Chapter twenty-seven: Twenty hours
I froze mid-step, twisting to see Ben coming out of the school's main doors behind me. He was jogging toward me, and he looked…super happy? That was weird.
"I just came from Juarez's office," he said breathlessly.
"Oh, shit, Ben, I think your face is broken. You appear to be happy but I feel like, coming from Juarez's office, you should be somewhere on the spectrum from aggravated to borderline-homicidal. Did you hit your head really hard?"
"Shut up," he said amiably, and took my arms in both hands. "He fucking sent the letter."
I frowned. "What?" There were a lot of times when I couldn't keep up with Ben, but usually it was because he was endlessly cryptic, or because he was miles smarter than me. Now it was because he was babbling like a happy little madman.
"Juarez, he wrote the recommendation letter for Stanford. He says he sent it a week ago. He even let me read a copy. And it was…Christ, fuck, I can't even…" He let go of my arms and propped his hands on his knees, as if he'd just sprinted a mile.
I laughed. "It was good?" I prompted, wanting to celebrate, but still not one-hundred percent sure that this was definitely a good thing and not a this-is-so-bad-I-broke-my-brain thing.
He reeled up and ran both hands over his face. "It was fucking great. It was…shit, I thought that if I got accepted it would be in spite of Juarez calling me names and ranting about my pathology. But he…fuck, Page, he called me brilliant. He dismissed my disciplinary record – he said that it was an understandable part of my past and that he'd seen me turn a corner. He said I deserved to get in. Jesus. I can't believe this."
"Ben, that's amazing!" I cried, finally on the same page. "That's so awesome! What made him decide to send it?"
"I have no fucking idea!" he laughed. "When I met with him, he still seemed like the same misanthropic piece of shit he's always been. But he fucking wrote it!"
I looked up at Ben. I wasn't sure I'd ever seen him this overtly happy. His smile was so gorgeous it was almost hard to look at. "Oh my god, Ben, you're going to Stanford."
He grinned like a lunatic. "Maybe. I won't find out if I got in for a while."
"No, seriously, this is happening," I asserted, and found myself gripping both his shoulders. "You're going to get in."
He laughed, and suddenly I was in his arms, both feet completely off the ground, and he was hugging me.
I shrieked and threw my arms around his shoulders.
He held me so tightly, so securely, that I slipped unwittingly back into the fantasy scape. The ridiculous land where Ben felt about me exactly how I felt about him. Where he wanted me. Where I was lovable. I indulged myself, reading into the feeling of his fingers against my sides and the tilt of his head against mine, how he angled into me.
He put me down and then something impossible happened. The fantasy leaked into reality. He was staring at me, his unbearably blue eyes searing into me, and then his hands were in my hair. His eyes fell to my lips and he leaned toward me.
He was going to kiss me.
It was too impossible, too frighteningly real. It was everything I wanted, and getting it felt like madness, like my fantasies had overtaken me.
I pulled back with a gasp, panic bubbling up my throat and through every vein.
Instantly, it seemed, Ben wasn't touching me anymore. And his blue eyes were completely devoid of the intensity, the happiness that had been there only seconds before. I'd ground it out. What the fuck was happening?
For a harrowing few seconds we just stared at each other, neither of us knowing what to do, both of us horrified. The time dragged on, cruel and expansive.
"What…" I started, and my voice was so tremulous and thin I barely recognized it.
"I can't do this." That was it. No screaming, no frantic declarations of being fucked up or accusations against me. No stinging insults. No defenses. "I thought I could, but I can't." He turned his back on me, and then he was trundling down the front stairs.
"Ben!" I called after him, panic and fear transforming in me, pushing me to jump down the stairs, to sprint after him, to grip his arm with every last bit of strength I had, willing him to turn around.
He pulled himself out of my grasp. "Don't," he demanded, and his voice was so, so cold.
I felt like a child, lost in a world of complex abstracts my pathetic little brain couldn't grasp. I couldn't understand what was happening. It all felt so disjointed, so unreal. Like life had somehow stumbled blindly over some invisible and unidentifiable object and was tumbling, out of control, into some place unknown. "You can't do what?" I asked weakly.
"I can't, Page. I can't fucking do this anymore." Suddenly he was holding my arms with both hands again, but this time his grip seemed frantic, desperate. Angry.
"Ben, please," I begged. I tried helplessly to reach out to him but his hands held my arms too tight. "I don't even know what 'this' is."
He laughed hollowly, the saddest, coldest laugh I'd ever heard, and let go of me. "Yeah, that makes two of us."
"What?" I pressed a hand to my cheek and tried to keep up. My arms felt cold where he'd held me.
He ran a hand through his hair and the gesture made me tense up. "Seriously, Page, are you that fucking stupid? Have you honed your denial skills so much that you really can't see what's going on around you?"
I bit my lip, hard. If I wanted to fix this, whatever insane thing had just happened, I was going to have to say something important, something specific, and I didn't know what the fuck that was. I pressed through the urge to cry. "I thought we were past the phase were you insult me all the time. You want to come out and tell me what exactly you're trying to say?"
My whole world was a haze of adrenaline. There was a hysterical, racing part of my brain that was trying to make logical sense of what this all meant, but it couldn't keep up with the harried, devastated emotions coursing through me, blurring my thoughts with fears and regrets and desperate, crazed hopes.
"Page, I can't keep doing this. I can't."
"Doing what? Ben, I don't understand you! I'd do anything for you but I don't know what you're saying!"
"I'm saying that I thought I could just be your friend, that that would be enough, but I can't! I'm in love with you, Page. Fucking hopelessly, idiotically, masochistically in love with you. Being with you, and all the ridiculous antics and the back-and-forth…it's the best thing that's ever happened to me. The only good thing in my shitty, fucked-up life. And without you, nothing else means shit. But I can't just be your friend anymore. I can't keep playing at this platonic bullshit. I can't pretend that I don't see you that way, or that I don't hold my fucking breath every time another guy looks at you. I can't keep up this stupid, pointless act, pretending like I don't want to touch you every second. And for one weak, pitiful minute, I thought you felt the same. And I had to risk it. I couldn't…there was nothing else for me to do." He shrugged helplessly, and it broke my rapidly pounding heart. "But I was wrong. And I broke it. Cause I just couldn't fucking keep it together anymore."
It wasn't real.
I knew it wasn't real.
It couldn't be.
This couldn't be my life. My life was angst and drama and dysfunction and sometimes literal tragedy. My life was discomfort and the knowledge that I didn't fit in or contribute or matter. My life was never living the dream.
But somehow I had had it and already lost it. He was backing away. He was shutting me out.
I reached out in blind desperation and grabbed a handful of his shirt in each fist. "Ben, wait."
He waited. He looked at me, heartache and hesitance and resentment so clear and unbridled in his eyes. But he was doing what I'd never been able to do: he was entertaining hope. Real hope.
I felt breathless but I had to say something. After the leap he'd taken, the one I'd never have been able to take, I couldn't let it end like this. I clung to his shirt with both hands, unable to loosen my fingers. "You're always right, remember?"
He hesitated. "What?" His voice was caught somewhere near a whisper.
"I was scared," I blurted. "I'm still scared. I'm always scared. I never thought there was any reason for you to feel that way, so I never even considered saying anything. It seemed impossible. It seems like it should be impossible for you to…to feel the way I feel. But I…I love you. Too much. You're the only thing that makes me really happy. And when I think about the future, the only thing that gives me the courage to face it is the vague, naïve hope that you'll be in it."
Ben looked at me, wide-eyed and genuine, lips parted in surprise.
I stood there, trembling, not knowing what the fuck would come next, intensely aware of the feeling of things changing between us, second by second. I felt like the universe had flipped onto its side. I didn't know what to expect or why. I didn't know how there could be a place, a real place where people said what they meant, and where I got everything I wanted, all the beautiful, insane things I'd hated myself for imagining.
But somehow, impossibly, Ben was coming closer. So, so close.
The gentle pressure of his fingers on my waist and my cheek felt like a beautiful delusion. Like the most precious, breathtaking dream.
His eyes closed and it felt like every molecule inside of me, every thought and every breath, stopped completely.
And then, somehow, his lips touched mine. And it was soft. My fingers clenched in the material of his shirt.
For a few breathless moments there was nothing else, nothing in the world but Ben's gentle ministrations. His hand slid from my waist to the small of my back, and those fingers on my cheek slipped into my hair.
I didn't know when my eyes had closed, but they snapped open wide when he pulled back and all at once the breath flooded back into my lungs. I swallowed hard. His eyes seemed softer than I'd ever seen them; not icy, but bright. Intense.
"You kissed me," I whispered, somewhere between awe and bewildered accusation. My first kiss. I realized with a small shock that my hands were no longer tangled in his t-shirt but pressed flat against his sides. I retracted them hurriedly and brought them up to my chest as a barrier between us.
The skin around his eyes crinkled a little as he smiled. I'd never noticed that before. "You kissed me back," he responded.
I opened my mouth to speak, but I had nothing to say to that. I didn't want to say anything. I didn't want to ruin it.
His hands slid off me so he could grip my wrists in his warm grasp. He slowly moved them behind his neck, so my arms were around his shoulders. His fingers traced lightly down my arms, down to wrap around me. And when he leaned down this time, I was ready.
I tipped up on my toes to meet him. I closed my eyes. There was a slow security to how he kissed me, heavy and confident, and how he pressed me closer and held me so tight. His hand gripped my side and I couldn't help but cling to his shoulders in return.
My head swam.
That moment could have gone on for years. I wasn't aware of the outside world at all. I could only hold tight to Ben and hope against all reason and past experience that this new reality would stay.
When we parted, Ben kept his arms around me; he didn't pull away far. The precious warmth, the intimacy stayed. And the look in his eyes stayed. The tender smile.
I felt breathless and exhilarated and happier than I'd known was possible.
A lewd catcall brought the rest of the world back into existence. Ben looked up, surprised, and it broke the hold he had on me. I glanced around and realized that there were like six people around us, with their phones angled straight at us.
Ben took my hand and with the other, gave the finger to the entire crowd as we squeezed between them, retreating. We half-jogged away from the school, ignoring the cajoling (really, super inappropriate) calls of our peers. I thought vaguely that when I came back to my normal level of sanity, I would probably feel horrified to my very core.
We slipped quickly into Ben's car and he peeled out of the school parking lot.
I laughed, unable to help myself, and Ben grinned at me. He took my hand again and a series of thrills crawled through me, making me feel anxious and wonderful and overwhelmed. It felt so surreal.
I'd assumed he was taking me home, but we were heading away from my house. Truthfully, I didn't give a shit. Who cared? I would go anywhere. I would go to a crack den or the top of a mountain if it meant that Ben and I would be a "something" when we got there. If he would still look at me with that incredible intimacy. That was everything in the world to me. I couldn't give less of a shit about the rest.
He leaned over, paying no attention to the road ahead of us, and kissed my cheek once. Then again, lower, below my ear, and down onto my neck.
I shrieked in an ecstatic frenzy and shoved him away. "You're going to kill us!" I cried, giggling.
Ben grinned ear to ear and returned his focus on the road.
My heart pounded with so much force I thought it was going to beat its way out of my ribcage. It was hard to pull in thin gasps of air around its frantic, thrashing beating.
"Where should we go?" he asked when we stopped at a red light.
It almost surprised me that he still sounded like himself. He was really Ben. This person who was beaming at me and holding my hand like it was a lifeline, and who seemingly couldn't stop kissing me, was actually Ben. "Can we go be in a tree?" I replied without thinking.
What? What did that even mean? Oh god, he was going to rethink this whole thing. I was too weird. Too awkward. Go be in a tree. What was I, a fucking gibbon?
But Ben just grinned and hurriedly made his way across three lanes of traffic to turn left at the next light. He had a look of determination, not unlike that mischievous glint I'd seen when he took me to play Fugitive in the middle of the night.
I sank low into my seat and watched him. He was all lean muscle and his shaggy hair glinted in the low sunlight. For the first time, I felt like I had some bizarre, small license to look at him like this. My face flamed into what I presumed was probably a thousand shades of bright red.
Where was he taking us? There were trees everywhere. Why was he getting on the highway?
The thought occurred to me, though, that now that he was going sixty miles an hour, there couldn't be any more highly-distracting neck kissing or prolonged, stomach-dropping looks of near-adoration. Knowing this, I found the courage to speak. "Ben…"
His eyes flickered over to me, then back to the road. "Yeah?" he asked nervously.
I clenched his hand, hard, so he wouldn't feel how my fingers trembled between his. "I'm not going to change my mind." I drew in a slow, shaking breath. "Ever."
Ben looked down at me, and his expression was so honest and vulnerable it almost broke my heart. He squeezed my hand.
Ben got off the highway about ten minutes later, and then we were pulling into a vaguely familiar parking lot.
"The botanic gardens?" I asked in surprise.
"You wanted trees," he said simply, and put the car in park.
We walked, side by side, up the well-tended path into the grounds. I hadn't been here since I was a kid, and it was prettier than I'd remembered. There were enormous, expansive willow trees and acres of beautiful, manicured flowers, and Lilli pads the size of boats. There were fountains and sculptures and hundreds of butterflies.
As we strolled across a bridge that wound its way over and around a huge pond, Ben looped his arm over my shoulders. Abashed, I threaded my arm around his waist, eager but still supremely unsure of myself. I couldn't get the wild pace of my heart under control. I hoped desperately that Ben couldn't feel how I was shaking.
We came to a stop in front of an enormous sycamore in one of the less-traveled corners of the park.
"This what you had in mind?" Ben intoned.
"It'll do," I mumbled, and detached myself from under his arm. It felt like heartbreak to lose his warmth, but also some measure of relief. I couldn't think that close to him. I pulled myself up into the lower branches, and we started climbing.
Soon, balanced on a thick, ancient branch, well hidden from the rest of the gardens and its passersby, I began to think that my unthinking request to be in a tree might not have been such a bad one. It was shady and we were shielded from the chilly wind. And it was undeniably intimate, pressed close as we shared space on the branch. Ben kept one hand on the trunk for balance, and slid his other hand low across my back. It came to rest on my hip, keeping me close and, I thought, making sure I didn't fall.
I looked up at Ben. I'd been trying to avoid doing this, because it felt physically overwhelming, but I couldn't help it. I forced myself not to look at his lips.
The space between us was small and warm and almost seemed to shimmer with whatever new feelings were happening between us.
"What happens now?" I asked, and my voice was small and hesitant.
Ben shook his head, but he was smiling a little. "I don't know." He was looking down at the branches below but his head inclined toward me slightly.
"You must know," I insisted. "You've done this before. I haven't."
He looked at me, and he looked almost solemn. "I've never done this before," he said, and he took his hand from the trunk so he could trace his fingers across my cheek.
I couldn't ask what he meant. Something shimmery and frightening and hopeful in my stomach stopped me. Maybe because it felt like his answer would be too heartbreakingly beautiful to hear.
I settled into him, contenting myself with looking out at the leaves in front of us. I thought back on the last time we were in a tree together. The intimacy that, then, felt so bizarre and out of place. If I was being honest with myself, it still felt that way. But it also felt warm and bright and swift. Like a strong current taking me somewhere I hoped was very, very good. Somewhere safe.
Every time my heartrate started to calm down, Ben would do something, some little, seemingly insignificant thing, that would make my body surge back into a tumultuous excitement. Just the brush of his fingers across my arm, or the look he gave me as a cloud passed over the sun and all the shadows flexed and melted together, or the way we pressed so close.
For the first time I let myself read into the way he looked at me, the weight in his eyes. It was the best thing I'd ever felt. Like every piece of me had been gilded in warm shades of gold. An autumn breeze wove its way through the circuitous branches and found us. I started to shiver.
Ben began rubbing his hand up and down my arm. "Want to go down?" he asked kindly, and one corner of his mouth crooked up mysteriously.
"No," I said immediately. "Nope. Up here is good." I hated my treacherous body. I couldn't fight down the shivers. And the feeling of his hand on my arm was just adding to them. I didn't want to leave this place. Everything in life was perfect up here, between the sheltering leaves. Even the confusion and anxious anticipation was welcome, because it was ours.
"Look," he said, and pointed at something on the ground. It seemed like a distant world, and not a place I was that interested to visit. But Ben had a hint of laughter in his voice as he said, "Want to?"
I peered down at where he was pointing and saw a sprawling field of bushes cut into meticulous and circuitous patterns. It was a maze.
"Sure," I said regretfully. I had been entertaining the very tempting idea of spending the rest of my natural life in that tree with Ben. I'd been plotting out where I would sleep, and the best angles for gazing at him adoringly. Having to go down to the real world didn't seem appealing at all. But I couldn't resist Ben's mischievous tone. How could I possibly deny him anything?
The maze was, undoubtedly, a huge mistake. It was too narrow in the maze for us to walk with our arms around each other. Ben filed in behind me and for a while we ambled peaceably through the maze, happily and unhurriedly getting lost.
And then came the crowds. A veritable swarm of people and their noisy kids appeared around a bend and came surging toward us. I ducked around a corner, retreating away from all the people who kept stepping on my feet and muttering halfhearted apologies. I waited it out, gritting my teeth and watching all of the kids wandering by, a veritable river of little hands and runny noses and parents talking loudly on their cell phones.
The last of the whining children stumbled, crying, after his mother and I emerged from my hiding spot. But Ben was nowhere to be found. Weird. I looked around, glancing down a few corners.
"Ben?" I called. I listened intently, but I didn't hear any response. Maybe he had gotten pushed into that nearby corridor. I went down it, expecting to see him around the next corner, and then the next and then the next.
When that proved fruitless, I tried to retrace my steps, and then had a terrible realization. "I'm lost," I announced to the empty maze. Fuck. I yelled for Ben, but there was no response.
Goddamn it. The scared, insecure parts of my mind went into crazed overdrive. He'd probably gone home. He'd probably realized he'd made a horrible mistake and left me in there to be murdered by a minotaur. He'd probably been flattened by the stampede of children and I'd never see him again.
Nowhere to go but forward, I supposed, and figured that anytime you lose someone in a maze, there's an unspoken agreement to meet in the middle. Right? I was a little rusty on my labyrinth code of conduct. It didn't come up as often as you might think.
I started jogging, glancing down every off-branching corridor, listening keenly for footsteps. This went on for the better part of half an hour. Every time I thought I had to be near the middle, I found myself being diverted and had to follow another corridor toward the edge of the maze. It was absolutely goddamn infuriating.
Fuck it. I turned around. I would just make my way back to Ben's car. He'd have to go back there eventually, if only to take the bad news to my mother that I'd been eaten by a maze and she'd probably never see me again. I started to shiver when the sun dipped below the high hedge of the bushes surrounding us.
And then I heard rustling.
"Ben?!" I cried.
"Page? Where the fuck are you?" He sounded as frustrated as I felt.
Oh thank god.
I ran to the nearest wall, pretty sure that he was on the other side. "I don't know!" I replied honestly.
"How do I get to you?" he called, and his voice was moving away. I followed it, keeping close to the wall, desperate to get to him.
"What am I, fucking Ariadne? How should I know? I've been completely lost in here for half an hour," I called, stuck somewhere between giddy good humor and a near-crazed desire to see him.
"This way," he called through the bushes.
I followed his footsteps in one direction for a while before running into a wall. "Dead end," I called miserably.
Ben groaned. "Fuck this," he declared. There was a lot of rustling and the bushes trembled. Then Ben dropped out of the sky.
I jumped, shrieking a little. "Shit, there you are! How the fuck did you climb that bush?"
He laughed and I realized how close he was. His fingers wove into my hair. I thought he would kiss me, but he was just looking at me. I didn't know how to understand that look. No one had ever looked at me like this before.
But the moment broke, as quickly as it had started, and, with a soft, uncharacteristic smile, Ben said, "We should get out of here before the sun sets."
I bit my lip and nodded.
Ben wrapped his hand through mine and set off, pulling me behind him through the maze. Thank god he had a better sense of direction than I did. My mind was a complete wreck, filled only with memories of the various things I'd done and felt in the last two hours. If we were relying on me, we'd probably have had to call the fire department to get us out of that fucking maze.
Finally we found the entrance and burst out into the mercifully open space of the gardens.
"Freedom," I joked.
Ben laughed and pulled me across the grounds, back toward the entrance.
I ambled after him happily. But the sight of his rusty car waiting for us, a lone car in the empty parking lot, made my stomach twist unhappily. I wasn't ready for this to be over. "Want to come over for dinner?" I invited without thinking. My heart flipped upside-down. "Unless…you know…you have homework. Or work. Or things. Other things. That you might…um…need to…you know." Oh my god. "Do," I finished pathetically. Wow.
Ben smiled down at me, amused, and snaked a hand around my waist. He pulled me to him and kissed my head. "I genuinely don't give a shit about homework or work or other things."
I looked up at him in surprise. "You don't care about homework?" I laughed. "Sorry, you must be someone else. I thought I was talking to Ben Whiteside. He's this super nerd that I know."
He shoved me and I stumbled a little, grinning.
Back at my house I made dinner, deciding in the moment to make my pasta and cream sauce. Ben actually helped, which was unprecedented. Well, he helped for a while, anyway. He chopped up mushrooms and basil and brought me ingredients, and that was helpful. But soon he lost focus on the cooking and settled behind me as I perched in front of the stove, his hands on my waist and his lips on my neck.
I shivered and tried to steel my hands against their trembling. I didn't know what to do. I had absolutely zero experience in physical…teenage stuff. I didn't know what to do when his fingers grazed over the exposed skin where my shirt rose up from my jeans, or how to respond to the feeling of his lips skimming down the side of my neck. Mostly I just stood there, frozen, and tried to summon the will power to tell him that if he didn't let me concentrate, I was going to burn the sauce. It didn't come, so instead I abandoned my spoon and turned in his arms and happily forgot about the food as he kissed me.
His hands explored up and down my back and pressed me so close it made me nervous and jittery and deliriously, embarrassingly happy
"It's burning," he announced finally, his breath on my lips.
"I don't care," I confessed, and tilted up into another kiss.
He smiled into my lips and reached behind me to flick the stove off. He tilted back against the island behind him, pulling me with him so I had to lean into him. The warmth of him was everywhere around me and, with the pressure of his lips, it lulled me into this incredible, blissful near-coma of contentment.
When we finally pulled apart, the sauce was lukewarm and a little burned, but I don't think either of us cared very much. I dumped the pasta and sauce onto two plates and we settled in at the table together.
I bit my lip, watching him eat, barely able to taste the food. This was something we'd done a million times before. Sitting together at this table, eating side-by-side. But this felt completely different than any other part of my life. My senses were overloaded with Ben and thoughts of Ben and memories of Ben and his touch and his lips and…oh shit, there went my heart again, skittering off into oblivion.
"This doesn't feel real," I announced, unthinking.
He looked up from his food. He'd been pretty into that pasta. He smiled. "Yeah, I know." He set down his fork and his eyes narrowed, as if he was trying to put something into words. "Page, I…" he looked away from me, and started again. "I've wanted this…I've felt this way for a long time."
I felt small and euphoric and more than a little bit psychotic. "Me too," I admitted. "Since the beginning, I think. Even when I had myself convinced that I hated you, I…you were all I thought about." I looked down at my lap, unable to say any more, as much as I wanted to.
"Don't do that."
The sharp tone in his voice made me look up, startled. He looked inexplicably tense. "Don't do what?"
"That revisionist history thing. I wasn't good to you when we met. And if you forget that, then what happens when I turn back into that?"
"What?" I felt my face screwing up in confusion. What was he babbling about? "What do you mean 'when?'"
Ben was looking at me with an expression that was strangely grave, and he grabbed both arms of my chair to pull me closer. "If this is going to work, I just need you to agree that I'll never deserve you if I act like that again."
Whoa. I scooted back, thoroughly uncomfortable with the sudden turn in this conversation. He was still holding tightly onto the arms of my chair. "I didn't fall in love with you because you were a boyscout. I mean, I can definitely do without all the threats and insults, but it was still you. And I can simultaneously love you and understand that you have the potential to be a dick sometimes."
I looked up at him, trying to gauge his emotions. I couldn't. It definitely wasn't the unadulterated happiness from earlier. But it wasn't the frustration and anxiety of a minute before either. I couldn't put a name to it.
"Page," he said breathlessly, and there was so much gravity in his voice. Like he was trying to save the world with that one word. I wanted to touch him but I was too scared, too skittish. His eyes met mine and they were so purely, shockingly blue. "I've never really put any effort into being a good person or…" he swallowed hard. "Or building ties. I just…I need to have out in the open that how I treated you was fucked up. And that you didn't deserve to be treated like that."
I pried my lip from between my teeth. "Okay," I whispered shakily. "Ben, I'm not worried about it. If you start acting like an asshole, all you have to do is remember that you can do better than that. I've seen it." It wasn't something that was terribly important to me to establish or to dwell on, but for whatever reason, it was important to him. And if he wanted to make me promises about our bright, blissful future together, I wasn't going to complain too much.
He smiled grimly, and kissed me briefly. We both let out a deep breath. It was a big conversation, and now that it was over, the weight of it hung in the air between us. It was uncomfortable. "The pasta is good. I think the burned parts give it some extra flavor," he joked, breaking the tension. I laughed.
After that dinner was comparatively extremely light. We joked. We ate. There might have been some hand-holding under the table.
We did the dishes and then studied together, but only for an hour or two. I don't know about him, but I didn't get a single page of homework done. I was too hyper-aware of him. There was absolutely no room in my brain for anything else.
Eventually the reality came upon us that Ben would have to actually leave at some point. We both futzed and delayed, but after a while there was no denying it. He had to go home. I walked him to the door after he'd packed up his things.
He hesitated, reluctant. His fingers wrapped around the nape of my neck and he kissed me again, just for a minute.
"See you tomorrow," he promised.
I watched him leave. In a complete trance, I took myself upstairs and flopped down on my bed. I pulled out my phone. Fourteen texts from Macy and two from Dee. I grinned.
Tomorrow I would have to deal with the part of this new reality that involved other people. But for today it was just me and Ben. I closed my eyes and let myself fall into a million different, equally amazing memories.
The next day began the same as the day before. And the day before that. I had a nightmare. I went back to sleep, telling myself that it wasn't real. I slept for a few more fitful hours.
But when I woke, I felt an intense, foreign happiness. The air was crisp and every move of my body against my blankets caused a sharp crack of static. It scratched at my skin and raised the hair on my arms.
I showered. I dressed. Try choosing an outfit the morning after you hook up with the guy you're completely obsessed with. I defy you to take less than an hour. I probably tried on and re-tried on every single piece of clothing in my closet. It was exciting but somehow very normal. Wonderfully normal.
The house was empty as I left for school, but that was normal too. My mom had already been at work for at least an hour, and Tristam hadn't been home for days. My father was typically and perpetually silent.
My walk to school was pleasant. It was bitter cold but the wind whipped away my last inclinations toward sleep. Settling into my seat in Spanish class was an exercise in excruciating patience. I wanted to see Ben. The thought of him loomed huge in my mind, pushing out any chance of concentrating on mundanities like grammar or syntax.
The guy next to me subtly slipped a piece of paper onto my desk. I glanced at him and then, immediately, over to Macy. She was glaring at me, her hands wrapped around the edges of her desk so tight I thought that the note must contain a desperate revelation that she was at that very moment having a stroke. I unfolded it.
What the fuck?! It said in her loopy, feminine scrawl. I called you a billion times yesterday! Are you and Ben together now?! Yes, there were actually that many exclamation points. I wouldn't make that up. Why didn't you tell me? Where did you go after school yesterday? What did you do?! DETAILS!
I smiled at her and crumpled the paper up. I shrugged.
She positively fumed.
I got through the rest of the period mostly ignoring Macy as she glared venomously at me.
She cornered me the split-second the bell rang.
"Oh my god, Page, you enormous slut! Where the fuck have you been? Why didn't you call me?!" she shrieked.
I felt like I was being attacked by an angry harpy.
"You're the world's shittiest best friend. You get your first kiss and your first boyfriend and you don't even tell me?! I had to find out through Snapchat, Page! Snapchat!"
I laughed. "Sorry, Mace. Things just…happened." I didn't know what else to say.
Macy followed me to my next class, shrieking and gesturing and scolding me all the while.
"I have to go to class now," I informed her gently, and started to slip into the classroom.
She stopped me. "Just…" She sighed. "At least tell me if it's true."
I shrugged. "I don't know what insane rumors the school has generated. I wouldn't want to endorse any of this hellhole's horrible, libelous ramblings."
"Uch, Page!" she yelled. "Are you and Ben together?!"
I blinked, surprised at how genuinely frustrated she seemed to be. I bit my lip. "I think so."
Macy groaned. "Christ, was that so difficult?" And then she hugged me, hard. "For the record," she said, arms wrapped tight around me, "I still don't approve of him."
"Noted," I gasped, a little bit squished by her stranglehold.
"But," she went on, belabored, "I'll try to be happy for you."
"Thanks," I choked out.
Second period was shit. So was third. I barely remember them. They were just a blur of anticipation. I really couldn't concentrate on anything except counting down the minutes to when I would see Ben.
He found me as I walked into the cafeteria. Suddenly there was a strong arm around my waist and playful lips against my cheek.
I laughed and squirmed away. He let me go with a smile so easy and beautiful it made me feel like there could be no evil in the world, or grief.
Ben followed me through the lunch line, telling me about his exploits in AP Biology. I could barely hear what he was saying. I was an utter mess, drowning in a colorful haze of emotion and adrenaline. Ben was funny and charming and completely and utterly intent on me.
It was perfect.
We sat together and Macy rolled her eyes at us, but I thought she was probably just pissy that she'd been kept out of the loop.
As we ate, Ben tried to explain the difference between the various bacterial cultures he was studying for his Bio project, and I tried to pretend that I understood. He was beautiful and carefree. I loved seeing him this way. He could be so severe and so burdened by the crappy hand life had dealt him, but at that moment he was unaffected and pure. He was happy.
He kept finding little excuses to touch me. Smoothing my hair behind my shoulder. The plausibly-accidental brush of his fingers against my knee under the table. The unmistakable caress of his fingertips against the small of my back, performed with a casualness that made me feel infinitely special and close to him.
I barely ate – I was too concentrated on this new incarnation of "us." Ben and me. I was completely enchanted with the concept. And it was hard to remember that anything else existed. I couldn't stop smiling at him. But he didn't seem to mind.
Sometime in the middle of a particularly great conversation about the seemingly alien consistency of the school mac and cheese, Andrew wandered over, his slowly-healing face contorted and mocking. We looked at him apprehensively. He shoved his hands into his pockets and glared at Ben.
"So this is what you meant," he spat, "when you said that I should go out with her? You told me you didn't like her. You said you didn't give a shit."
I bit my lip and tried to sink into the plastic of my chair.
But Ben just said simply, "I lied."
Andrew scoffed. "You went from not giving a shit to being in love pretty goddamn fast. How fast do you think he'll change his mind, Page? Probably as soon as he convinces you to fuck him."
Suddenly Ben was standing. "Get the fuck out of here," he said firmly. Dangerously. His hands folded into fists.
My mind raced. What exactly would I do if the situation took a turn for the violent? I had no goddamn clue. I did the only thing I could think of, which was simply to wrap my hand around Ben's wrist and hope that that would do any good at all.
Andrew held up his hands sarcastically. "Good luck with that temper, Page. Hope you can take a punch as good as I can."
Ben took a swift step forward and I almost lurched out of my chair trying to hold him back. "Go fuck yourself, Andrew."
They were standing really close. Oh my god. I looked desperately at Macy and she held up her hands frantically, eyes wide.
Andrew smirked and took a step back. "You two freaks enjoy each other." He turned and, thank god, left.
Ben sat down again and we looked at each other, each gauging each other's reaction. For a few awkward, full seconds we were silent. Ben took a deep breath in. "I would never-" he started.
"Shut up," I sniped. "I know."
Ben hesitated, then cupped the back of my head in his hand. He pulled me to him and kissed my forehead.
"Ulch," Macy said ungraciously from across the table. There was a note of nervousness in her voice, but her normal nagging tone was already coming back. "You guys are gross. You're going to be that couple, aren't you?"
I grinned, abashed but utterly delighted.
The bell rang and the sound almost broke my heart. The thought of facing economics after just half an hour with Ben was cruel and unwelcome. I said an awkward goodbye to Macy, who mercifully took the hint and left after only a couple snarky remarks, rolling her eyes all the while.
Ben hoisted his backpack onto his shoulders and fell into step beside me. I knew his next class was in the opposite direction, but if he wanted to walk me to class, I wasn't going to complain.
In a moment of drastic un-Page-ness, I found a hidden pocket of bravery and put my arm around his waist, flooded in pure, giddy high school adrenaline. He didn't hesitate before spreading an arm along my back, with his fingers cupping my shoulder. We walked slowly, stretching the moment out, joking about something. Some trivial, beautiful thing that I can't remember. Ben was going to be late to class. But he didn't seem to care.
The halls were almost empty by the time we came to a stop outside my economics classroom.
We pulled apart and our arms fell away from each other, but Ben put one warm hand on my waist. I thought he was going to kiss me, and my stomach churned out static. His eyes went to my lips and he started to lean down to me.
A buzzing caught me unaware, making me jump, ruining the moment. I wrestled my phone from my back pocket, breathing hard from the surprise and from the seemingly-impossible notion that Ben Whiteside wanted to kiss me.
I glanced at my phone, which was vibrating emphatically in my palm. It was my mom.
I frowned. "That's weird," I said, and looked up at Ben. My mother almost never called me, and especially not while I was in school.
His face showed nothing, which I think was probably a product of him hiding his disappointment. He stepped back, as if about to leave, but for some reason he paused. Maybe it was something in my face. Maybe it was that electric tingle you feel just before lightning strikes.
"Hello?" I said, and put my other hand against my ear to block out the noise. "Mom?"
"Page," she said, and her voice was thin and lifeless. "It's your father. Come home."
She hung up.
Ben looked down at me. For a fraction of a second his face still looked genial, unconcerned. And then it split into a frown. "Page?"
My back found a wall I hadn't realized was there. And then I was sliding down it. I found myself on the floor, and I didn't know where to go from there.
"Page?" Ben cried, and his voice was full of alarm.
He knelt down in front of me and reached out.
I think he touched me, but I didn't feel it. I didn't feel anything. The world was full of static. It invaded my ears and covered my eyes. It blocked everything out.
"What's wrong?" Ben's voice found me as if from miles away.
I tried to remember how to stand, how to walk. I had to go home. I had to run away. "I think…" I tried to breathe but it seemed like the air was seeping away from me, as if vacuumed out by the fear. "I think my dad died."
Long time no see, fictionpress people! I recently got a couple reviews for this story out of the blue, and it made me want to come back to it. I think I wrote this chapter a couple years ago, but I have a few chapters beyond it written now. I really hope you enjoy them.
And in all seriousness y'all, thank you so much for your reviews. It's so encouraging to read them, and it makes me smile to know that there are people out there enjoying the story.