Collateral damage, p.12
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       Collateral Damage, p.12

           Katie Klein
 
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  A bag of Sun Chips lands on the table in front of me with a thwack.

  "Sorry. I was kind of distracted at lunch," Jaden says, shrugging.

  "No one asked you to keep bringing me food," I point out.

  "That doesn't keep you from taking it."

  Touché.

  She pulls out the chair beside me, and I get a whiff of her perfume—that signature floral that defines her hair, her face, her body. And immediately I'm back in her room, sitting on the edge of her bed. In her car. Passing her in the hallway. It takes every ounce of strength—all of my willpower and determination—not to move closer to her, to breathe her in, to tell her how amazing she smells. How those flowers are like kryptonite, leaving me weak in the knees and lacking in self-control.

  "Besides, I thought you liked Sun Chips," she continues.

  "I do."

  "They're better for you than regular potato chips."

  My experience with junk food is limited to what I purchased from snack machines or ate at friends' houses growing up. My mom, though not exactly a "health nut," still managed to make sure my sister and I snacked on decent fare. My dad, on the other hand, was raised further South, where Cokes and Moon Pies were after-school staples. "My dad's not a big fan of either. He's more of a pork rind kind of guy."

  Her nose wrinkles. "Ew."

  "Tell me about it."

  "He should let you do the shopping," she suggests.

  "I do the shopping. Pepsi, potted meat, bread, beanie weenies, and pork rinds times fourteen...every week."

  Almost true.

  My dad was the exception to Mom's rules, and this is his list. And though I'd never eat potted meats, I remember the first time he made me a bowl of beanie weenies. I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven.

  "Ew," she repeats.

  "Sometimes I get lucky and we have a real meal...like Hot Pockets."

  "Parker, that's not a real meal."

  "That's what happens when two bachelors live together," I tease.

  "Two bachelors, huh? Remind me to stay away from your bathroom," she mutters.

  I nudge my knee against hers. It's like I can't get close enough to this girl—can't spend enough time with her. "I'm just trying to make you feel sorry for me. Is it working?"

  Her eyes roll dramatically. "Yes, I feel completely sorry for you."

  I lean back in my chair, satisfied, even if she is being sarcastic. "Good. So how are we going to divide up these papers?"

  She unzips her bag, removes her notebook and a pen. "Well, we have to do a summary, bio on the author, three character analyses, three themes, and an oral analysis on what we learned," she says, reading the list on our requirements sheet. "Aren't you so glad you have me as your partner to help out?"

  There's a smile in her voice.

  Is she flirting with me?

  "Of course, because God knows I can't complete a project without you," I reply.

  She laughs, her eyes shining. Bright. Happy. And I can't help but think this is exactly when I would've pulled out that copy of Ethan Frome. I would've slid it across the table. She would've acted confused, at first. Then she would've refused—saying there's no way she could possibly accept it. But I would've convinced her, and she would've taken it. She would've loved it.

  "Be serious," she says, punching me playfully in the arm. "You need me."

  Unfortunately, that's when the library door swings wide, when Blake Hanson enters. I sit up, caught, and even Jaden notices the shift in atmosphere.

  "What?" she asks.

  I clear my throat, tilt my head toward the door, motioning.

  "Jaden?"

  Her face pales at the sound of his voice, the color draining from her cheeks, her expression running cold. Whatever was going on—whatever was happening between us—is over.

  He strolls toward us, frowning. "What's going on? I waited for you in the parking lot," he says, thumb pointing to the door, accusation woven in his tone.

  We're working on a project, asshole.

  "I'm sorry. I, um...I thought you had practice." Jade's voice wavers as she speaks the words. I watch her, surprised at the guilt, the uncertainty in them. How quickly she closed up on me. I don't like this Jaden. This insecure Jaden. This unsure of anything Jaden. I want the Jaden who laughs. Who relaxes. Who sits in her car, talking to me until curfew. Who isn't afraid to climb on the back of motorcycles. My motorcycle.

  I think I hate Blake Hanson.

  "Season's over, remember?"

  "Yeah, of course," she says, nodding. "You can sit down if you want." She tries to smile, but it's hard. Forced. The light doesn't reach her eyes. "We're just trying to divide up these assignments, you know, for our English project. We're almost done." She stiffens beside me, pulling away, distancing herself. She clears her throat and must realize that Blake and I haven't properly met, because then says: "Oh. Parker, this is Blake. Blake, this is Parker."

  Like I want to be introduced to this loser, this guy who just took my English partner away from me.

  "What's up?" Blake asks.

  "Not much," I reply.

  Just sitting here, thinking what a colossal douchebag you are.

  "So, what did you decide to do your project on again?" he asks, glaring at me with empty gray eyes. A cold, hard stare. Challenging.

  I glare back. "Ethan Frome. You?"

  "Animal Farm," he answers.

  "Good choice."

  "Yeah. Since we read it in tenth, we figured it would be a piece of cake."

  Wow. That's not predictable at all. Doing a project on a book he's already read?

  "So, um, topics," Jaden interjects, changing the subject. She tucks her dark hair behind her ears, studies the project sheet, lips pursed. This is awkward enough for her. No need to make it worse.

  Blake Hanson isn't worth it.

  "Do you want the summary or the author bio?" I ask.

  "I'll take either."

  "How about I do the summary and you write about the author?"

  "Sounds good," she agrees, stealing a quick glance at Blake before writing the note on paper.

  What the hell?

  Is she really going to sit here and let him make her this nervous? We're working on a project.

  "Who should our characters be?" she asks.

  "There are really only three major characters: Zeena, Mattie, and Ethan. And not to be pushy, but I want Ethan."

  "That's fine. If you don't mind doing two of the themes, then I'll take care of Zeena and Mattie."

  "That works. What themes did we decide on?"

  Blake sits quietly, watching us like some kind of bird of prey. Beady eyes assessing, waiting for us to finish.

  She wouldn't have told him about meeting up at Guido's—would she? She wouldn't have said anything about the motorcycle.

  It's too crowded at this table. Too hot in this room.

  Jaden pours every ounce of attention into her notes, the lines in her forehead furrowing as she concentrates. "I like the idea of winter...and isolation. I mean, I know it was yours, but since I really don't like it—um, winter, I mean—I kind of feel like I relate to Ethan in that way."

  "No, it's fine," I assure her. "You can have winter. I'll take something else we talked about, like love, or jealousy or something."

  Blake laughs. It's a quiet laugh—subdued—but something I said obviously strikes him as hilarious.

  "Is there a problem, Hanson?" I demand to know.

  "Not at all," he replies, leaning his chair back on two legs, crossing his arms over his chest like the cocky asshole he is.

  "Okay, because for a minute there I thought you were in on some little joke I missed or something."

  "No." Blake eases his chair back to the floor. "I just wondered why you would want to write an essay on love."

  "It's an important part of the story, Blake," Jaden explains.

  He smiles at her—this infuriatingly condescending smile that makes me want to jump across the table and crush my fist against
his nose. "It's just not a guy topic, that's all."

  "Are you implying something?" I ask. "Because if you are say it to my face, asshole."

  The librarian shushes us from across the room. "Once more and I'm asking you to leave," she warns.

  Jaden apologizes. "Guys, stop it, all right? Blake, we're almost finished here. Two minutes," she says, keeping her voice low.

  Blake stands, still giggling like the little girl he is. "Fine. I'll be in Non-Fiction."

  "Nice guy," I tell her, watching him disappear between shelves. "I hope he doesn't get lost."

  "I am so sorry," she whispers, pressing fingers into the corners of her eyes. "I don't know what's gotten into him."

  "I have a theory or two," I mutter.

  "I know."

  I glance at her, surprised. And I wonder what theory she's alluding to: that we're partners and he's jealous, or that something is happening between us—something that makes us more than just partners...and he's jealous. Either way, Blake is jealous. But there's a difference between the two, and I wonder if his bitterness is unfounded. Because if it isn't...this might change everything. And now I want to know if she feels that "something," too. I want to know what she's thinking—what she's feeling at this very moment.

  I want to know if Blake Hanson has a reason to be jealous.

  I swallow hard, forcing the thought away. "Anyway, it's fine. I don't want to keep you. Are we good on our topics?"

  She bites into that lower lip of hers and nods. "Yeah, I mean, if something changes I'll let you know." And as she crams her notebook into her bag, I wonder what would've happened had Blake not arrived when he did. Would she be ready to leave? Or would we still be sitting here, joking and laughing and talking about Ethan and Mattie and how miserable they were—how everything conspired to work against them.

  How life always seems to get in the way.

  She tosses her bookbag over her shoulder and stands, so I do the same. And, as she moves, I smell that perfume again. I feel her arms wrapped around my chest, body pressed to mine. And as wrong as it is—as wrong wrong wrong as this is—I can't help myself. I can't stop. It's like someone else, easing closer to her, lowering my mouth to her ear, whispering the words: "If I meet you at your third floor window tonight, will you let me in?"

  "What?"

  "You said you can get to your third floor by climbing the oak tree to the second floor roof, right?"

  "Yeah, but..."

  "So if I knock on the attic window tonight, will you let me in?"

  She pulls away from me, studies my eyes, almost anxious. But she must see something in them. Something is there. Because she says yes. I can't believe she says yes.

  "What time?" I ask.

  "It would have to be late," she whispers, glancing at the librarian working the circulation desk. "Midnight, even. And you can't park your motorcycle at the house. You'll have to walk down the road."

  "That's fine. I'll do it."

  "Why are you doing this?" she asks, point blank.

  Why am I doing this? Why am I doing this when I already have a life? When I have a job to do? When I have a freaking fiancée who's planning my wedding as we speak?

  Shit. I have no fucking idea why I'm doing this.

  I heave a frustrated sigh. "Because...I don't know. I want to spend more time with you...outside of school, and this project, and...." I glance toward Non-Fiction, making sure we're still alone, then find her eyes again. "Other people."

  "I could get in so much trouble."

  I know. And this is what keeps me going. This is what keeps me hopeful. I know this girl. As wrong as this might be, she never would've said yes if she didn't want to meet me. "I won't get you in trouble," I promise. "Cross my heart." I draw an X across my chest with my finger.

  She smiles—the first real smile I've seen since Hanson arrived. "No one has crossed their heart since fourth grade," she says, rolling her eyes.

  "You want a blood oath? A vile of my DNA to wear around your neck?" I ask. She laughs, color rising to her cheeks. "You better go. Don't want to keep Mr. Perfect waiting."

  She heads to Non-Fiction to find Blake. I watch the two of them move toward the exit. I watch him open the door for her. I watch her disappear into the hallway. I watch him turn on his way out, casting a final, warning glare in my direction.

  You mean nothing to me, Hanson.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  Instead of working on a math set, I study my story—the notes written under Chief Anderson's supervision. Already I struggle to remember what I told Jaden the night we sat in her car. About me. My life. My family. I'm afraid if it comes up again I'll say the wrong thing. I'll screw up. I'm afraid I've already screwed up. The girl is smart. Sharp. She'll remember everything I've ever said. She'll catch me in a lie in a second.

  I toss my notes aside.

  As bad as I want this, I can't take any chances. I can't risk it. One mistake—one misstep—and my cover's blown. My freaking job is on the line.

  But when the assignment is over, I'll come clean. I swear I will. Whatever happens—wherever I am—I'll explain everything. Even if.... I check my cell phone. It's almost time to call Callie.

  Callie.

  Shit.

  And the realization dawns: I'm planning to sneak over to another girl's house tonight. A girl who isn't even my girlfriend—who could never be my girlfriend—and for what? Because I want to spend more time with her?

  What the hell is my problem?

  I dial Callie's number. She answers on the fourth ring. "You're early," she replies, surprised.

  "I know. I was...ready to call, I guess."

  I am a liar. I'm a liar and an asshole.

  "How was your day?"

  I finger those notecards, pushing them into a neater pile. "Um...okay, I guess."

  "That's it? Just okay?" she teases.

  I sit straighter, switching my phone to the other ear. "Callie, why do you want to marry me?" I blurt out.

  She laughs. "What?"

  "Why do you want to marry me?"

  "What is this? I don't understand. Where is this coming from?" she asks.

  "It's an honest question. I'm serious, Cal."

  She hesitates, taken back by the direction this conversation is heading. But I need to know. I need to know why this happened—if this is as good as it gets. If this is what "meant to be" feels like—if this is how it was supposed to be from the beginning.

  "Okay, um, I love you, obviously. We've been through a lot together. I mean, I know we met when we were in high school, and you should know that I never really bought into the whole 'high school sweethearts' thing, but...I don't know. I always felt that what we had was real. That it would last no matter what. I can't see myself waking up next to anyone else. I know we're still young, but I found you, you know? I don't want to wait to be together forever."

  I lean back, falling against the cushions, and rub my eyes with my fingers.

  Shit.

  I can't go to Jaden's. This whole thing...it's stupid. I can't believe I actually suggested.... That I thought....

  "You still here?" Callie asks.

  "Yeah," I reply, swallowing hard. "I'm sorry, Cal. I'm sorry I'm such a pain in the ass."

  She laughs, but I'm serious. I can't ruin this. I can't ruin what we have together. I can't risk screwing up this assignment. I can't risk losing my job. I have to get it together—start thinking.

  I grab the notecards and toss them onto the coffee table, then settle onto the couch as Callie talks wedding colors.

  Green.

  She picked green.

  * * *

  My leg shakes. It won't stop bouncing.

  I'm not going. I can't go to her house. I'll get caught, then she will be screwed and I will be screwed. It's not worth it. It's not worth screwing with Callie. It's not worth screwing with my job....

  But I promised. She'll be waiting for me. She'll wonder what happened to me—why I didn't show.

  I watc
h the time on my cell phone, my laptop, the microwave, slip closer to 11:30. That's when I'd have to leave—no later than 11:30.

  11:28.

  I could tell her my dad was home—that he was in one of his moods. She'll understand.

  I don't have to tell her anything at all. I could stand her up. She'll hate that—she'll hate herself for believing me, then I won't have to worry about her anymore.

  11:29.

  But I don't want her to hate me. I want to see her.

  Callie trusts me.

  Whatever is going on between Jaden and me—it's nothing. Nothing.

  11:30.

  I exhale relief.

  Good. It's settled. I'm not going.

  I click the email icon on my home page. No new messages. I read one of the headlines. When I glance back at the time, it's still 11:30.

  My heart thumps loudly, beating in my ears. I slide my palms across my jeans. And, when I close my eyes, she smiles at me. I hear her laugh. I see her gaze at me from beneath those long lashes, green eyes sparkling.

  It's still 11:30.

  "Dammit," I mutter, tossing my laptop aside. I grab my keys, my helmet, turn off the light, and pull the door shut behind me.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  I park four blocks from Jaden's street and head down the sidewalk, trying to keep to shadows. It sucks how well lit everything is around here. I wait for one of the neighborhood watch ladies to come running out her front door, demanding I leave. But everything is quiet. Even the houses are asleep—lights out and shades drawn.

  It takes forever to reach Jaden's, but when I see her house, my heart lifts, squeezing out an extra beat. My eyes zigzag across the street and up the street and back again as I move down the fence that lines her property. The old oak tree towers above me.

  "I didn't exactly think this through," I mumble, half under my breath.

  I circle the tree. A low branch hangs on the east side. I jump, grasping it. The muscles in my arms tighten, tensing as I haul myself up. I pause to catch my breath, legs dangling, sweat prickling at the small of my back.

  Shit. When was the last time I climbed a tree?

  I lift my head toward the canopy. The branches are fairly close together from this point on. The hard part is over. I blow out a quick breath and rise, climbing to the next branch, and then the next, until I'm parallel to the second floor. I untie my boots and toss them gently to the roof. They land with a thud louder than I expect.

 
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