Soon, we stood at the edge of the hill, behind the house. Down at the bottom was a huge pond, entirely surrounded by a boardwalk. “Want to take a walk around the pond?” Sarah asked.
“Sure,” I said. She led me to a long, stone stairway built into the hill that went all the way to the bottom. We descended in silence, and I was kicking myself for not be able to think of something to say. I never lost my balls around girls! Why should Sarah be any different?
Oh, right. Because I’m crazy about her, I remembered.
Finally, when we had started around the boardwalk, she said, “I was going to say we could go up to my room, but… it’s sort of a mess. Between school and work, I hardly have time for chores.”
“Where do you work?” I asked.
“The animal shelter,” she said. “I mostly just give the animals baths, clean out the pens, and walk the dogs.”
“Sounds like a dirty job.”
She smiled. “Usually. But the world needs people who are willing to do the dirty jobs.”
I glanced at her and looked forward again. “You know something, Sarah… You’re probably the most kindhearted person I know.”
She was quiet for a moment. “Really?”
“Yeah. Just the way you’re always thinking about other people, how you’re nice to everyone, even the real jerks…” She laughed softly. “And you don’t even have some ulterior motive for doing it, like how some girls act like your best friend just so they can take advantage of you. It’s just the way you are.”
I glanced at her again. She seemed surprised by what I was saying.
“I think that’s what I’ve always really liked about you. You’re so kind, and you’re not a fake.”
For a while, it appeared she was trying to comprehend what I had said. Then she told me, “No one’s ever said anything like that to me before.” She smiled at me. “Thanks.”
I shrugged. “Just speaking my mind.”
We walked on quietly until I finally mustered the courage to say, “Hey. There’s something I want to ask you.”
“Well… We’ve been in school together for twelve years now, and I never thought you knew I existed. So… What made you talk to me?”
“Of course I knew you existed,” she said. “I mean… I’ve always thought you were… interesting. Different, I mean. I guess with graduation coming up so fast, everyone about to go their separate ways… Well, I’m staying here to go to college in Arlington, but after that, I’ll be traveling with my parents. And I had no idea what your plans were… So, I just thought it might be the last chance I’d have to get to know you.”
I looked at her, about to speak, but I stopped. Damn, she was beautiful! I loved the way her skin absorbed the moonlight and the way the water reflected in her eyes. It may sound like sappy poetry, but it was true. Then I remembered what I was going to say.
“Wanna know a secret?”
She smiled and nodded.
I sighed. “I’ve had a crush on you since seventh grade.”
She laughed. “Really?”
“I had a feeling you’d laugh at me.”
“No, I’m not laughing at you, it’s…” She paused, biting her lip. “I have a secret, too.”
“I’ve had a crush on you since fourth grade.”
We both couldn’t help but laugh. “You have to be kidding,” I said, stopping and leaning against the rail.
She smiled and looked down at the boards. “Do you remember that day at recess, I was trying to build a sand castle, and those boys kept running through the sandbox and knocking it over?”
“Oh man, I do!”
“Yeah! And you came up, and I still remember exactly what you said.”
I shook my head. “‘You guys stop knocking over her castle unless you wanna find out what sand tastes like.'” I grinned. “I was such a little badass.”
“You were my hero! I doodled ‘I “heart” Jake Grinley’ in my yearbook next to your picture that year.”
“Okay, now you’re making stuff up.”
“I’m not! I have all my yearbooks in my room if you want proof,” she said, pointing back at the house.
I shook my head again, smiling. “Why didn’t you talk to me then?”
“No way. All you boys still thought girls were gross. I wasn’t going to risk it.”
I chuckled. “You know, you were the first girl I had a crush on when girls stopped being gross.”
She blushed and looked down. Once again, I was captivated by her beauty. I didn’t even want to blink because I didn’t want to miss a moment of it.
“What is it?” she asked, realizing I was staring at her.
“Nothing,” I said immediately, but I knew it wasn’t convincing.
“Something,” she pried knowingly.
“It can’t be worse than my pathetic ‘I “heart” Jake Grinley’ yearbook…”
I laughed. “Okay, okay. I was just thinking…”
I looked at her again and trailed off. What was I just thinking? Oh, yeah.
“You’re so… beautiful.”
She looked into my eyes, like she was trying to figure out if I was bullshitting. Then a smile slowly formed on her lips. “You really think that?”
There was that Hollywood starlet smile I loved. “Thank you.” After a moment, her face fell. “It’s different.”
“‘Beautiful,'” she said. “Kelly’s always telling me I’m ‘hot’ or ‘sexy,’ but… never ‘beautiful.’ Or even ‘pretty.'”
“Well, there’s an easy explanation for that,” I told her seriously.
“Kelly’s a world-class jerk.”
It took her a moment, but eventually she laughed. “That’s a very blunt way of putting it…”
“I know, but ‘He’s a rather unpleasant person’ just didn’t seem to make it,” I explained, putting my hand on the small of her back and leading her farther along the boardwalk.
As we walked and talked, I kept feeling the back of her hand brush the back of mine. I knew it was because the boardwalk was only about as wide as your average sidewalk, so it was impossible not to bump into each other. But then I started thinking about what she said about graduation coming up, going our separate ways, last chances and all that. So, when conversation waned and we were walking in one of those comfortable silences, listening to the water lapping, the crickets chirping, and the sounds of the party in the distance, I reached over and laced my fingers with hers. I expected her to pull away, or at least not respond, but she just held my hand and we kept walking. It felt awesome.
“Are you okay?” she asked suddenly. “You look really frustrated.”
“Um… Yeah, I just have some things on my mind.” I lifted my head and tried to relax. It didn’t work.
“What is it?”
I let out a breath and stopped. “Look… We’re friends, right?”
“And friends have to take care of each other.”
“Even if…” I tried to think of a way to say it. “Even if it means one has to tell the other something that will hurt them.”
“I suppose so… What are you getting at?”
I couldn’t say it. I had to think of how to go about it. I leaned back against the rail and took out a cigarette, put it between my lips, and got out my lighter. But when Sarah jumped up and sat on the rail next to me, I thought better of it and put the cigarette behind my ear.
“Sorry. It’s a habit. I don’t even realize I’m doing it.”
“It doesn’t bother me. You can smoke,” she said.
I thought about it, then I went ahead and lit up. I blew the smoke away from her. “It gets to be automatic after a while,” I told her. “After you eat, before you go to bed, when you’re driving, when you’re relaxing, when you’re nervous…”
After sex… but let’s not mention that one.
“How long have you been smoking?”
“Since I was thirteen.”
Her eyes widened. “Thirteen?”
I laughed a little. “Took it up as a means of rebellion. Smoking is something my stepfather absolutely despises.” I took a deep drag and held it, then tilted my head back and blew it up into the sky. My head began to swim and every muscle in my body relaxed. I closed my eyes and smiled. “Feels fucking great, too.” She giggled, but I caught myself. “I’m sorry. I try not to swear when I’m talking to girls.” I flicked ashes into the water and put the cigarette in my mouth.
I was thinking about how to tell her about Kelly and Stacy, but suddenly, I got a better idea. Why not let the word get out around school? Sarah would surely break up with him when she heard about it. Kelly wasn’t a guy who got dumped, since he was obviously such a catch, but that reputation would go flying out the window with both middle fingers in the air. And Stacy… Well, Stacy’s reputation wouldn’t change much.
“Grin?” Sarah said, interrupting my train of thought. “What is it you wanted to tell me?”
I sighed out a breath of smoke and tossed the cigarette into the water. “Just that… I never thought I’d be jealous of a guy like Kelly. So… Thanks for that.”
She laughed a little and I thought, Damn, if she doesn’t stop blushing and smiling like that, I might just have to get down on one knee right here, right now.
Instead, I just said, “Now, how about we go back and enjoy your party?”
I helped her down off the rail and we walked toward the house hand in hand.