"Bye, Jamie! I love you!" I called from the bus window. I watched Jamie wave in goodbye, and then run across the frost covered lawn towards the front entrance of the school, no doubt in a hurry to relay his exciting news to his classmates.
Jamie had been ecstatic this morning. I'd woken him up like usual, and in his sleepy voice he'd asked, "Aly, do I have to get up?"
"You sure do, Jimmy-Jam. Don't you want to check for the tooth fairy?"
His sweet little face instantly lit up. He scrambled out of his covers and tossed his pillow aside. His expression of awe upon seeing the crisp new bill made all my previous worries and anxieties go away. Every hardship and embarrassment was worth this little boys smile.
Jamie beamed up at me, his eyes wide in elation.
"She really came!" He exclaimed, "The tooth fairy really came!" he carefully handled the money as if it were a fragile butterfly. "Do I really get to keep it, Aly?"
"Of course, Jamie."
It hadn't been until Jamie had hopped into the shower did I realize that I had to credit Jamie's happiness to Jared.
Now I owed him even more than before.
I leaned my head against the window. I gazed out at the passing scenery; everything was so lifeless. The trees and the grass were withered and dead, the clouds hung low over the city in a hazy fog.
Not even nine o'clock, and already I was exhausted.
Actually, it was more like leftover exhaustion from last night. After Jared left, I'd lain awake in bed, my body numb with fatigue, but my mind spinning with unanswered questions: why did he care if I was hurt, or who'd hurt me? Why did he seem so eager to do homework in the middle of the night, with me, of all people? What did he think of me now, now that he's seen my broken home?
And then… Why had he swept my hair off my face? Had my hair been so messy that he couldn't help but try to fix it? Or was it something else?
I couldn't even begin to fathom what he was thinking.
Could he maybe… like me? I shook my head furiously. Leon was wrong. He couldn't possibly! Look at me; rags compared to his riches. What part of me would ever be worthy of Jared Matthews? We come from two totally different worlds.
Take this morning for example; I'd had to tear through my drawers, desperately searching for something to wear that wasn't frayed or holey, or ten sizes too big. Jared would never have to do this; every thing in his closet would no doubt be expensive or brand new. If he had holes in his jeans, they were there because they'd been artfully ripped, not because they were worn out.
After all my searching, the dismal contents of my dresser scattered across my bedroom floor, I had finally found it; an old relic leftover from my pre-poor days.
It was a sleeveless grey tank top made of rayon. It had a scoop neck, with a thin edging of lighter grey lace across the neckline. It fit just right; not skin tight, but not several sizes too large either. It was the nicest article of clothing I owned, and although I never wore it, I'd kept it out of sentiment; it had been a gift from my Dad.
I didn't need to dress nice for school, so I don't know where this need to make myself look better than usual derived from. Maybe I was embarrassed about my home, and I didn't want Jared to think that everything about me was impoverished. Or maybe I just wanted him to notice me, the way I noticed him. But that was ridiculous. Even dressed up in the finest silks, the differences between us still stretched oceans apart.
I had almost put the shirt back in my drawer. It was pointless to dress up just for Jared. I'd already decided he wasn't going to be part of my life, so why should I care how I look next to him? Why should I care what he thought of me? I shouldn't; I didn't care what anybody else thought. At least, I tried not to.
But… what could it hurt? It was only a shirt after all. And I'd be wearing it all day so it wasn't like Jared would be the only person to see it.
Before I could change my mind again, I slipped the shirt over my head.
I had then dug through my strewn clothing and found the only pair of jeans I didn't need a belt to hold up, and examined myself briefly in the mirror.
I looked… almost normal. As a last minute decision, I pulled up my hair up in a high ponytail, careful not to overextend my still sore elbow. I had found some old cherry chap stick under the sink, and smattered it over my lips.
I rubbed my lips together now; they slid against each other smoothly, so I knew the chap stick was still in place. I could see my stop rising out of the fog, and I prepared myself to get off. The bus lurched to a halt, and I quickly made my way down the aisle. After a mumbled thanks to the driver, I stepped down onto the pavement.
The bus pulled away, sputtering gas as it went. I could feel the morning chill seep through my jacket; I mentally cursed myself for not wearing a sweater underneath. I crossed the street, teeth chattering, and joined the lieu of cold students ambling through the front doors of the school.
I pushed my way down the hall to my locker and dialed the combination. I shrugged off my jacket, minding my arm, and stuffed it into my locker.
After banging the door shut, I started to make my way down the hall, to my homeroom class. I noticed a few people giving me weird looks; did I have something on my face? I dropped my head, and self-consciously pulled my ponytail over my shoulder.
"Alyson!" I heard a strangely familiar voice call out across the busy hallway. Nobody at school talked to me though, so they couldn't be trying to get my attention. It was probably just another girl with the same name. I ignored the caller and continued fighting my way down the hall.
"Alyson!" The voice shouted again. Couldn't the girl hear him?
My shoulder roughly collided with someone's backpack, and I winced at the sting that went down my arm. Thankfully my homeroom loomed only meters ahead.
I ducked into the classroom, and headed to my desk.
"Alyson!" The voice called from right behind me. I turned in surprise - to find Jared. No wonder the voice had sounded familiar! What did he want?
"Didn't you hear me calling?" His smile was teasing, and his warm gaze chased the chill from my body. I felt my nerves jangle.
"Oh, sorry! I thought you were calling someone else!" My cheeks tinged pink.
"How many Alysons do you think I know? There's only three in the whole school!" He joked.
I knew it wasn't a big deal, but I was pleased that he implied I was the only girl he knew with that name.
"How do you know there's only three?" I wondered out loud.
To my utter amazement, Jared blushed. He rubbed the back of his neck and focused his eyes on the floor.
"Yearbook, actually…" He coughed.
I nodded. That made sense. I never bought a year book, because I didn't have friends and nobody knew who I was anyways. What would have been the point?
I watched Jared lift his gaze from the floor, and slowly drift up my body. I tensed, waiting for what he might say. His eyes went past my face to examine my hair, and then dropped down to meet mine.
"You look really good today, Alyson." Jared's dimple popped out at me, and the shiver that ran down my bare arms had nothing to do with the temperature in the room.
"Th-thanks." I vowed to wear this shirt more often.
I shifted my backpack strap slightly, not trusting myself to say anything else; my body was vibrating with pleasure.
"I think your bruise got bigger." Jared said, out of nowhere.
"Your arm? From when you got tripped?" He looked at me, eyebrows raised, willing me to follow his thoughts.
"Oh!" I glanced down at my arm. The ice pack he'd made for me last night had taken away the swelling, but the bluish smudges that had covered my elbow and extended along either side of the joint had now stained over the crook in my arm, like spilled ink. It was ugly, and I didn't want to stare at it too long.
Jared didn't seem to mind however. Just as he had last night, he gently lifted my limb and carefully glided his hand over the marred skin. I could feel goosebumps materialize on my arm, the tiny hairs reaching up to meet his fingers.
My knees quivered uselessly, threatening to collapse, and it was then that I saw the flash of movement out of the corner of my eye.
Charlotte had sat in a chair two rows over from where Jared and I stood. She turned her attention to us, and stared at me with a malicious glint in her eye. My bruised arm prickled in awareness, a knot working its way to my stomach.
I abruptly pulled my arm from Jared's grasp.
"Sorry! I didn't mean to press so hard! Are you okay?" His brows were knitted together in distress.
"Yeah, it's fine." I mumbled, avoiding his gaze. "Um, how was practice this morning?"
I risked another glance past Jared; Charlotte was still glaring at me. If looks could kill…
I swallowed with difficulty, and tried to pay attention to Jared. Ironic, since normally this wasn't a problem. But my arm still prickled with the memory of being slammed into the ground, and if Charlotte was upset with me again today…
"How do you do it Alyson?"
I snapped back to focus on Jared's face.
"Um, do what?"
"Function normally on so little sleep! I almost passed out this morning during huddle! Coach reamed me for twenty minutes! I still want to go back to bed." To prove his point, he stretched his muscular arms and tried to stifle a yawn.
I couldn't help but smile. "I guess I'm used to it. Good luck tonight though." If he lost the game, I would be completely responsible.
"Too bad you can't come watch." Jared lamented.
Me, going to watch a football game? Even if I wasn't working, I don't think I would ever have the nerve to go. I didn't belong there.
I snuck another peek at Charlotte. Still watching scornfully.
Tyler Kutch strolled into the room, a football tucked under his arm.
"Yo, Matthews! We gonna win tonight or what?" He came over and held out a hand for a high five.
Jared slapped it cheerfully. "You know it!"
"Ye-ah we got this! Just s'long as my boy don't fall asleep on his feet tonight!" He threw the football at Jared.
Jared caught the ball and then laughed lightly. "I'll just take a nap before the game. Don't worry about it!"
I stood there awkwardly, not sure whether to join in the banter or sneak away.
Charlotte made the decision for me. She slipped out of her seat and sauntered over to the boys.
"What's this I hear about a nap? Don't tell me someone partied a little too hard last night?" She grinned mischievously at Jared, draping a hand possessively on his arm.
"Nah, you know I'm not into that. I was out late, just doing homework with Alyson." Jared subtly twisted his arm away from Charlotte's hand and threw me a half-smile that succeeded in turning my cheeks several shades of red, and wiping the grin completely off Charlotte's face.
"Oh, really?" She said through gritted teeth. Her eyes shot daggers into me, and I could almost feel razor sharp edges tearing through my skin. Her gaze narrowed when she noticed my shirt, and I felt strangely vulnerable standing before her with my bare arms.
I wanted to pull my hair from its elastic band and shake it out all around me, so I'd have some semblance of protection.
"New shirt?" Charlotte commented, a dead calm in her voice.
The knot in my stomach swelled, expanding into my chest, and I was finding it hard to breathe. I fingered the hem of my tank top, not sure what else to do.
"Have we met before?" Tyler interjected. He stared at me intently, as if he was trying to place me in a memory.
"Um, no. Not really." I answered self consciously. "We've just had some classes together."
A light bulb went off in Tyler's head. "Oh! Now I got it! You were in my math class last semester weren't you? With Mrs. Peters? You used to sit in the back by the window."
To say I was shocked would have been an understatement. How did he know? Nobody ever noticed me.
"Uh, yeah. That was me."
Charlotte glowered at me some more.
Jared was about to say something, but Mr. Brennan walked into the room and began attendance. I shuffled back to my seat, heaving a sigh of relief as I went.
When the bell rang to signal the end of homeroom, I flew out of my seat, anxiety gnawing at my stomach. I felt bad not saying goodbye to Jared, but I didn't want to be anywhere near Charlotte in the hallway.
English passed by in a blur, my mind too fuzzy and tired to really comprehend what I was reading; I'd read the same page over and over, but my brain just wouldn't register any of the words.
Biology hadn't been anything special either. Jared and I sat too far apart to actually speak, and Mr. Schulte kept us busy with notes. This didn't bother me nearly as much as yesterday since my arm was feeling a lot better, but I scared myself every time I looked down at the unsightly bruise. I should have worn sleeves today.
But, Jared had liked what I was wearing…
When the bell rang, everyone packed up their books and meandered over to their friends. I wanted to go apologize to Jared for being so rude earlier, and I took a few hesitant steps towards him.
Before I could get to him though, a few of the popular girls on the cheerleading squad latched onto his arms and began tossing their hair and gabbing away about how excited they were for the game tonight.
They pulled him towards the door, telling him that he just had to sit with them for lunch.
A pang of jealousy burst through my chest.
But I would just have to deal. Jared wasn't mine - in fact he was way out of my league. He belonged with those other girls.
As usual, I sat in the Library at lunch, trying to reread my English book. It wasn't going very well, since every couple minutes I'd find myself dozing off. My book would start slipping off my lap, and hit the floor with a thud. I would jolt awake and pick up my book, only to repeat the sequence again.
I felt my eyelids start to close once more, unable to focus on Hamlet. My book was falling out of my hand, sliding down my thigh, but at this point I was too tired to care. I decided that I should just sleep until the afternoon bell rang, then I'd be more alert for History.
The paperback kept sliding, sliding… I felt it reach the edge of my knee and drop off. I hazily anticipated the thud; it never came.
What? Oh well… I just wanted to sleep… I felt myself drifting off…
I heard a cough.
My eyes flew open. Jared stood in front of me, flipping pages through my book.
"I knew Shakespeare is hard to understand, but I didn't think it was this boring!" He gave me a teasing smile.
My heart stopped for a single instant, then began slamming against my chest. Was I dreaming?
"What are you doing here?" I questioned, in a daze.
"Well, this is a Library… maybe I wanted to come read a book?"
I didn't know what to say. I just sat and started at him bewilderingly.
Jared laughed. "Is it really that hard to picture me reading a book?"
"No!" I shook my head. "You just surprised me."
"Well, I was only joking," he amended. "I really came here to see you."
"To see me?" I choked out. I must be dreaming.
Jared ran his hand through his dark curls. It looked like a nervous gesture to me… but of course it couldn't be. "Yeah. I was gonna ask you if you'd like to join me for lunch?" He looked at me hopefully.
"Weren't you… I mean, didn't you already have lunch plans? With like, Jessica and Crystal?" I said, referring to the cheerleaders clinging to his arms earlier.
Jared cocked an eyebrow at me.
I blushed slightly, realizing I'd just admitted I'd eavesdropped on him.
"I heard them talking to you after bio…" I flipped my ponytail over my shoulder.
He half smiled. "I told them I was already eating lunch with someone. At least, I'm hoping I am." He looked at me significantly.
Oh. OH. "Um, sure."
Jared's smile widened, his white teeth flashing at me. It did weird things to my heart. He stepped forward and handed me back Hamlet. I slid it in my bag, and shakily rose to my feet.
I'm actually going to eat lunch with Jared!
Was this like a date or something? No, it couldn't be! Jared doesn't think that way about me.
Friends. Maybe. That's all it was, right? Maybe he just wanted to talk abut the project.
"Where do you want to go?" He peered down at me. We walked side by side towards the Library doors.
"Wherever you want." I said. I wasn't actually planning on eating.
"Okay, I know this great little place a couple blocks away."
We strode towards the parking lot doors, Ignoring the strange looks we got from people we passed.
Jared held the door open for me, and the cold air rushed to greet me. I crossed my arms to fend off the chill.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" Jared exclaimed. Do you want to go back for your jacket?"
"Uh, no its okay. You have heat in your truck right?" I asked stupidly.
He grinned. "Yeah, I do."
We made the walk across the parking lot in silence, and Jared helped me into his monstrous black truck.
He blasted the heaters and started the engine.
"So, why do you always spend lunch in the library?" he asked casually.
"It's quiet there," I explained, "and peaceful. I can get my homework done without any distractions."
"You can't do it after school cause of work, right?"
"Yeah." I nodded. I tugged at a few stray strings dangling from the hole in my knee.
Jared kept asking me questions about school and work. I answered them, glad I wasn't stuttering for once. I still felt off balance though, not really believing this was happening. He wasn't obligated to help me out, or forced to do homework with me.
He was here with me of his own free will. He'd simply wanted to eat lunch with me. Is this how all friendships start?
I couldn't ignore the bubble of happiness floating around in my belly, even though I knew it didn't mean anything.
I kept telling myself that Jared shouldn't be a part of my life, he was meaningless, just a homework assignment; don't get attached. I told myself I couldn't have friends because I needed to take care of Jamie.
But Jared had done nothing to pull me away from my responsibilities to my little brother. All he'd done was help make the situation better. He was always kind and friendly. He'd helped me when I needed it. I realized Leon was right; getting help from people wasn't all bad. Though I still felt I needed to do something for Jared in return.
Maybe I could be friends with him after all.
If he wanted to be. If that's what this was.
I still didn't understand why he'd want to be friends with me, but… shouldn't I enjoy this while it lasted? Especially since he didn't seem repulsed by who I was, or where I lived, what I wore.
We pulled into a small parking lot in front of an even smaller bistro. The bold red lettering on the sign read, "Katie's.."
Jared parked his truck smoothly between a beat-up old clunker and a modern sedan. We got out of the vehicle and walked to the doors quickly, minding the chill. Of course he held the door open for me.
I hesitantly walked through; aside from work, this was the nicest establishment I'd been in since… well since the funeral I guess. I was glad I was wearing this fancy shirt.
There was a huge, roaring brick fireplace placed in the far corner, giving off a cozy atmosphere. The rusty bricks were surrounded by squishy armchairs and low mahogany coffee tables.
Pushed up against the walls were large, comfortable-looking booths, and smaller round tables littered the middle of the room.
To the left of the entryway was a counter set up with a cash register and a wide glass case displaying today's desserts. The strawberry cheesecake looked absolutely mouth watering.
I stood there in the doorway, openmouthed. It wasn't just the charming décor that left me speechless, it was the people.
Wealthy businessmen lounged on the armchairs next to the fireplace, drinking coffee with their headsets on, typing madly on their laptop keyboards.
A few elderly couples occupied the round tables in the middle, contentedly sharing the space with college students cramming for their next exam.
The booths contained young couples smiling at their giggling toddlers in booster seats, and groups of young teenagers laughing at each others jokes.
People from all walks of life came here, I thought. Suddenly I didn't feel so awkward or out of place.
I belonged here too.
And so did Jared. It was okay for us to be together here. Our differences in this place didn't matter.
Then I felt a pang of sadness heavy my heart. It must have shown on my face because Jared asked me what was wrong.
"I just wish I could have brought Jamie here, that's all. He would have liked it." I felt bad that I got to be here and he didn't. I was supposed to sacrifice these sorts of things for myself so that he could have them.
"Then next time we'll have to bring him!" he said to cheer me up, his smile warm. I couldn't help but smile back. He'd implied that we would hang out like this again.
He put a hand on the small of my back and steered me over to an empty booth. I could feel the heat of his hand through my shirt, and tingles shot up and down my spine.
"Hey there, Jared!" A middle-aged waitress greeted us at the table. "Haven't seen you for a while!" she said brightly.
"Hi, Katie! I've been pretty busy lately." He slid into the booth with ease. I awkwardly shuffled in opposite him.
"How is school going?" she conversed in a southern twang.
"Oh, you know, the usual. We've got our last game tonight!"
"Already? Well good luck!" She placed menus in front of Jared and I. "Now, who is this pretty little thing?"
With a start, I realized she was talking about me.
"Um, hi, I'm Alyson." I said in a small voice. I offered my hand out shyly.
She shook it firmly. "Nice to meet you, honey, I'm Katie Jones."
"You too." I replied politely.
"So how do you two know each other?" She raised a brow at Jared, who, for reasons unbeknownst to me, went slightly pink.
"We're friends from school." he answered. I glowed with joy - so we were friends!
I didn't quite catch the expression on Katie's face.
Jared cleared his throat. "So how about something to drink?" Was it just me, or was he trying to change the subject?
"Of course, dear." she smiled roguishly. "What can I get for you two?"
"A coke, please." Jared ordered.
They both turned to look at me.
"Um, just a water, please." I looked down at the table.
"I'll just give you a minute to peruse the menu shall I?"
Katie scurried away with our drink order.
Jared opened his menu and scanned the pages.
"Man, I am starving!" he exclaimed. "They have the best food here!" He glanced up at me.
I was sitting on the edge of the seat with my hands folded into my lap. He noticed my menu sitting unopened on the corner of the table.
"Aren't you getting anything, Alyson?" he looked perplexed.
Should I tell him? Would he laugh at me? "I can't afford… I don't have any money." I said quietly, shame reddening my face. I stared down at my hands.
"Hey," Jared said softly. I felt compelled to look into his eyes. I expected to find aversion, or even pity reflected there. Instead he just looked… admonishing. "I invited you here for lunch, and that means I'm paying! And don't you dare order the cheapest thing, you get whatever you want!"
A waitress walked by our table, her arms loaded with plates of food, and the smell wafted towards me. As soon as it hit my nostrils, my stomach growled. Loudly.
I put a hand over my belly, hoping to quiet it. "Are you sure?" I asked. "I don't know if I'll be able to pay you back." I bit my lip. That food smelled really good.
"Of course I'm sure. Anything you want, Aly." I started at his casual use of my name. Only Jamie or Leon ever called me that. I really, really liked it when Jared said it.
I smiled bashfully up at him. "Okay." I grabbed the menu and opened it. Jared grinned his crooked grin, and we both studied our food options.
Everything on the menu sounded so good, and I realized how long it had been since I'd had any real food. I had difficulty choosing what I wanted, and by the time Katie got back with our drinks, I had narrowed it down to a chicken wrap or baked macaroni and cheese.
Katie set my water down on the table in front of me, and I noticed she'd stuck a lemon wedge onto my glass to fancy it up. She gave Jared his coke and then pulled out her notepad a pen.
"So what'll it be, hon?" She asked me.
"Um… which would you recommend? The wrap or the mac and cheese?" It would be easier if she made the decision for me.
"Well," she started to say.
Jared cut in. "Just get both!" he said with a smile. "We can pack up the leftovers for Jamie."
I think my heart melted into a puddle right there. I couldn't believe he would be so thoughtful.
"Okay." I nodded.
Katie turned to Jared. "Okay then. The usual for you, Jared?"
He nodded. "Can we get a couple appetizers to start? Whichever ones are easiest."
Katie smiled. "Sure thing, hon." We gave her the menus back.
"Thank-you!" I said.
She winked at me as she walked back to the kitchen. I squeezed my lemon wedge into the water, and then guzzled it back greedily. It tasted so refreshing.
Jared took a sip of his coke and then set it to the side. He rested his forearms on the table top and leaned forward. I followed suit.
"So, how did your morning go?" He asked me.
"It was okay." I replied. "I've just been really tired all day. I didn't sleep very much."
"Why not?" Jared, sounding concerned.
There was no way I was going to tell him I'd spent most of the night thinking about him and his intentions. "I just had a lot on my mind." I took another sip of my water.
"How was Jamie this morning?"
I knew instantly what he was referring to.
In my head I replayed Jamie's reaction to the tooth fairy money, and the memory of his delighted expression automatically stretched my lips into a smile.
"He was so happy!"
Jared smiled back at me, his eyes crinkled in the corners.
His brilliant smile was beginning to turn my insides to mush. I thought maybe I'd started to build an immunity to it last night, but I guess these things take time. Before I stopped speaking coherently altogether, I had to say something important.
"Um, you know I still owe you. Especially now that you're buying me all this food…" I began. "I don't really have anything to give you but…"
"I don't need you to give me anything Alyson."
"You don't? Then what do you want me to do?"
Jared threw me his trademark crooked grin. "I'm still thinking about it."
I surprised myself by saying, "It better not be something ridiculous! 'Cause I'm not running around in a chicken costume or something stupid like that."
Jared stared at me blankly, then burst out laughing.
"You really think I'd make you run around in a chicken costume?"
I guess that was kind of outrageous.
"Although… I'm trying to picture it…" He tried to hold back his laughter.
In my mind I saw myself covered in feathers, clucking and running around aimlessly. I could see how that would be funny.
Suddenly we were both busting a gut, each giggle only feeding the others laughter. We didn't stop until Katie came back to our table with our appetizers. She took away my nearly empty water glass to refill it.
"Here you go, don't hesitate to ask for anything!" She said cheerfully.
She'd brought us a basket of cheese bread and a plate of potato skins.
Jared grabbed slice of the bread and pushed the basket towards me.
"Help yourself. I ordered it for you too."
I hesitantly bit into the cheese bread. It was heaven in my mouth. I chewed slowly, savoring the taste. The food hit my stomach, and suddenly I couldn't hold back. I'd eaten two slices of the bread and several potato skins when Katie came back with more water. I chugged some of it back and paused to look at Jared.
He looked amused, and I felt slightly embarrassed for acting like such a pig. I just couldn't help myself. I was pleased to note though, that he had still eaten more than I had. I left the last piece of cheese bread in the basket, and only ate one more potato skin. I wanted to leave the rest for Jamie. Jared obviously caught on because he didn't touch the remaining food either.
"I told you it was good food!" he teased me.
I grinned. It was more than good.
Katie was back at the table, taking away the leftover food.
"Could we get that packed up?" Jared asked her.
"Sure thing, hon." And then she was gone, bustling over to another table.
Jared resumed his stance leaning over the table, and he looked at me curiously for a couple minutes.
"Do I have something on my face?" I said worriedly, bringing my hand up to my mouth.
He shook his head.
"Aly, where are your parents?"