You Owe Me a Murder(9)

But I had worried he wouldn’t get over it. I told myself that I didn’t need a fancy wooden plaque—?so why not drop out? The organizers would give him first, he’d be able to relax over his applications, and he’d realize how much I cared about him.

Except it didn’t make a difference. If anything, it made things between us more awkward. Until he gave me the talk a day later.

“It’s not you, it’s me. I still care about you—?but.”

I hadn’t handled the breakup well. Understatement. My letter to Emily about what had happened must have sounded really dire and desperate, because Emily begged the camp supervisor to let her use their landline to call me, a strict no-no according to camp rules. But there was nothing she, or anyone else, could say that made me feel better. Not even my mom’s blog post on Dealing with Your Child’s First Heartbreak. And as stupid as I was for giving up my place in the science competition, it didn’t escape my notice that Connor hadn’t turned it down.

Nicki snorted. “I know his type. They use people. He can’t stand the idea that you might be smarter than him.”

“I don’t know if that’s it.” I hated that I still had the urge to defend him.

She shook her head so that her hair flew around her face. “Don’t do that. Don’t make excuses for his shitty behavior. He’s a knob who made you feel bad about winning, because he couldn’t handle that he lost. I dated a guy like that once. I thought he was one thing, but in the end, he turned out to be someone else. Someone weak. He didn’t deserve me and this Connor guy certainly doesn’t deserve you.”

I giggled at her slang. Knob. Knob. Knob. I took another long drink of the vodka, letting it warm me from the inside out. She was right. Connor was a knob. And if he didn’t want to date me, what did it say about his character that he still let me give up the award?

“I’m mad about the science award, but that’s not what really ticks me off. What really makes me mad is that I didn’t see it coming.” The truth of the statement burned stronger than the alcohol. Connor was a dick, but I’d been stupid too, and I hated him most of all for exposing that side of me.

“People like him should have to pay,” Nicki snarled. “If someone doesn’t stop them, they’ll just do it again to someone else. The guy I mentioned? He was married.”

I sucked in a breath. “He lied about being married?”

She waved off my comment. “No, I knew. He lied about how he was going to leave his wife. The point is, the weak ones will lie to get what they want.”

I mumbled a sympathetic sound. Nicki was only a year older than me, but I felt a million years younger, as though I should be clutching a worn teddy bear. A married guy? It struck me as gross, but at the same time . . . more exotic than anything that had ever happened to me.

We spotted the flight attendant strolling down the aisle toward us with a bottle of water and a stack of plastic cups. Without a word, we tucked the bottle of Grey Goose under the thin blanket we’d thrown over our feet.

“You two need anything else?” the attendant whispered, leaning in as we took the cups of cool water from her.

“No, thank you.” Nicki waited until the flight attendant had ducked behind the thick navy-colored curtain behind us before turning back to me. “I hate when people wear that much makeup. Who do they think they’re fooling? You’re old. Accept it.”

I looked over my shoulder at the swaying curtain. “I didn’t notice.”

Nicki sighed. “Women like her remind me of my mum. Putting on a show, trying to cover up who they really are.”

“So, you live with your mom?”

She looked down at her hands, her thumbnail chipping away at the pale dove-gray polish on her index finger. “I want to live with my dad, but she won’t let me.”

“Can’t you go wherever you want if you’ve graduated?”

“Whenever I mention it, she falls apart.” Nicki pitched her voice high and whiny. “Oh, I won’t be able to live without you. Your father took everything from me and now he wants my baby girl. I’ll die if you go.” She shook her head in disgust. “My dad feels guilty. He says I can’t move to Vancouver. He couldn’t live with her, but I’m supposed to stay.” Her eyes filled with tears that spilled down her cheeks.

“Hey, it’s okay.” I fished through my tote looking for Kleenex. I didn’t find any, so I settled for passing over to Nicki a wrinkled paper takeout napkin that had been buried at the bottom.

“Sorry.” She wiped the tears off her cheeks as if they personally offended her. She sniffed. “I’m not even sure I want to live with my dad as much as I don’t want to be with her. It just keeps getting worse. I’m always having to clean up after my mum. She’ll vomit in bed and not even wake up when she does it. I’m having to make excuses for whatever she’s done. If I stay, I’m miserable, and if I leave, then everyone thinks I’m a horrible person.”

“I don’t think you’re horrible.” My chest ached for her. My mom drove me crazy at times, but she would never do anything like that, something that belonged in some kind of teen-issue novel.

Nicki reached over and squeezed my hand. “Thanks.”

I glanced down at our clasped hands. A wave of affection for her engulfed me. Emily and I had been best friends since elementary school, our friendship building slowly over countless sleepovers and shared secrets, but I had seemed to connect with Nicki instantly. That wasn’t like me. I’d always been the kid with straight As in elementary school but with scribbled notes on my report card about needing to work on my social skills. Nicki was the kind of person who wouldn’t have even noticed me, and maybe she wouldn’t have if the flight hadn’t been delayed, but it seemed as though she really liked me.

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