. I closed my eyes behind my glasses and hoped he didn’t notice. “Okay,” I squeezed out.
Grinning, he caught me in a gentle headlock and kissed me deeply before releasing me. “It’ll be fun. I promise.”
I inhaled to sigh again, but let the breath out quickly so he wouldn’t hear. Our burgers arrived.
“I think my mom’s gonna expect me back,” I said, closing the bag as I folded a French fry into my mouth.
He nodded. He turned the car on and called out, “Peace!” to “the gang.” He ripped out of the lot.
Through the window, I looked back at them, biting the inside of my lip.