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Explanations and Complications

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“Hey, Janine!”

Janine’s stomach flopped at the greeting. She closed her eyes momentarily as she tightened the brace of her arms around the books she held. All around her, the other students at the community college streamed out into the bright sunlight of the summer afternoon, but the speaker who had captured her attention wasn’t among them. She could feel him still standing behind her, his eyes boring holes into her back.

She straightened her spine, turning on her heel and lifting her eyes to his. “Hello,” she returned crisply, gripping her books with white-knuckle force.

Frankie Evans stared back at her, an easy smile playing on his lips as he fiddled with the strap of his backpack. He looked absolutely gorgeous, tall and thin and tanned, with a mop of black curls and a face that could’ve been sculpted from stone, but, mercifully, his beauty had little effect on her. The first time she’d laid eyes on him in class, she’d proceeded to stare at him for the length of the lecture, trying to discern why her heart was beating so hard, why her stomach suddenly felt weak, and why her tongue had turned to cardboard.

Over the course of the summer, however, her regard for him had soured, and she had no desire to even look at him now, much less carry on a conversation.

“So,” he started, his tone pleasant enough, “that final was a killer, eh?”

Janine stared at him wordlessly.

Frankie’s smile faltered slightly. “Do you have any big plans for the rest of the summer?”

She didn’t, but she didn’t see how that was any of his business.

He pulled the loose strap of his backpack over his free shoulder, so that he was now wearing it properly. “Are you planning to take any AP classes next semester? I’ve heard AP chem is crazy hard.”

She shrugged, readjusting her grip on the stack of books she held tight to her chest, the hard creases of her thick black binder cutting into the skin at her elbows.

It brought her some small hint of satisfaction when Frankie finally dropped his gaze, a flush rising to coat his cheeks. “How’s Claudia?” he murmured, obviously feeling the full effects of Janine’s angry silence.

Finally, she deigned speak. “You would know better than I,” she replied, fighting hard to keep her emotions in check. She couldn’t decide who she was more upset with – Frankie, for being such a jackass and going after her sister practically the second he’d laid eyes on her; Claudia, for being, well, Claudia; or herself, for feeling as petty and jealous as she did over the whole situation.

Claudia might’ve only been twelve, but already, she dressed and acted in ways that automatically drew the attention of boys. Was it her fault she’d attracted the one boy Janine had been interested in that summer? The first boy she’d ever felt fluttery, mixed-up feelings for, and yet still had the courage to talk to, and even ask out?

It had been hard for Janine to be around her sister, because it felt like Claudia had stolen Frankie from her, even though she knew – objectively – that wasn’t so.

After all, he had never been hers to begin with.

Janine’s features softened as she took in Frankie’s pained expression. Maybe he was trying to make amends, now that their class was over. She supposed she could at least meet him halfway, especially if he was going to continue hanging around her house and visiting her sister all summer.

Just as she opened her mouth to speak, he cleared his throat, surging forward to push past her and out the door. She frowned, putting out her arm as he tried to pass, her hand capturing his shoulder. “Can you at least tell me one thing?” she asked abruptly.

His eyes flickered to hers, his cheeks still ruddy with awkward discomfort.

“Why Claudia?”

The words hung in the air between them as she searched his features, looking for any clue that he felt guilty or remorseful or even sad for throwing away their friendship in order to pursue her sister. His eyes narrowed after a moment, an indignant sneer curling his lips as he jerked out of her grip.

“Because I didn’t want to get pounded, okay?” he burst out.

Janine stopped short, surprise and a little wariness washing through her at this unexpected answer. “What?” she choked out, furrowing her brow.

Frankie bristled. “Charlie Thomas,” he spat out. “One day after class, Charlie saw me talking to you. I don’t know – I guess it was the day we walked home through the park? Anyway, he found me the next day and told me that if I ever did anything to hurt you, he’d pound me.” He shuddered, his expression twisting with a strange combination of disapproval and fear. “Have you seen that guy lately? He’s huge! He could pound me into the ground and not even feel it!”

Total shock reeled through Janine at this hasty revelation. “Wait a minute,” she broke in, turning a skeptical eye at him. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would he say that about me, but not about Claudia? She’s my sister, after all – my younger sister,” she added with pointed emphasis.

Frankie shrugged. “I don’t know,” he replied carelessly. “Maybe he likes you? Listen, Janine, you’re a really nice girl and all…”

But I’m no Claudia, she finished silently for him. Her lips settled into a thin line. She didn’t believe his speculation that Charlie Thomas was secretly harboring feelings for her; it was hard enough to buy his story about Charlie allegedly threatening him, although Frankie certainly seemed truly intimidated. He’d steered clear of her, as promised, but at what cost?

“I’m sorry, Janine,” Frankie finally said, his tone soft and apologetic. “Let’s not fight, okay? I’ll see you around.”

She averted her eyes, giving him a wide berth as he moved past her, escaping out the door and walking at a hurried clip across the now-deserted campus.

Her pace was slow as she descended the steps of the building, still trying to work through the twists of the conversation. She wasn’t sure how much stock she could put into Frankie’s words, but on the other hand, what reason would he have to lie to her? He’d avoided her since the day of Claudia’s birthday party. She’d been hurt and humiliated by his actions at the time, so she hadn’t thought much of it – she’d only been grateful that he apparently felt as weird about the whole situation as she did.

Not that it stopped him from constantly hanging around her sister, or dropping by the house at all hours of the day, or inviting Claudia downtown, or to the beach, or to visit with his family. Janine felt justified in resenting him for that…even if she felt a little foolish for directing some of that ire to her sister. Claudia was simply being Claudia, and Claudia in love was only slightly more irritating than Claudia as her normal, albeit weird, self.

Still. It hurt her to acknowledge that her sister already had more success with boys at twelve than she’d had at fifteen, and that Claudia would probably have all those wonderful firsts of teenage relationships – first boyfriend, first kiss, first slow dance and car date and Valentine’s present – before Janine herself could experience them.

The sharp crack of a bat abruptly pulled Janine from her morose thoughts. She glanced up with a start, surprised to find herself dawdling near the playing fields behind SHS. This was the long way home from the community college; she supposed she’d needed more time to herself than she wanted to admit, to process all of these feelings.

She shifted her attention to the ragtag group of guys on the baseball diamond, raucous and rowdy as they played a pickup game. She vaguely recognized a few of them, all athletes from the various school teams…but her heart skipped a beat when her eyes landed on Charlie Thomas, who was stepping up to home plate.

She’d known Charlie her entire life; they’d lived across Bradford Court from each other for as long as she could remember. He’d always been friendly and nice, but he was loud and outgoing like the rest of his siblings, and could be a little bit overwhelming to be around, especially if Sam or Kristy also happened to be tagging along. She watched him now, laughing and joking with his buddies as he took a few practice swings with the bat, and tried to reconcile this image of a carefree, easygoing, generally friendly guy with that of someone who would threaten violence on others, even (perhaps) in jest.

No, she considered silently, tilting her head as she studied him, he’s too nice for that. Frankie probably just knew he lived across the street…

Her thoughts trailed into oblivion when she realized Charlie was looking at her, his gaze meeting hers as he stood behind the plate, his bat resting against his shoulder. Her breath constricted in her chest as his eyes lingered on her for a long moment, the corners of his mouth curving into a slow smile as he waved to her with his free hand.

She waved back, stumbling back a step or two under the wave of sheer surprise that washed through her at the unexpected acknowledgment. She clutched her books to her chest as she watched him turn and step up to the plate, calling out to his friend on the pitcher’s mound – and wondered, for a brief moment, if maybe – just maybe – Frankie had been right.