Opposite of Always(9)

“Come on,” Kate says, standing up.

“You know these people?” I ask.

“Just come on.”

I follow her inside to the kitchen. Last night’s party remnants—plastic cups, stomped-on cheese curls, random wrappers—are strewn everywhere. A girl is slumped in a chair, her blue-blond hair untamed, a bowl of cereal on the table in front of her. A lanky kid with plastic black specs has his face almost inside his bowl. They look up at us.

“Who are you?” the girl asks, midslurp, not like she’s alarmed, but amused.

“We’re starving,” Kate says, reaching for the box of cereal. “It’s cool?”

“It’s cool,” the lanky kid says, wiping away a milk mustache. “Cap’n Crunch for all.”

Two bowls and two spoons magically appear before us, and I think to myself, Where did this Kate come from? And how can I keep her around?

After our cereal, we wind up in a car that Kate says belongs to her roommate. Only we don’t actually drive anywhere. Instead, we sit in the lot, taking turns playing music from our phones’ playlists. She thinks my obsession with nineties hip-hop is cute, and she plays me a lot of stuff that I’ve never heard of. That I’m guessing no one has ever heard of. But I love almost all of it.

“You’re weird,” she says.

“Uh, thanks,” I say, laughing. “Appreciate that.”

“In a good way, silly. You’re likably weird.”

“Likable is good.”

“Likable is very good, Jack Attack.”

And somehow, suddenly, the music is even better.

“So, where do you see yourself in ten years?” I ask her, watching her scroll up and down for the next track. “Like, where do you want to be, and what do you want to be doing?”

“Man, you’re obsessed with the future,” she says.

“Lemme guess, you’re one of those people who hates planning? You’d rather live all spontaneous and mysteriously?”

I say this jokingly, in the same spirit that she and I have batted jokes back and forth all night, only this one never makes it over the net.

Kate turns off the car, tugs her door handle. “I need some air.”

“Hey, I didn’t mean to . . .” But she’s already outside, sitting on the rear bumper. I join her. “You okay?”

“It’s wild, right? How we’re breathing the same air as every human who’s ever lived? The Queen of Sheba, Anne Frank, Rosa Parks. We come and go, but the air stays the same.”

I realize she’s purposely ignoring whatever just happened. But I let it go. “Yeah, it’s pretty wild.”

We walk across campus and it’s quiet. Shadows and old stone buildings stretching across a mile of green grass.

Kate yawns. One of those fully loaded yawns, equipped with intense arm-stretching and growling.

“Well, it’s been fun, Jack Attack,” she says. I like that she’s given me a nickname, because it means . . . okay, maybe it means nothing—yet.

It’s time for us to go our separate ways. Only I’m not ready.

“What, you’re turning in already?” I challenge with a smile.

Kate looks at her watch. I also like that she wears an actual watch, rather than just relying on her phone to keep time.

“It’s only been nine hours, Kate,” I say. “Where’s your stamina?”

She massages her jaw. “What’d you have in mind?”

I shrug. “How about I make you an offer you can’t refuse?”

“You definitely haven’t seen Godfather,” she says, laughing.

“That bad?” I say, feeling my face warm.

“Worse,” she says.

“I can do better,” I assure her. “Kate, howz about I make you . . . howz ’bout I make you . . . Okay, I can’t do better.”

She laughs harder. “Gosh, how does a lady say no to that?”

“She doesn’t . . . I hope.”

Kate smiles through her laughter.

And all I can think is, God, Jack, please, please, please, don’t screw this up. And then, knowing myself, knowing good things always leave me, At least don’t screw it up so quickly. Hold on, Jack. For as long as you can, hold on.

“I should really turn in.” She glances at her watch again. “I have a big paper due in less than twenty-four hours, and I haven’t even finished the reading. Plus, don’t you have to get back to . . .”

“Elytown,” I say. “Elytown Township, technically.” Because I’m nothing if not technical.

“Right. The township,” she says. She clearly has no idea where that is. “You probably have class, too. And parents?”

I laugh, wishing I could come off cool and aloof, but knowing I don’t stand a chance. “It’s just high school. No big deal. And my parents are totally cool. Very liberal. Plus, it’s only Sunday morning. We head back this afternoon.”

“Okay,” she says, grinning. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Jack King. I wish you all the best during your senior year. Enjoy it, okay?” She offers her hand and I take it into mine, in immediate hindsight shaking it a bit too enthusiastically, like I’m a used car salesman closing a deal.

“I’ll do my best, Kate.”

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