“Hey, Levi. It’s Viki.”
I liked hearing her voice. I smiled when I heard the way she intoned her name to me. She made herself sound like sunshine.
“Hey. Did you get home all right?” NYEP ended with the last class of today, and I just got home. I hung up the keys in the mudroom and my jacket. I settled my phone in between my shoulder and my cheek as I tossed off my shoes.
“Yes, I just got home. Thanks, you’re so sweet. I called because I wanted to tell you I had so much fun tonight.”
I laughed slightly as I sat down on the cubby. “I’m glad. I had fun too.” I picked my phone back up in my hand. “What’d you think of the movie?”
I thought I picked up a fun sort of giggle. “I can’t believe I’ve never seen The King and I before. It’s so up my alley.”
“I thought so.” I entered the house, carrying my backpack on my shoulder and rolling my suitcase behind me. “I can’t believe you’ve never heard of the Rodgers and Hammerstein movies. I assumed you’ve seen The Sound of Music. That's one of my dad's all-time favorites.”
Silence. “Nope. Doesn’t sound familiar.”
I grunted to myself. “We’ve got to change that one of these days. We’ve got a whole weekend before school starts up for real; would you want to come over some time?”
“That sounds like fun! I’ll check the schedule.” She paused. “Levi, can I tell you something?”
I stopped in my tracks, right in the hall. My room was still a few feet away. Well, we had our very first date today… it seemed early for a serious talk.
“Of course,” I said, treading softly. I cocked my head to the side. “Of course. What’s up?”
“I didn’t just have fun today,” she said slowly. “Levi, I really like you. Hanging out with you today deepened those feelings that were already there. I’m hoping you feel the same way.”
I nodded before I remembered head motions don’t translate in phones. “I really do feel the same.” I shifted the phone in my hand, wondering what to say next.
Neither of us said ‘love’ yet. I didn’t think it was time. After all, it was just one date. We didn’t even label ourselves girlfriend and boyfriend yet. I didn’t want to jump in quickly and scare her, and I was sure she thought the same way. Of course we both liked each other a lot- that was a given. But we were still innocent to the dating realm, and I didn’t want anything to end so quickly, like the relationships I had seen at school. People were too desperate to have someone to call ‘baby’. I didn’t mind waiting so long as it ended up wonderful.
“So, what next?” she asked.
I frowned. “Honestly, I don’t know. It’ll take time. But I’m willing to work it out, so long as you are.”
“Wow. We’re both clueless about this.”
I laughed, and she laughed too.
“Would you like to come over for dinner tomorrow?” I offered. “We’re having lamb rack. My dad’s recipe.”
“Ooh, that sounds good! I’ll talk to my mom. I’m sure it’s all right.” I was relieved to hear that that didn’t sound so old-fashioned to her. My family was pretty set in old ways, but I liked it better that way.
“Awesome. I’ll see you then.”
She laughed. “Will do, Mister Cannon. Have a great day.”
“Sleep well, Miss D’Souza.”
I don’t know who hung up first. I looked down at my phone and smiled to myself.
I had a girlfriend.
As I started unpacking, Miles wandered into my room. “Who was dat, on da phone?” he interrogated.
I laid my sweaters on my bed in preparation to hang them in my closet. “That was Devika. She’s a girl from school that I like.” I gathered some hangers and tossed them onto my bed. “She may come over for dinner tomorrow, so you’ll meet her.”
“You like someone?” His little nose scrunched up. He tended to look more like Lissa than like me, save he had a much lighter complexion than both of us. He had curls like Lissa and bore many of her angelic features, a stark contrast to the sharp angles and square shapes of mine. “Ew.”
I raised my brow at him as I hung up my sweaters, simultaneously tossing clothes into the hamper in my closet. “One day, Miles, in the distant future, you’ll be a guy in high school. You’ll meet someone who’s just perfect and amazing, and you’ll want to ask her out.” He made a noise of defiance, but I shrugged. “That’s just life.”
“Girls are gross.”
“How many do you even know?” I was suddenly curious. I faced my little brother, my arms crossed.
Miles tried to copy me, knotting his chubby hands in front of him. “I know lots of girls. I have two friend girls and none of dem color da coloring pages right. Dey need to be grown up.” His chin stuck up proudly at his own personal achievements at daycare as he proclaimed with the utmost dignity, “Like me.”
Most of my life at home comprised of not laughing at my brother’s quotable phrases. My brow shot up as an attempt to not burst with amusement as I nodded. “Yeah, girls are immature.”
“What’s all this about girls?” Lissa poked her feminist head into my room and I regretted leaving my door open. “May I ask why girls are immature?”
I raised my head to her, my arms still crossed. “You don’t color in between the lines. Grow up.”
Lissa glared at me, then at Miles. “I most certainly do color in between the lines,” she spat. “And I happen to have a better grasp on color theory and undertones than both of you, too.” She indignantly swept back out without another word.
I shrugged it off. My family was weird and that was great. I closed my suitcase and pushed it back under my bed, then led Miles out of my room.
“Is Bika nice?” Miles asked, attempting valiantly to say her name.
“’Devika’. And yes, she’s really nice.”
We poured into the kitchen, where I found Dad getting started on dinner. He looked up at me as he washed his hands.
“Will Devika be joining us tonight? I heard you talking about her.”
I shook my head. “Not tonight, but I asked about tomorrow.” I noticed Lissa was setting the table, and she made room for a fifth. “Is someone else coming, though?”
Dad frowned at me, confused. He rolled up his sleeves. “Josh always comes over, doesn’t he?”
I paused. I had forgotten about Josh.
I forgot Josh.
I licked my lips, trying to look like I didn’t just panic, and I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, of course.”
I grabbed the forks and spoons and helped set the table. My mind was on all those days of YEP that I had dedicated to thinking of Devika, and how excited I was for our date. How I didn’t pay one thought to how Josh was doing, when he’d get back, when I’d see him again. I wasn’t desperate for my friend because I had found someone else to think about.
Well, I guess it was okay, because Josh wasn’t my life. I didn’t need to think about him, worry about him, every second of every day. Besides, it wouldn’t be fair to him. He didn’t need me to be breathing down his back. That just wasn’t right.
“Do you know where the bus would be dropping them off?” Dad asked.
I paused again. “No. Why?”
Dad looked at me with a bit of disappointment. “You told him you’d pick him up. Why am I reminding you of this?”
I stifled a sigh of annoyance. I had forgotten that, too. I handed the napkins to a very confused Lissa, and I strode over to the family room. “I’ll go get him.”
“You don’t know where he is,” Lissa called.
“I’ll find it,” I yelled back. “I’ll be back soon.”
I made my way to the mudroom, snatched up the keys and a pair of sandals, and was out the door before anyone could say anything to me.
Finding the drop-off was no problem; the bus stop was a few minutes from my house. The problem was, I thought I’d check school first, and that was the opposite direction. I wasted almost twenty minutes backtracking to my house, then driving off to the bus stop.
Mid-August was when the storm season began in Bentley’s Cape. The clouds had been rolling in since we drove back from Easton, and a light drizzle began when we got home. Now, it was close to pouring rain. The sun was gone and my only hope of seeing on the backstreets was to turn on my brights. I slowly inched down the empty avenue, on the lookout for the bus stop.
I was sorry that I had forgotten. I did feel horrible that Josh was waiting in the rain for me. But I was also extremely annoyed that I still had to do it. You know, that annoyance you get when you bomb a test, and you feel bad, but also ticked off that your parents make you take it again? I felt like that. But this was a human being – my best friend – and not a piece of paper.
It wasn’t a do-over. I still had to face him.
I finally found the bus stop with a sigh of relief. But when I looked toward the small bench under its blue sign, I didn’t see Josh. I frowned.
Where was this drop-off point again? I could’ve sworn I either heard school or bus stop.
I decided it was worth investigating. I pulled the keys out of the ignition and exited the truck, braving the rains in flip-flops. I popped my collar over my cold face as I stopped at the bench.
“Josh?” I called. “It’s Levi. I’m sorry, I know it’s late.”
Did he leave? Did he walk home? What if he gave up and went back to his own house? I wondered what would happen if his dad was awake. If he was safe. If he’d be stuck there, and not be able to escape to my house-
I whirled around to find Josh, shrouded in a shapeless hoodie, cradling something to himself. I couldn’t see what it was.
He shrugged. I couldn’t see his face, as his back was to the street light. “It’s all okay. It’s not raining that bad. But while I was waiting for you-” He pulled the thing he was cradling away from himself. “I found this bird.”
I raised my brow and strained to see. He approached me and stood in the light, and presented to me the little bird he was holding, like it was a precious possession. It was breathing with difficulty and was squeaking weakly. In my limited knowledge, it was injured.
“I found it under a tree. Its wing is broken.” He cradled it again, and gently placed it in the pocket of his drenched hoodie. “I think I can treat it.”
I nodded quickly. “Well, I hope you can, too. You okay?”
He met my eyes with a distracted, dreamy look in his eyes. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. I got something for you while I was there.”
“Show me in the car. I’m freezing.”
I ran back towards the truck and hopped in, eager for the heater. I unlocked his door and quickly started it up. Josh was pretty slow to the car, and I noticed why. He was too distracted caressing that bird, whispering to it and all that.
I groaned to myself as I tapped the steering wheel impatiently. He got in the car and just barely remembered to buckle in as we were off towards my house.
It was silent for a while, but I was still stirring through my discontent to really notice. I was hungry and wondering what Devika and I would do after dinner tomorrow. I wanted to show her The Sound of Music, and maybe if the weather let up, we could go to the park and bike around the lake. Maybe I could take her to the Cape. Maybe-
My thoughts were interrupted all of a sudden, by Josh’s quiet, pensive voice. I blinked, suddenly reminded of my surroundings. I sighed sadly at the rain. I hoped it would let up within the week.
“I got something for you.”
Whatever it was, it was soaking wet. Not one inch of Josh was still dry after waiting outside for me. No doubt his backpack was drenched too.
“Yeah? Thank you.”
I heard him rummaging through his backpack for something. I glanced over at him, and I couldn’t help a small moan. He was getting the mat wet and muddy with it.
Finally he pulled out something small. He presented it to me. We were stopped at a light, so I faced him and took it.
It was a leaf. A bold red and orange leaf. It was wet and a little torn, but the glorious sheen of autumn was still stark as ever. Bright green veins shot through its fingers from the forest green stem.
“It kind of looks like a dragon paw, I think,” Josh said, pointing out the four blades. “It’s a maple leaf. I found it when we went on a nature walk.”
I nodded slightly, then glanced up at him. He looked so satisfied with himself, and so expectant for my reply, that I couldn’t help but smile. “Thanks, Josh. I like it.”
The look in his eyes flickered, then he leaned back in his seat. The light turned green and my attention went back to the road.
“How was the YEP?”
I shrugged. “Same ol’, same ol’. Sucked not having you, though. How was the camp?”
He paused. I didn’t delve into it as I turned into our neighborhood.
I nodded. “That’s great. It worked out then, didn’t it?”
I saw him nod once in the corner of my eye.
It was silent until we pulled up the house. Josh was petting the bird in his pocket and I was planning my next dates.
We peeled off our wet sweaters and shoes in the mud room and entered the house. It was warm inside and smelled like autumn. Dad had made squash soup for dinner with garlic broccoli. It happened to be Josh’s favorite fall dinner, and I saw his face light up when he smelled it.
“Hey, Josh!” came the war cries from the kitchen.
Miles came barreling into the entry, repeating Josh’s name, and ran straight into him. Josh almost tripped over the toddler as Miles hugged his legs tightly. Josh smiled his soft, quiet smile and patted Miles on the head.
“I missed you too, Shoozy,” he said.
Lissa and Dad appeared from the kitchen as well and waited to greet him properly. While Miles begged Josh to carry him, Josh reached into his pocket and gingerly brought the bird back into the air.
Lissa gasped at the sight, her eyes wide. “Is that a real bird?” she cooed. She shuffled over to Josh and inclined her head to inspect it.
“It’s injured,” he explained. He softly folded over the moaning creature’s wing. It pipped weakly in reply, but its breathing deepened again. “The wing is all messed up.” He looked up to Dad. “May I borrow your bird book after dinner? I’ll get her all comfortable and I’ll join you. You won’t notice she’s here.”
Dad seemed a little surprised by the sight of a wild bird in his house, but ultimately nodded. “Of course. Let’s settle her in the bathroom for now.”
He and Josh hurried off to make the bird comfortable, while I stood in the entry, awfully wet, cold, and tired. I was starving, too.
Lissa looked up at me. Miles ran off to watch them bandage the bird, and it was just me and her. She cocked her head, her curls shifting dramatically.
“You don’t seem all that happy to see him,” she said plainly. She shrugged. “I clearly remember you texting me the first few nights to keep the porch light on, just in case Josh stopped by.”
I swallowed, then shrugged. “Lissa, I get concerned for him every now and again. What’s so wrong with that?” I spoke quietly. I didn’t want Josh to hear that.
She shook her head. “I don’t think your worrying is as weird as your forgetting about him. You didn’t seem all that excited when you had to leave earlier.”
I sighed. “I’m tired, okay? I just got back from YEP, I went on a date, and I just want to eat.”
“Ah.” Lissa sounded like she just realized something. “The date. You’re thinking about Viki right now, aren’t you?”
I frowned. “Not right now. I’m thinking about eating. I want the bird to be okay, but I want to eat more.”
Lissa squinted, unconvinced, at me, then turned towards the hall to the bathroom.
I didn’t appreciate her skepticism at all. I grimaced at her once her back was towards me.
For wanting the bird to be better, I didn’t care enough to flock into the guest bathroom and watch Josh and Dad make a splint for its wing. I instead fled to my room, changed into dry clothes, and snatched up some warm socks for Josh.
Commotion was made as the bird started squeaking again. I heard Dad leave the bathroom towards the library. I stood in the doorway of my room to watch him rush back to the scene, carrying a large Birds of America encyclopedia. I waited there for a few minutes, listening to my own stomach growl, until I heard Dad proudly announce, “She’s a yellow-billed cuckoo.”
Dinner started out pretty quiet, and I wasn’t all that keen on conversation starters. I stirred my soup with my lips pursed.
What was wrong with me? Before, when it was just a crush, Devika wasn’t the first thing to pop into my head. Josh would have been. But when we were separated for only two weeks, it seemed difficult to worry about him. I glanced at him across the table (Miles insisted that Josh sit next to his high chair).
He was small for a sixteen-year-old. If someone saw him they’d think, maybe twelve or thirteen. His black hair seemed even shaggier and messier now that it was wet from the rain. He was skinny and nothing seemed to fit him well.
But sitting here, eating with our family, a light returned to him. I saw it every now and again. It was like feeling safe myself, even though it was him and not me who was in danger. He was eating silently, contentedly eating.
I wondered why I was so upset. He did nothing. It wasn’t his fault that I wasn’t thinking.
Miles opened his full mouth and tapped Josh’s shoulder. “Are you excited?” he asked.
Josh cocked his head to the toddler and his brow furrowed. “About what?” He turned to me for clarification, to which I shrugged listlessly. “Is something happening?”
Lissa rested her cheek on her fist as she crunched down on a piece of bread. “No, he’s talking about Levi’s girlfriend coming over tomorrow.” She glanced at me, then to Josh. “She’ll be having dinner with us, and then she and Levi’ll have some date in the living room, I think.”
I shot her a short glare, but she didn’t back away. She raised her brow at me. Not giving her another thought, I turned to Josh. His eyes landed on me with a mix of confusion and… I couldn’t place it.
“You have a girlfriend?”
Dad looked up from his soup and seemed to be confused with me too. “I would’ve thought you heard about it in the car here,” he stated to Josh, but his eyes never left me. “Well, I’ll have to agree that it seemed rather rushed in its happening, but Devika is a wonderful girl and I’m sure you’ll like her, too. This is the first time the kids are meeting her, and if you can come, you too.”
Josh still was staring at me. He numbly picked up a piece of bread from the basket, then dipped it in his soup. “Oh. Congratulations, Levi.” He was quiet again. “I didn’t even know you liked someone.”
I hadn’t gotten a word in until that point, but now, I didn’t want to. The air was thick with confusion, disappointment, and all-around, everything was pointed towards me. I leaned back in my chair, wanting to disappear.
“Thanks, Josh. Thanks a lot.”
I didn’t even think about telling him about Devika. I was keeping thoughts about her to myself the entire drive here. I wondered if Josh had been thinking the same thing.
Lissa wasn’t all that proud of herself anymore. My face grew hot as she pulled in an awkward breath, then leaned towards Josh.
“What’re you gonna name the bird?” Her voice was dripping with fake enthusiasm.
Josh met her eyes, then looked down at his bowl. He looked lost in thought as he chewed his lip.
“Butternut,” he finally answered.
Dad gave a slight smile. “A fitting name for a yellow bill.”
Josh nodded. “I’d think so.” His head lifted happily and he grinned at everyone- excepting me. “And I just want to remember that, no matter what happens, I’ll have memories of little things- like the bird, the soup, and you guys.” Lissa smiled widely and gave him a high-five, then hugged him from the side.
I swallowed back the storm clouds that were broiling in me and made myself smile, just like everybody else.
Hurray for the little things. Hurray for Josh for lightening the mood. Hurray for Josh for not holding grudges against me. Hurray, hurray, hurray.
I thought I would have been excited to see him again. I really wanted to be. I really, really wanted to have remembered to pick him up, to tell him about my time, and listen to his. But I didn’t. I wasn’t.
I wanted this moment to end with a fiery passion.
I notice that Levi's sentiments seem to be moving quickly. I will hopefully smooth out the rising conflict in later drafts. I meant to have a little more on Levi and Devika's growing relationship, but it did not come to mind while writing this chapter, and when I went back to add parts, it was already a very long chapter and I couldn't find a place to add anything. I will revise this once the novel is finished.
Thank you for reading! It means so much.