Instead of going home for Thanksgiving, I spent it on campus, working on projects for the science department. Somehow I managed to plant and nurture just the right relationships with peers and professors alike to become a trusted pupil of the department. Nathaniel and Ana were not thrilled about my campus break stay.
Nathaniel: Wooooow where do your allegiances lie!?!!?!!
Ana: I second the alien!!!!!!!
Me: Come out here
Nathaniel: Oh yeah, lemme just get the keys of dads porsche and we’ll be there in a cold minute. Ready Ana?
Me: Dramatic much?
Nathaniel: Even Alex made it home!!!!
Me: Christmas is three weeks away. I’ll be there for so long, you’ll want me gone
Before any of us knew it, finals came and they went, and I stood in the parking lot, saying my farewells to Elliot and a group of science majors.
I saw Alex in the corner of my eye, but chose to ignore him. We had gotten into the habit of making slights at each other whenever random run-ins happened around campus, and in the weeks leading up to break, our random encounters became ever more frequent and sometimes in the unlikeliest of places—one time at a poetry slam I attended with the poetry club, one time when he had a tutoring session for math at the center even though I thought math was his strongest subject, one time at a vintage tea house a few blocks away from school where I normally sat among the elderly, and a whole host of other encounters. Because I didn’t want to add to them, I purposely avoided drawing his attention over to our group.
As he walked by us in the distance, however, he hollered over, “Don’t worry, Rea.” All of us turned to look at him. “There’s plenty of time left for you to get lucky next semester.”
My eyes widened to maximum width as I watched him walk away, leaving me to Elliot and the rest of the group.
“I…” I stuttered. “Uhm… he… see you guys next year!”
I scurried off, my cheeks flaming. I didn’t bother to care about how ridiculous I looked, rushing away, I just didn’t want to be standing in front of the group, and especially not in front of Elliot. I shook my head as I ran, aware of how childish I looked and sounded to him.
Once I was hidden away in the comfort of my car, I sighed in relief as the door closed beside me, glad to be headed home to Nathaniel and Ana, Mom and Dad, and Grandpa. Anywhere away from the embarrassment left with Elliot was a good place to be. I threw my head back on the head rest and shut my eyes in dread.
My eyes flew open at the sound of the closed door, and I turned to the right of me to find Alex slumped in the passenger’s seat, his eyes shut.
“What are you doing?” I asked him sharply.
“So loud,” he groaned, turning in his seat and curling up against the window. “Make sure the rest of the drive is much quieter than this.”
I gawked at him, blinking in confusion. Several seconds of silence passed before Alex turned around to look at me, my mouth ajar, perplexed.
“I tip well,” he said. “I’d rate you at least three stars.” He closed his eyes once more, readjusting himself in the seat and crossing his arms against his chest. “Drive, please.”
Speechless and unamused by his joke, I didn’t say a word. He, however, had a lot left to say.
“I don’t know if I can guarantee you three stars now, considering we haven’t moved from this spot for several minutes.”
“Get out,” I said to him firmly, pushing at his left arm.
He only turned his back to me and continued to groan.
“Alex, get out,” I continued to push.
Unfazed, he mumbled, “Two stars.”
The audacity he had to act as if he hadn’t just embarrassed me in front of Elliot and everyone in my department. Furious, I stepped out of the car and made my way around it to the passenger’s side. I opened the door to meet his closed eyes and curled up body, and wrapped both hands around his left bicep and pulled. Unfortunately, he was a giant and I couldn’t move him an inch.
“Fine,” he finally shook me off of him. “I’ll drive.”
He awkwardly maneuvered his massive body across the passenger’s seat, reaching over to adjust the driver’s seat as he went, and somehow positioned himself comfortably in it.
I watched, marveled at what I just witnessed.
“Are you getting in or not?” he asked me casually. “I’m no cheap ride, Ms. Reagan. I charge by the second.”
“I am going to kill you, Alex Everett,” I said through gritted teeth.
“You know,” said Alex, “they warned me this line of work could be dangerous.” My gawk made its return to my face at his antics. “Sorry, ma’am. Time’s up. I’m off.”
He started the car then and put it into drive.
“Alex!” I screeched, grabbing at the opened passenger’s side door.
“Yes?” he stepped on the brakes and turned to look at me through the door.
I glared at his gleaming eyes.
“I hate you so much,” I hissed at him as I climbed into the car next to him and shut the door beside me.
Two hours of the five hour drive home was spent in silence as I worked to suppress my anger. Multiple times over, I inhaled deeply, then exhaled. Yet, Alex remained unbothered by his treatment of me.
“I can be an ass sometimes,” he finally broke the silence when we neared the halfway mark home.
I turned to glare at him and his true statement.
“Is that your apology?”
“Yes,” he answered.
I huffed and turned away, crossing my arms.
He was half looking at the road ahead and half looking at me, but I ignored him. He let me go for a few minutes longer before pulling over at a gas station and opening my door to tell me to get out.
“Do I really have to make a scene and carry you out of this car, Reagan?” I turned to meet his gaze, only inches away from mine, his body hovering over the door frame.
“Yes, Alexander,” I answered him resolutely, but when he started to reach over for my seat belt, I shook him off of me and stepped out of the car myself.
I followed him inside and made straight to peruse the candy aisle when Alex came up beside me and dragged me over to the diner attached to the gas station, plopping me into a seat at one of the tables. I looked up at him as he sat himself down across from me, my face scrunched.
“You are clearly unstable.”
“I learned it from you.”
“And now the student is master.”
“I had an extraordinary teacher.”
Just as I opened my mouth to retaliate, a waitress appeared at our side.
“Hi, Deb,” Alex greeted her warmly.
“Hello, dear,” she responded with the same warmth.
Surprised by their familiarity, the wind on my flame vanished as I watched him interact with the plump, rosy cheeked woman before us who wore an apron around her waist, a pencil behind her ear, and a notepad in hand.
“What can I get you, darlings?” she asked.
“Two Hardy Specials,” ordered Alex.
“What if I want something different?” I interjected.
“No,” he answered promptly.
I eyed him oddly as the cherubic waitress chuckled.
“Two Hardy Specials coming up,” she announced, dismissing my question along with Alex.
My eyes followed her in confusion as she moved to place our orders and went back to Alex after she disappeared through swinging double doors.
“You’re weird,” I declared. He only smiled. “Do you,” I started, “come here often?”
He answered calmly.
“Every time I make the drive home.” I stared at him and nodded slowly at the new information. “And whenever days got hard,” he continued. “I was here a lot.”
The quiet that overtook his demeanor quieted me the same. Alex was an infuriating being, so out of touch with his humanity, he was cruel sometimes, and yet, so in tune with his humanity, he was vulnerable often, all at the same time. I walked this fine balance of resenting him intensely and caring for him deeply.
When The Hardy Special made its way to the table, it was tastier than I anticipated. We left the diner full, and though the car ride home was finished mostly in silence, we managed conversations about current issues and trees. I didn’t see him for a week after until I walked into the living room and found him sitting with Grandpa
“Hello, Lay,” Alex greeted me with a smirk.
I glared at him, mimicking Grandpa’s name for me.
“You are rude,” I shot at him.
“How?” he challenged me. “I’m fairly certain that’s the name given you by your grandfather. Right, Gramps?” Alex turned to ask him.
Grandpa smiled at him widely and nodded. I only sighed because Grandpa’s allegiance would always be to Alex.
“Grandpa, are you hungry?” I asked him, ignoring Alex.
“We already ate dinner, thank you very much,” Alex answered for him. “Waiting for you in your turtle pace would’ve aged us a century.”
I wanted to counter, but Nathaniel and Ana entered the room at that moment. I must’ve missed Nathaniel morphing into some cool, grown high school boy, because he did one of those handshake hugs with Alex, and Ana, a fawn transfixed by a buck, went in for a long embrace with Alex, holding on for seconds longer than she should have. I gawked at my siblings and their response to Alex, wondering where it came from. I studied him in his black vest he wore over a white hoodie, black jeans, and really expensive looking shoes. He only looked cool.
“I’ll be back,” I announced to the room. “I’m going for a run and stopping by the store after.” I turned to address Grandpa next. “If you need anything from the store, Grandpa,” I said, “tell Nathaniel or Ana and they’ll let me know.”
Grandpa nodded, and I turned around to leave.
I spent most of my break doing a whole lot of nothing. Academics never really came difficult to me, so when I figured out a rhythm and the structure of college, it became smooth sailing from there. I didn’t realize, however, how draining it had been on my body until I found myself sleeping in every day of my first week back and didn’t push myself to do much more than eat and lounge in different parts of the house.
“Still a slug,” Alex’s voice broke the concentration in my run.
I turned to look at him, keeping pace with me in my run, and slowed to a stop.
“What,” I panted, resting both hands on my hips, trying to regulate my breathing, “are you doing?”
“I’m on a run, obviously.”
I looked him up and down in his snazzy outfit and huffed.
“The sun is going down,” he stated. “Aren’t you scared?”
“Of peace and silence?” I answered, my breath finally stabilizing. “No.”
“Wanna see something?” he asked me.
I eyed him suspiciously.
He grabbed a hold of the pocket of my mustard hoodie and started walking.
I shook myself free, but he kept on walking.
“Stop pretending like you’re not curious,” he called after me.
I watched him continue walking and reluctantly followed behind. We ended up at the football field of our old high school, the sun dipping in the horizon before us and the night settling in. I chided him for bringing us pointlessly to familiar territory, and turned the flashlight of my phone on.
“Thanks,” said Alex, swiping my phone from me as he continued prodding around in the dark.
I followed behind, unnerved by the black of the night and no phone in my possession. Seconds later, the door to the track, surrounding the field, creaked open.
“How do you have the keys to the track?” I asked Alex.
“When you’re a star, you stay one,” he answered.
I rolled my eyes from behind him as I followed him in, shutting the door behind me.
“This is pointless,” I nagged from behind him, “considering the track can’t be enjoyed with the flashlight of my phone.”
The moment I finished my sentence, bright lights illuminated the field from every corner of the outdoor stadium. I stood in awe at the sight before me, everything as it once was, a warmth settling in me, even as the cold of the air made itself known.
“You’re not allowed to do this, are you?” I asked Alex.
“I’m doing it, aren’t it?”
I rolled my eyes at him and made my way onto the track.
“It’s strange being back,” I said into the open air. “Especially after experiencing a world outside of this.”
Alex climbed onto the bleachers nearby and sat. I turned to look at him, quietly taking in the sight of the field for himself, and couldn’t take my eyes off of the look of longing that covered his face. Something about it made me ache as much as he did in the still of the moment.
“What?” he finally turned to look at me.
“You remind me of someone,” I answered him.
“The prodigal son.”
“He makes his way back home, right?”
Neither of us flinched, our eyes locked and the faintest puffs of white escaping our measured breaths.
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