Mary Anne frowned at herself in the mirror, examining the tired circles beneath her eyes and the lank locks of hair falling from her ponytail. For a moment she practised what she would say if (when) someone asked her why she looked the way she did.
It was hot last night. I couldn't sleep. I'm fine – really, I am.
She dragged the elastic from her hair and stepped into the shower, washing away tiredness and the sweat that had come with the stifling heat of the summer night.
Stoneybrook was suffering its worst heatwave in decades. Temperatures soared to new heights each day. The sun forced itself down upon the town, which lay dry and baking, buckling and shimmering beneath the wide, pale sky.
Mary Anne shaved her legs as she waited for the conditioner in her hair to penetrate the follicles, or whatever it claimed to do in the designated three minutes. As she moved the razor over her skin, she ran through a mental check-list of kitchen appliances that were currently toiling away downstairs.
The fridge, she thought first. That was the one that gave her the most worry. The most worry because it was so big, and even at night she could hear it humming sometimes. She knew she couldn't turn it off, no matter how much she wished to.
The coffee machine, she thought next. The coffee machine wasn't so bad. She could always unplug it again after her father was done using it.
The toaster. She pictured her step-mother slathering two toasted slices of wholegrain bread with avocado or natural peanut butter.
The radio. Maybe. Sharon liked to listen to the radio in the kitchen. Richard liked to read the newspaper at the table in peace. It depended on what mood either of them were in. Mary Anne was never sure which one of them would win the playful little morning argument they had each day.
When she turned the shower off and pulled the curtain back, her reflection in the mirror seemed less tired, less bruised by exhaustion. She dressed in a loose t-shirt and shorts, raking her wet hair back into another ponytail, high off the back of her neck. The summer heat had made her consider cutting it short again.
Her father was absorbed in the business section of the morning's paper when Mary Anne slipped into the chair opposite him. The radio was blaring away on the windowsill. Mary Anne could hear Sharon singing along as she rummaged in the fridge.
"Little darlin', it seems like years since it's been here; here comes the sun, here comes the sun..."
Richard folded the paper as Mary Anne poured herself a glass of juice. "Good morning, Mary Anne."
"Good morning." She gave him what she hoped was a bright smile.
Sharon kicked the door of the fridge closed and sang toward Mary Anne. "Little darlin', the smiles returning to the faces..."
Mary Anne let her see the same smile she had given her father. Sharon twirled away to pour herself some tea.
Mary Anne frowned as she realised she'd forgotten to add the electric kettle to her check-list.
"Did you sleep well?" her father asked. He was still watching her.
Mary Anne snapped herself out of her thoughts about red-hot wiring and electricity and gave him another smile. "Not really," she admitted. "It was too hot."
Richard looked sympathetic. He nodded. "It was very hot last night. Did you sleep with the fan on?"
For a moment, Mary Anne felt the familiar prickle of fear and distrust race up her spine. "It doesn't make much difference," she said. "If I put the fan on, the noise keeps me awake."
She wasn't always sure her father believed her. Sometimes she was sure he knew exactly what the problem was but was simply too afraid or nervous to discuss it with her.
She was somewhat relieved about this, though she often admitted to herself that it would be easier if he knew the real reason – that she wasn't sleeping with the fan on because she was afraid the wiring in it wasn't safe. Because she was afraid she would wake in the night with smoke billowing through the house.
She felt him watching her as she helped herself to breakfast. She kept her movements easy and light, and tried to make her eyes bright and focused, as though her mind was happy and alert and ready for the day ahead. After a moment Richard got up to put his breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. He touched the top of her head lightly on the way past.
It both reassured her and shamed her. She didn't like lying to him, and hiding the truth certainly felt a lot like lying.
The library was dim and warm. The ceiling fans were rotating at full capacity, wobbling around in their fixtures. Loose papers on desks were weighted down with staplers or piles of paperback novels.
Mary Anne pushed the book cart between the towering rows of fiction, putting away people's returned holiday reading.
Now and then she'd stop and thumb through the pages, though it seemed to her she had already read every book Stoneybrook Public Library had to offer.
Mrs. Kishi found her when she reached the Young Adult section. "Mary Anne?"
Mary Anne made renewed efforts to look bright and awake as she smiled at Mrs. Kishi.
"Why don't you go home?" Mrs. Kishi suggested. "Nobody's here. Take the afternoon off."
"Oh, it's fine," Mary Anne assured her. "I don't mind."
Mrs. Kishi smiled and shook her head. "There's nothing else for you to do. Go on home."
Mary Anne didn't argue, though she would have much preferred the stifling library to her own house.
Going home made her feel anxious. It still didn't feel like home, though she had certainly lived there longer than she had ever lived in the old farmhouse.
She left Mrs. Kishi to stack the shelves alone, at the woman's insistence, and stepped out into the afternoon heat. The sidewalks shimmered, and the air smelled of hot asphalt and dry grass. She could hear the whining drone of air conditioners as she walked down Main Street.
She didn't want to go home, but it was too hot to be outside. She frowned and stood in the shade of an awning as she tried to decide where to go. Bellair's would be air-conditioned, but no doubt crowded, as everyone tried to shelter from the sun.
Hundreds of people all clamouring for the same emergency exit...
She clamped down hard on that thought, forbidding it to go any further. She pulled the elastic from her hair and ran her fingers through the strands, trying to even out the kink from her ponytail.
I could go somewhere for ice-cream, or a soda...
She chewed her lip. Sitting alone with melting ice-cream didn't seem terribly appealing. For a moment, she considered calling Kristy, or Mallory, or someone. She clamped down on that thought as well.
She wandered along the street, not paying attention to much in particular. Nobody was around – it was too hot to simply venture outside with no plan of how to get from one air-conditioned point to another. Most people stayed indoors, muttering back and forth between themselves about how horrific the weather was and whether or not the heatwave would break soon.
She walked up the shaded side of Essex Road and found herself near the Rosebud. She found herself wishing Logan still worked there, just so she could go inside and find herself with someone.
Mary Anne suddenly realised how lonely she had become. She wondered if this was the reason she felt so anxious and on edge all the time, until she remembered it had been the anxiety which had caused her to withdraw from her friends in the first place.
A large part of her knew how silly she had been. Her friends wouldn't have made fun of her or belittled her in any way if she'd confessed her fears to them.
Still, enough time had passed now that Mary Anne felt going back was too big a step. And there was another part of her – a small voice, but quite an insistent one – that reminded her that none of her friends had held out long enough to find out exactly what was wrong.
"Hey, Mary Anne."
She turned in surprise as she heard her name, only to see Alan Gray swinging himself off his bike. Dark patches of sweat stained his t-shirt, and his face was red and shiny. He locked his bike to the rack and wiped his brow.
"Hi," Mary Anne blurted after a long moment, realising she hadn't yet responded to him. "How are you, Alan?" She willed her face to stay a normal colour, even as she felt embarrassment and awkwardness creeping up inside her.
"Hot," he breathed. "I need a soda. Want one?" He pushed past her into the Rosebud without a backward glance. Mary Anne wondered if it had been a serious invitation. She hesitated for a brief moment before she felt the heat of the sun on the crown of her head, and followed him inside.
Alan sank into a booth with a sigh of relief, running his hand over his hair so it stood on end. He grinned at her as she sat opposite him, feeling nervous and unsure. She wondered if he was about to laugh and tell her to get lost, that he hadn't been serious, that he hadn't thought she'd take him up on his offer.
She wondered why she had. She blamed it on the heat and the fact she was surviving on very little sleep.
"Soda?" he asked.
"Sure." She cautiously set her bag on the seat beside her and glanced around. The Rosebud seemed mostly empty, the lunch rush finished. Waitresses were clearing tables of napkins and glasses with melting ice cubes in the bottom.
Alan waved a waitress over and included a plate of fries and a cheeseburger as well as their sodas. "I haven't had lunch," he explained to Mary Anne. "So, you waiting for someone?"
Mary Anne swallowed nervously as she realised Alan had thought she was standing out front waiting for a friend.
She said what felt easiest. "I don't think they're coming anymore."
Alan nodded, though she wasn't sure he'd really heard her. He looked exhausted.
"Why were you riding your bike so fast?" she asked, noting a tone of disapproval that sounded terribly like her father. She cleared her throat and hurried on, forcing herself to sound a little more light-hearted. "Isn't it too hot to be riding around town?"
"Guess so," Alan agreed, his eyes following each waitress as they passed by. He drummed his fingers on the table. "Nothin' much else to do though. And I was hungry, so I came here."
"Oh," Mary Anne answered. She twisted her fingers together beneath the table. She wasn't sure what to say to him. She had known Alan for a long time, but their proper conversations were very few and far between. She tried to remember talking to him outside of a school setting, and found herself struggling to remember anything at all.
He didn't seem bothered by the fact she wasn't very talkative and, after a few moments, she began to relax a little. She glanced around the café again, noting the exits and eyeing the lights in the ceiling rather critically.
Their sodas arrived, and Alan gulped several large mouthfuls, sighing in relief as he set the half-emptied glass down again. "That's better," he breathed.
"You might be dehydrated," Mary Anne said. "Maybe you should have some water."
Alan rolled his eyes. "If I faint, you can splash some on me."
She took a dainty sip of her soda through her straw.
"When is the weather supposed to cool off?" Alan groaned, resting his head in his hands.
"I don't know," Mary Anne answered heavily. "The forecast for the rest of the week looks similar to today."
Alan pulled a face. "I hate summer."
"Me too," Mary Anne agreed, without really thinking about her answer. "The only good thing about it is no school."
"I thought you liked school," Alan said, craning his neck to check on the progress of his cheeseburger and fries.
"I like summer vacation better," Mary Anne answered.
They sat in silence for a while. Mary Anne still felt slightly uncomfortable, not familiar at all with the sort of person Alan Gray was outside of a classroom.
He didn't seem bothered by anything other than how long his food was taking. His eyes lit up when the waitress finally set the plate in front of him. He grabbed a handful of fries, immediately assuming a much cheerier disposition.
"So, what have you been doing to beat the heat?" he asked. "I was gonna go to the brook but it looks like most of the pools have dried up."
"There are still some at the far end of Burnt Hill Road, by the bridge," Mary Anne said. "But that's a long way to ride your bike, just for a swim."
Alan nodded and chewed his fries. "I just want summer to be over. Sometimes it gets so bad you don't want to leave the house..." He trailed off, and Mary Anne had the impression he had wanted to say more.
For a moment she turned her glass of soda around and around in her fingertips, until she was struck by sudden bravery and curiosity. "Do you ever worry about fires?" she asked. She felt her cheeks growing hot already, the question sounding odd and stupid. She kept her eyes down and hastened to explain herself. "I mean, everything is so dry and we've had no rain..."
"I guess that's true," Alan said, frowning and biting the ends off of several fries. "I hadn't really thought about that, to be honest. I just want it to cool down so I can get some decent sleep."
Mary Anne sucked in a large swallow of soda through her straw. "Me too."
"Yeah, you look pretty tired," Alan said, glancing up at her before turning his attention to his burger, apparently unconcerned about how Mary Anne would react to such blunt observations.
Mary Anne took a moment to study him as he lifted his burger into his hands. He looks tired, too, she decided, though she refrained from mentioning it aloud. She decided it was the same sort of exhaustion that was on her face. It wasn't the slightly pale and withdrawn look that came from tossing and turning against bedsheets on a hot night. Alan had the same bruised, nervous look of someone hiding something. The same look Mary Anne had when she wasn't making concerted efforts to hide it.
It was a look of fear and worry, and she suddenly felt as though she'd found an ally of sorts.
"Want a fry?" Alan asked, pushing his plate towards her.
She took one with a small smile. "How's your summer, anyway?" she asked.
Alan shrugged and took another large gulp from his glass of soda. "Okay. How's yours?"
Mary Anne nibbled the end of the fry he'd given her. "Okay."
He glanced up at her before he looked away again. "You seen Kristy, or anyone from school?"
Mary Anne shifted uncomfortably and twirled the ice cubes in her soda with the end of her straw. "Not for a while," she answered carefully. "I've been busy."
"Oh, right," Alan nodded. "You work at the library, yeah?"
Mary Anne gave him a smile. "Yeah."
"So do you see Claudia a lot then? Her mom works there."
"I think Claud's busy working on her art," Mary Anne said, and in an effort to escape from one uncomfortable subject, she chose another that was just as painful. "She's still submitting stuff to colleges. Some of them don't make their decisions until really late."
Alan rolled his eyes. "College is stupid. I don't even want to go."
Mary Anne suddenly felt another tiny spark of alliance. "You don't?" she asked. She unconsciously edged a little closer, leaning forward over the table. "Why not?"
"I've finished school," Alan said dismissively. "And I'm not dumb enough to think college is all beer and girls and partying. I don't want another four years of papers and deadlines."
Mary Anne smiled. "Right. So, what would you do? Get a job somewhere?"
Alan shrugged and wiped his fingers across the front of his t-shirt, leaving grease-prints. "Dunno," he said. "I don't want to bus tables for the rest of my life, but college isn't for me." He took another slurp of soda. "Want a slice of pizza?"
"No, but you go ahead," Mary Anne answered. "So have you seen anyone from school?"
He shrugged again and raised his hand for the waitress. "Nah, not really. Everyone else seems kind of excited about college. If I hear Pete Black talk about his GPA one more time, I'm gonna lay him flat."
Mary Anne's initial reaction was to laugh, though she wasn't sure if Alan was being serious or not.
"So, I dunno. It's not as much fun hanging out with them anymore," Alan said, and Mary Anne thought he sounded rather defensive. "College is all they want to talk about." He leaned back in his seat, his hand still in the air for the waitress. "Let's talk about somethin' else," he said. "You go on vacation this summer?"
Mary Anne shook her head. "No, but I think my step-mom wants to go to California to visit Dawn, before college starts."
"Oh, right," Alan said. "How's Dawn? Still anti-hamburger?"
"Still anti-hamburger," Mary Anne answered, smiling. "She's good, though. She's going to study at Berkeley. Something about renewable energy and science... I don't think I really understand what she'll be doing."
"We're talking about college again," Alan reminded her, before he turned his attention to the waitress and ordered a pepperoni pizza.
"You can eat what I can't finish," he said to Mary Anne. "What about Logan? You see him?"
Mary Anne shook her head. "Not really. We're both too busy."
"Everyone is too damn busy," Alan muttered, rattling the ice cubes in his glass. "How anyone will cope with college is a mystery."
Mary Anne pulled her hair free again and started to weave it into a braid, the movements coming to her as naturally as breathing did. "Do you have any plans for the rest of the summer?" she asked.
"No," Alan answered, watching her separate her hair and pull it together again. She could see the shadows under his eyes. She watched the way his fingers drummed against the tabletop.
"Alan," Mary Anne said, cautiously and nervously, "is everything okay?"
He looked up at her for a moment and opened his mouth, his eyes flitting over her face. She could feel every tired imperfection there – her face felt drawn and lined with exhaustion and she was suddenly certain the he was about to turn her own question against her and ask her the same thing.
Panic gripped her.
Alan closed his mouth again and pulled his diluted soda towards him. "Fine," he answered, looking at her over the top of his glass.
She nodded, sorry she had asked, and relieved he hadn't.
Mary Anne pushed her bedroom window open, silently pleading for a cool evening breeze. The air was still sticky and warm, and the drone of cicadas sounded endlessly across the yards on Burnt Hill Road.
She sank onto the edge of her bed, looking around to see if Tigger would be sleeping at her feet. He was nowhere in sight. He was probably asleep under a chair downstairs, somewhere where cool air swept in under a door.
Mary Anne changed quietly into her pyjamas, listening to the cicadas and the occasional vehicle passing down the street outside. She placed her clothes in her laundry hamper before she sat back on the edge of her bed, put her hands against her face, and allowed herself to break.
Sometimes she thought that if she didn't cry, she'd fall apart completely and not have the strength to get out of bed the next morning. Sometimes, the few minutes she set aside to weep and fall apart was the best part of her day, if only for the momentary peace it eventually provided.
She wiped her eyes and drew in a silent, shuddering breath. She caught sight of herself in the mirror of the dresser, her skin blotchy and red, her hair sticking to her tear-streaked cheeks. She sniffed and reached for a tissue, pulling in another, steadier breath.
Occasionally, when her eyes were sore and tired from her tears, she would glimpse smoke in the corner of the room. She would always turn in terror, convinced that somehow something had gone wrong – the wiring, or the heat of the summer, would somehow spontaneously turn to flames inside the walls.
There was never anything there, and Mary Anne often thought that somehow that was worse. Sometimes she thought she was genuinely going crazy. She wondered if she was developing some sort of symptom or sickness that kept her so afraid and nervous all the time.
She looked back at her reflection in the mirror, and was met with the overwhelmingly depressing thought that this was just who she was. This was Mary Anne, and this was the way Mary Anne would always be.
Mary Anne was a great believer in fate. So when she saw Alan Gray for the second time in two days – this time trying to skip stones across the extraordinarily shallow brook – she walked over to him.
"Hey," Alan greeted her, his attention still mostly caught up with the flat stone in his palm.
"Hi," Mary Anne answered.
"Sleep better last night?" Alan asked, spinning a stone at the water. It hit a pool and skipped twice before it clattered against the rocks across the other side of the stream. The water ran quietly, shallow and rippling in the dappled light.
"Not really," Mary Anne answered, wondering if he was really interested or if he was merely making familiar conversation. "How about you?"
Alan shrugged and searched the ground by his feet for another rock. "Nah. Had a fight with my old man."
"Oh," Mary Anne said. She wasn't sure if she should ask any further questions.
Alan didn't wait for her. "I made it sound like I wasn't going to college, yesterday," he said, glancing up at her. He picked up a stone and turned it in his hand. "But Dad's makin' me go to Stoneybrook U."
Mary Anne's heart leapt, until she began to suspect Alan was making fun of her.
"He is?" she asked suspiciously.
Alan hurled the stone at the water. It hit the pool with a satisfying thunk, the current quickly swallowing up any sign of its impact. "I've been tryin' to get out of it," he said. "Short of doing something criminal, I'm runnin' out of ideas."
Mary Anne toed the dirt. "You're really going to Stoneybrook U?"
"Not if I can help it," Alan scoffed. "I told you yesterday, I'll get a job or somethin'."
"If I have to."
She chewed her lip for a moment. "I'm going to Stoneybrook U."
He looked up at her again, and frowned. "Really?"
"How come?" He seemed genuinely surprised, and perhaps a little concerned.
Mary Anne tried to assume the look of energy and happiness again, though she wasn't so sure it was going to work on Alan. "No real reason," she answered. "It's not a bad place to end up, you know."
"No, but..." He trailed off and shrugged. "I dunno. I figured you'd end up in New York or somewhere."
"You did?" Mary Anne asked in surprise. Suddenly she longed to question him, to ask him what else he had ever predicted for her.
"Did you bomb out in your final exams?" Alan asked in surprise. "Did your GPA plummet to, like, I dunno –"
"No, nothing like that," Mary Anne answered. "I made good grades."
Alan looked at her for a long moment, turning a flat pebble over and over in his hands. "I don't want to go to college," he said after a moment. "I know I said that yesterday, but it's not just because of the work and the papers and stuff. It's because I don't think I'd be any good at it."
Mary Anne suddenly felt as though she were on the edge of something enormous. She could tell, just looking at Alan, that there was something there, something deeper, and maybe she'd scratched the surface of it already.
At the same time, however, she wasn't sure she could trust him. She didn't know him very well, after all, and she already felt dangerously exposed when she was around him, like he could see through all of her faked facial expressions; like he knew exactly how she was really feeling.
She had an idea he was feeling something quite similar.
She twisted her fingers into the hem of her t-shirt, nervous and embarrassed. "I'm scared I won't make any new friends," she admitted softly. "I don't want to start over."
"Neither do I," Alan answered, and Mary Anne breathed an inaudible sigh of relief as he matched her fear.
"Everyone else seems excited about college," she said. She didn't add that the thought of college made her sick to her stomach, or that she thought something was wrong with her for dreading it rather than looking forward to it.
"I don't get why it's such a big deal," Alan said moodily, searching for more stones. "There are tons of people who have been successful without going to college."
"What does your dad say?" Mary Anne asked. "Do you think you'll convince him?"
"No way," Alan scoffed. He gave up on skipping stones and sank into the grass at the edge of the brook. "I don't know. He never went to college and he regrets it, so..." He shrugged and looked further upstream, avoiding eye contact.
Mary Anne sat on a rock at the edge of the water, a few feet away from him. "My dad wanted me to go to New York," she said. "I'd always wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence."
Alan grinned at her. "Yikes," he said. "You'd have to go for a scholarship, right?"
Mary Anne pulled her ponytail through her hands. "I was going to," she said. She drew a deep breath and looked down at the dirt, her voice sounding a little faster and a little too high-pitched to be natural. "I freaked out," she confessed desperately. "There were interviews and written application letters, and I completely messed up. I couldn't go in... I..." She broke off, her fingers tightening around her hair, her breath sharp and hot in her lungs and against the back of her throat. "All of a sudden I realised how far away it was going to be and how alone I would be, and I've never been alone..."
She closed her eyes and shook her head as though to rid herself of the memory. "I bailed on my interview," she said. "I was too afraid to go in. And then they called and they asked why I wasn't there and..." She bit her lip. "It was awful. I told my dad that I wanted to stay in Stoneybrook and I know he didn't want me to see he was disappointed, but he was. And now he's worried about me but we're not really talking about it, we're just tiptoeing around one another because he's scared I'm going to panic again..." She trailed off, realising she had been rattling on and barely drawing a breath.
Alan's eyes were wide. He pulled a fistful of grass out of the ground and scrunched it in his fingers. "Yeah," he said, and he cleared his throat and looked away. "I know how you feel."
Mary Anne wasn't sure he did know, but she was relieved he hadn't made excuses to get out of there after she'd spilled everything like that. She was even more relieved he hadn't laughed.
"He says I could still go, if I wanted," Mary Anne said, examining her hair for split ends as though her life depended on it. "I don't want to keep telling him I can't. I feel guilty every time he tries to give me what I thought I wanted."
"Isn't Sarah Lawrence like a really expensive school?" Alan asked, propping himself up on his elbows and staring at her. "Is your dad loaded?"
Mary Anne frowned at him, but he grinned, not in the least bit shamed.
She shifted on the rock. "He's a lawyer," she said, "and for thirteen years it was just the two of us. My college fund is..." She turned her attention back to her hair. "It's okay."
Alan laughed. "Damn," he said. "See, my dad didn't go to college but he did all right for himself because he married into my mom's rich family. Maybe I should marry a rich girl. You can be my sugar momma, Mary Anne."
The sound of her own laughter surprised her, and the smile lingered on her face once she had stopped.
Alan grinned again and flopped back into the grass, staring up at the sky through the treetops. "At least your dad sounds like he's tryin' to understand," he said. "My dad just gets pissed off."
"He only wants what's best for you," Mary Anne said, hoping she was right.
"No he doesn't," Alan scoffed. "Look, I get that college might make things easier. I get that it'll probably give me opportunities I won't get elsewhere. But I don't want to go." He curled his fists into the grass again.
"Maybe you should come up with an alternative plan," Mary Anne said. "Not just one that says, 'maybe I'll get a job,' but, you know, one that actually tells your dad you're trying to take the right steps for a good future."
Alan lifted his head and frowned at her. "How do I do that?"
Mary Anne rolled her eyes. "I don't know," she said. "Maybe an internship, or something like that?"
"Hey, yeah," Alan said, his face brightening at the thought. "I think they usually happen at the beginning of the summer, though. I've probably missed out."
"You should still ask around," Mary Anne said. "Not all companies are the same. You could still find something."
Alan nodded and breathed a sigh. "This is the worst summer ever," he said. "Not only are we slowly frying, but we've got doom ahead of us."
Mary Anne laughed again. "Doom?"
"College, employment, whatever," he said. "It's all part of the corporate machine."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
"No, but I like the way it sounds. Evil."
Mary Anne lifted her hair away from the back of her neck. "I'm hot," she complained. "Want to come to my house for a drink?"
"Okay," Alan answered, looking relieved that she had asked. "But I'm not drinking anything sugar-free."
The house was dim and quiet when Mary Anne showed Alan into the kitchen. "Sharon should be here somewhere," she said, automatically pulling the plug to the coffee machine from the wall on her way to the fridge. "We made lemonade yesterday. Want some?"
"Sure." Alan glanced around the kitchen. "You've got a nice house."
Mary Anne nodded rather tiredly. She poured two tall glasses of lemonade and put the pitcher back in the fridge, pausing for a moment after she'd closed the door again. The rhythm of the fridge's humming had changed a little.
It's just because I opened the door. It's not a big deal.
She clenched her fingers and turned back to the counter, where Alan had seated himself on one of the stools. "Our other house burned down," she said, pushing Alan's glass of lemonade toward him.
"Yeah, I remember the fire," Alan said, his gaze landing briefly on Mary Anne.
She nodded. She could remember the kids from school finding any excuse to ride their bikes past. A few of them had crept towards the wreckage, kicking clumps of charcoal and ash that had once been her family's belongings.
"You know what's really weird?" Mary Anne asked after a moment, making an attempt to smile. "Sometimes I get up in the night for a glass of water, or to go to the bathroom, and I get all turned around and forget where I am. When my dad and I moved into Sharon's house from our place on Bradford Court, that only lasted a couple of weeks. I've been in this house for four years and it still feels strange." She looked down and traced her finger through the gathering condensation on the outside of her glass.
"I've never moved house," Alan said. "You know, one of the few benefits of going to college would be moving away."
"I don't think so," Mary Anne answered, pulling her ponytail free. "I don't want to move away."
"I do." Alan took a long swallow of his lemonade. "You play with your hair a lot."
Mary Anne dropped her hands self-consciously. Alan grinned.
She wasn't sure whether or not to like him. He seemed to talk a lot without thinking it through first, and she wasn't comfortable enough with him to not care about it. She tried to imagine how she'd feel if Kristy had commented on her nervous habits.
She decided to ignore it. "Where would you move to?" she asked, cupping her hands around her glass.
"California," Alan said. "Like, as far away as I could go."
"Why?" Mary Anne asked. She felt a wave of secondary panic, like she was anxious for Alan regarding a move that hadn't even been made.
Alan shrugged. "Dunno."
Mary Anne knew he did know, but she wasn't pushy enough to press further. She guessed it had something to do with his father.
"Of course, if Dawn is anything to go by, California is full of tofu," Alan said, wrinkling his nose.
Mary Anne laughed. "I think you'd survive."
"Will you go with your step-mom to visit her?"
Mary Anne shook her head. "Not this time."
"So you're just gonna hang out and wait for college to start, then?"
Mary Anne twirled the ends of her hair around her finger. "Guess so."
"Do you see Kristy or Claudia or anyone much anymore?"
Mary Anne glanced at him and then took a sip of lemonade. "Not really."
"How come?" Alan's stare was more direct, now.
Mary Anne frowned at him. "I just don't, that's all. They're busy. I'm busy."
"Claudia's not that busy," Alan said.
Mary Anne suddenly felt trapped. "I thought you guys didn't talk much anymore."
He shrugged. "We don't, really. Just now and then."
"Does she talk about me?" Mary Anne felt her eyes narrowing. She suddenly felt angry and betrayed, though she wasn't sure who she should be directing those emotions toward.
"A little bit," Alan said. "Not much. It's just that the other day you said she was still working on stuff for college, but I knew she'd finished all that. She got into Lyme."
"Oh," Mary Anne said. She twirled her hair around her finger again. "Well, we don't talk much, so..."
"Yeah, it happens," Alan said, shrugging. He drained his glass. "I don't talk to many people from school either. It's only been a few weeks and all of a sudden it's like everyone I was friends with is on a different planet."
"I know!" Mary Anne blurted, her eyes wide. "Everything has changed." She watched Alan wipe his lip on his arm, leaving a wet smear of lemonade on his skin.
"It's almost embarrassing to admit I'm going to Stoneybrook U," he muttered. "Especially when it's my dad makin' me go."
"I know," Mary Anne agreed, feeling another spark of alliance and understanding skip between them. "It's like I've failed, somehow."
"Exactly," Alan lamented, staring down at his empty glass. "I mean, I was never that great at school. So really, it's like all I've done is confirmed I'll amount to nothing."
Mary Anne opened her mouth to defend him, but the fridge clicked and the humming went up to a higher pitch. She jumped and turned to it, watching it with wide eyes, expecting smoke to start pouring out the back of it at any minute.
"What's wrong?" Alan asked.
"The fridge," Mary Anne said, her voice tense. "Does it sound weird to you?"
"No," Alan said, frowning. "Fridges make weird noises all the time." He laughed. "Oh man, one time the fridge that's out in our garage – the one my dad keeps his beer in – it just randomly started making a noise like a jet engine. The fan at the back was fucked. Dad thought someone was trying to steal his car." He laughed again.
Mary Anne offered him a weak smile in return. Her palms felt sweaty and her heart was racing. She kept her ears tuned toward the fridge, desperately trying to pick up any other variations in the quiet humming it offered. Anxiety roiled in her stomach. Suddenly she just wanted to be alone.
"Maybe you should go," she said, trying to make it sound like an open-ended suggestion, rather than a real request. "I thought Sharon was home, but it doesn't look like she is. If Dad comes back and sees us here alone, he'll be upset."
Alan shrugged and got to his feet. "Whatever," he said. "Thanks for the drink."
"Sure." Mary Anne followed him to the door. "Good luck looking for internships."
"Oh, yeah, I'd forgotten about that," he mused. He ran his hand through his hair and looked back at her, his eyes slightly narrowed, like he was examining her. "Hope you get some sleep tonight," he said eventually. "You're pretty twitchy, Mary Anne."
The look on her face made him laugh. He jumped down the porch steps and waved to her over his shoulder.
Mary Anne shut the door and went to the fridge, anxiously listening to see if there was anything wrong with it.
Mary Anne stood on the other side of the door to the kitchen, chewing her lip. Sharon and her father hadn't ever had many serious arguments, but this one sounded like it was building.
"I just don't think it's a good idea," Richard said, and Mary Anne almost winced when she heard the tone of his voice. It was one she rarely argued against.
"Dawn's leaving for college in a few weeks," Sharon said, sounding uncharacteristically annoyed. "I want to see her before she leaves. I want to make sure she's going to be all right."
"Well, what about Mary Anne?" Richard asked. "She's barely said a word since that fiasco at Sarah Lawrence."
"It wasn't a fiasco," Sharon said, clattering a dinner plate down on the table. "She'll be fine at Stoneybrook University, Richard."
Mary Anne peered around the edge of the door and watched her father pinch the bridge of his nose.
"I think there's something else," he said. "She's so nervous all the time. She won't talk to me about it."
"I'll ask her later," Sharon said, dropping ice cubes into a fresh pitcher of lemonade. "Stop worrying so much."
"I just think it would be better if you waited," Richard said. "The less disruption right now, the better."
"It's just the weather, Richard," Sharon said, and this time there was a sharpness to her voice Mary Anne didn't think she'd ever heard before. "Mary Anne's just a little blue, that's all. She'll cheer up once the heat breaks." She placed the pitcher carefully in the middle of the table. "I'm going to California," she said. "I love Mary Anne, Richard, but I want to see Dawn before summer's over. You'll both be fine." She turned her back and started tossing the salad in the bowl on the counter.
Mary Anne backed away and returned quietly upstairs to her bedroom. She couldn't help but feel responsible for the argument.
While Mary Anne was helping with the dinner dishes, and supervising Sharon in an effort to make sure everything was put back where it was supposed to go, she braced herself for the question she knew was coming.
Sharon dropped a handful of cutlery into the drawer, spoons and forks mixing together in one compartment. "You're very quiet, Mary Anne," she said lightly. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Fine," Mary Anne answered easily. "Just tired. I haven't been getting much sleep – it's been too hot."
"Oh, I know," Sharon said sympathetically. "So long as everything else is all right."
Mary Anne nodded, and Sharon patted her shoulder and headed for the fridge with a stack of clean plates in her hand.
Mary Anne cringed and backed up a couple of paces. She'd known upon seeing her father's study door open that he'd wanted to talk to her before she disappeared up to bed. She was starting to get a headache. She wanted to dissolve into tears.
She looked around the door. "Is everything all right?"
"I was going to ask you that," Richard said, turning in his chair to face her. "You're very quiet."
"I'm fine," Mary Anne answered, feeling a little impatient. "Sharon's already asked me if anything is wrong."
"Is anything wrong?" Richard asked, and the look on his face told Mary Anne he was worried.
She felt guilty. For a moment she wondered if she should try to explain everything to him – how terrified she was whenever she thought of college, and how being at home was becoming increasingly scary as well, all because of something which had happened over four years ago.
"No, everything's okay," she said, leaning against the door-jamb. "It's just the heat."
Richard nodded and fidgeted with the pen in his hand. "You're not worried about college, are you?" he asked after a moment.
She hesitated. "Maybe a little bit."
She saw a slight look of relief cross his face, like he'd finally pinned down the problem and understood why she'd been acting the way she had. "You don't need to worry, honey," he said. "You'll settle in soon enough. Don't forget everyone else will be new as well."
Mary Anne traced her finger along the grain of the wood in the door. "I know."
Her father watched her for a long moment. "Your mother didn't like college much, either," he said eventually. "I'm sure she'd be able to give you better advice than I can at the moment."
Mary Anne's heart sank. "You're not bad at giving advice, Dad." She stepped into his study and dropped onto the small sofa by the bookcase. "I don't know why I'm so nervous about it."
"Well, it's a big moment." He looked down at the pen in his hands and rolled it between his fingers. "Sometimes I forget just how grown up you are."
Mary Anne tucked her hair behind her ears. "Why didn't Mom like it?"
"I'm not sure, really," he mused. "She hid in the library a lot of the time, studying and helping the staff there. But she was a long way from home, of course, and often felt homesick."
Mary Anne's heart sank even further, but she kept her voice light. "Well, I won't have to worry about that," she said.
For a moment, Mary Anne thought he was going to mention Sarah Lawrence again, tell her that if she really wanted to go, she could.
But he didn't. He just cleared his throat lightly and nodded. "So long as you're happy, Mary Anne. That's all that really matters."
"Hey, Mary Anne!"
Mary Anne looked up in alarm as Claudia breezed happily into the library, looking far too put-together and casual, considering the oppressive heat still shimmering down outside.
"Is my mom around?" Claudia asked, leaning on the front desk. Her over-sized t-shirt slid off her shoulder to reveal a hot pink bra strap.
"Um," Mary Anne said, her face already red from Claudia's sudden arrival. She felt flustered and trapped. "I think she's out back. You can go and look for her if you want."
Claudia lifted herself up onto the desk and sat cross-legged, flipping through a paperback someone had left on the desk. "How are you?" she asked. She glanced up and smiled.
Mary Anne was instantly suspicious, though she wasn't sure why. She hadn't seen Claudia for weeks, and her sudden arrival after Mary Anne's conversation with Alan made her feel self-conscious. "Fine," she answered. "How are you?"
"Hot," Claudia complained. "The air conditioning in my car doesn't work. Even with the windows down, it doesn't make much difference."
"It is hot," Mary Anne agreed sympathetically. She fidgeted with the library date stamp. "I heard you got into Lyme," she said eventually, trying to cut down on the awkward silence she could feel creeping into the air. "Congratulations."
Claudia beamed. "Hey, thanks." She glanced around. "Still not sure Mom and Dad are that pleased about it."
Mary Anne rolled her eyes, finding the familiar direction of conversation rather comforting. "You're not Janine."
"Thank God." Claudia grinned and tossed the paperback down onto the desk again. "I saw Alan the other day. He said you guys went for a soda or something."
"Oh," Mary Anne stammered, "no, it was nothing like that. I mean, I just ran into him..."
Claudia laughed and shook her head, her earrings jangling gently against her neck. "No, it's fine. I mean, I wasn't accusing you of anything. It wouldn't matter anyway, you know?"
Mary Anne nodded and looked down at the stamp again, spinning it with her fingers.
"Seen Kristy? Is she back from camp yet?"
"I haven't seen her," Mary Anne answered, shrugging slightly. She hadn't even known Kristy was away at camp – off being a mentor to another group of kids, or at some sports event? Mary Anne bit her lip and wondered.
Mrs. Kishi appeared with a stack of books in her arms. "Claudia! The desk is not for sitting on."
Claudia slid off the desk obediently. "I've locked myself out of the house," she said, having the grace to look a little shame-faced. "Can I borrow your key?"
Mary Anne busied herself by loading the book cart as Claudia and Mrs. Kishi talked. She began to hope Claudia would leave without suggesting a soda or a slice of pizza or something. The thought of trying to sustain conversation for more than five minutes gave Mary Anne a headache.
"We should catch up sometime," Claudia said, finding Mary Anne between the Science Fiction shelves. "It's been ages."
"Sure," Mary Anne answered easily. "It has been a while."
Claudia tilted her head, her hair long curtaining down over one shoulder. "You okay?" she asked brightly.
"Sure," Mary Anne said again. She gave Claudia the smile she used to convince her father everything was fine. "Just the heat, you know?"
Claudia rolled her eyes. "I know, right? My make-up slides off, like, thirty seconds after I put it on each morning."
"I know," Mary Anne agreed, voicing understanding, but silently wondering why Claudia bothered with make-up in the first place. Especially if it never stayed on...
"Well, see ya," Claudia said, drumming her fingers against a nearby shelf. "I'll call you sometime."
"Okay," Mary Anne answered automatically. "Bye, Claud."
Claudia smiled again, hovering a few seconds after their farewells, as though she were waiting for something else.
Mary Anne breathed a sigh of relief when she had gone, and instantly felt guilty.
She wondered when it had become a chore to have friends, instead of a pleasure. She wondered if there was ever a way to unburden herself of everything when it seemed so likely she would have to do it all alone.
Mary Anne clung to Sharon a little longer than she meant to. "When will you be back?" she asked, blinking back tears.
"Sunday," Sharon reminded her patiently, squeezing Mary Anne before she pulled back and smiled at her. "You'll be okay, honey."
"I know." Mary Anne wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and looked down at the floor as Sharon pecked Richard's cheek.
She couldn't really help but feel it was her fault Sharon was leaving. The house had such a weight around it lately, and Mary Anne just knew it was her fault.
Sharon beamed at her husband and her step-daughter, waving over her shoulder before she disappeared into the crowd in the direction of her gate.
Richard put his arm around Mary Anne's shoulders, but he didn't say anything. Mary Anne knew he was still angry about Sharon leaving when the mood surrounding them all seemed so oppressive and hopeless. He had tried to convince her again to wait a little longer, but Sharon was too aware of the short time left before Dawn started college.
Mary Anne had heard them arguing again the previous night, and as much as she understood Sharon's desire to see Dawn, she wished her father had won the dispute. Sharon offered an air of vibrancy and casualness that neither Mary Anne nor Richard had a hope of imitating. The house would seem even less like a home without her there.
Mary Anne lifted her chin and sighed, flashing her father another well-practised smile. "Think we can survive without her?" she asked.
Richard smiled back and squeezed Mary Anne close to him for a brief moment. "I think we'll do okay," he said.
Mary Anne jumped as a book thumped off the shelf and landed at her feet. She looked at the shelf in surprise, wondering what had happened.
Alan Gray's eyes glittered back at her from the other side. "Hey, sugar momma."
"Alan," Mary Anne breathed, sounding only slightly annoyed. She bent to pick up the book he'd nudged to the ground. "What are you doing here?"
"Catching up on my summer reading."
"Right," Mary Anne answered, finding herself smiling. "Come on, I'm working. I can't fool around."
Alan wiggled his eyebrows at her through the gap in the shelf. "I hadn't suggested anything, but if you're trying to hint at something, Mary Anne, I'm up for it."
She felt heat steal to her face, and she started to stammer.
He laughed and came around the end of the bookshelves, leaning against them casually. Sweat darkened his t-shirt again, under the arms and in a triangle pointing down his chest.
"Sleeping any better?" he asked.
She figured he was only asking because their previous conversations had included the subject. She shrugged. "Sure."
He smirked and turned his attention to the books, running his fingers along the spines.
"Thanks for mentioning the intern idea," he blurted suddenly. "I mentioned it to Dad and he's kind of eased off on me. But I figure I'll probably end up going to Stoneybrook U anyway."
Mary Anne felt a wave of relief, and didn't do a very good job of hiding it. "Maybe it'll be okay if we're there together," she said. She cleared her throat in a moment of awkward silence.
"I guess," Alan said eventually, looking at her critically. "At least you're smart. If we're ever in the same class, you'll probably be able to help me out with the answers."
She laughed and shook her head. "I'm not so sure..."
He grinned and shrugged, toying with a tattered paperback. "So," he said eventually, "wanna go for a soda sometime? I mean, if you want..."
"Okay," Mary Anne answered, more from surprise than anything. "I finish here in an hour..." She felt another light blush rise to her cheeks.
Alan gave her a wide grin. "Cool," he said. He breathed a loud sigh and shook his head. "Maybe summer will work out if there's someone I can hang out with," he reasoned. He glanced at her and looked away again. "I mean, if you're okay with it. And I mean, just... You know..."
Mary Anne smiled and shifted a stack of books from the cart into her arms. "Yeah, I know," she answered. "I'll meet you at the Rosebud in an hour, okay?"
"Are you on drugs?"
Mary Anne choked on her lemonade. She reached for a napkin, her eyes watering. "What?" she wheezed. She spluttered into the napkin. Alan watched her seriously.
"Why would you think I'm on drugs?" Mary Anne asked, offended and confused. "I've never done drugs!"
"You look like you're about two hits away from an overdose," Alan said, reclining against his side of the booth and chewing thoughtfully on his straw. "Or you're sick, or somethin'."
"Alan," Mary Anne said sharply, "you can't just ask someone if they're doing drugs."
"Why not?" he asked. He grinned at her, apparently amused by her anger. "If you're not, what's the difference?"
Mary Anne tucked a lock of her behind her ears, her fingers trembling. They were in a different booth today, further from the exit, and that alone was enough to fray her nerves.
She cleared her throat and shook her head slightly to clear her thoughts. "I'm not on drugs," she said, giving him a fierce look.
"I figured not," he said, looking largely unconcerned. "You'd be the last person to do 'em, right?"
Mary Anne clamped her teeth down on her straw and carefully sucked in another mouthful of lemonade, refusing to answer him. She suddenly wondered why she had agreed to meet him at all – all she could think about now was how annoying he had been in school.
It didn't seem like he'd changed much.
"Sorry," Alan said after a moment. "It's just that you look pretty tired, Mary Anne. I thought it might have been drugs."
"Well, it's not," Mary Anne answered. She tore her napkin into thin, careful shreds.
"So what is it, then?" Alan asked, fixing her with a direct stare.
Mary Anne squirmed slightly. Suddenly Alan was reminding her of Kristy – so blunt and direct... Once Kristy Thomas wanted something, she went after it, and Mary Anne felt Alan was the same. She doubted he'd rest until she gave him a satisfactory answer.
She wondered if it would be so terrible to tell him the truth.
"Hey," Alan said, before Mary Anne could make up her mind, "I really meant that before, you know..." He slurped noisily on his soda, looking nervous. "The thanks, I mean." He shook his head and shrugged at the same time, and Mary Anne felt slightly awed when she saw how flustered he was becoming. It was strange, watching someone else fumble their way through an anxious conversation.
"Dad was kind of..." Alan trailed off into a mumble and stared down at the table. "About college, I mean. We were fightin' a lot, you know?" He glanced up at Mary Anne sheepishly. "The idea about interns and stuff... I mean, even if it don't work out, he seems happier now, like I'm tryin' to make an effort..." He glanced up at her again.
Mary Anne gave him a small smile. "Glad I could help," she said quietly. She was glad. And she realised now that Alan looked less exhausted and less twitchy than he had the first time they'd met in the Rosebud. She was glad her throwaway comment about summer internships had made so much difference.
"You remember when my house burned down?" Mary Anne asked suddenly. Her heart started hammering as she stood on the edge of the truth.
"Uh-huh," Alan answered, leaning forward to catch his straw in his mouth again. "Eighth grade."
"Yeah." Mary Anne decided to ignore the way Alan smirked when she played with her hair. She reached up and started to braid a few strands together, glad to have something to do with her hands. "I'm worried it'll happen again," she admitted softly.
When she said it out loud, it didn't seem so ridiculous.
"Yeah," Alan said, throwing himself back against the booth again. "Especially with everythin' so hot and dry, huh?"
"Yeah," Mary Anne breathed. She kept her eyes on the shredded pile of her napkin. "But I mean... I guess it's not just that. I mean, it is, mostly... But it's also college. And everything that's happened... All that stuff with Sarah Lawrence."
Alan shrugged and made a noise somewhat like a scoff. "Who cares?" he asked. "Jesus, Mary Anne, you don't need to worry. You'll get where you need to be. College don't matter."
She wrinkled her brow. "What do you mean?"
"Didn't you get the highest grades in our class?" Alan asked. He shrugged again. "Who cares which college you go to. You'll figure it out. I don't think college matters that much in the long run."
Mary Anne gave him a small smile. "You don't?"
"Nah." He looked up at her and gave her an easy grin. "You're so smart I don't think the wrong college will hold you back much."
She laughed, suddenly. "Maybe not."
He grinned again. "I'm glad you're goin' to Stoneybrook U, anyway," he said. "Hopefully we'll have a few classes together. That'd be cool."
"Yeah," Mary Anne agreed easily. "It would be."
She swirled her straw around in her lemonade. Alan watched the ice cubes twirl against the glass.
"You really think about fires a lot?" he asked after a moment.
"All the time," Mary Anne admitted. "I know it's stupid."
"Nah," he said. "If my house burned down, I'd probably worry about it too."
Mary Anne bit her lip. "I can't explain it," she said, rather defensively, despite his understanding. "I can't sleep because I'm worried I'll wake up and there will be smoke everywhere..." She ducked her head and blinked rapidly as tears stung her eyes.
She felt guilty, somehow. Like perhaps all of her worry and anxiety was somehow a ploy for attention or sympathy. Because really, she didn't need to worry so much. She knew that. There were smoke alarms all over the house, and the steps Richard had taken to ensure the electricity was safe had caused Sharon at least four serious migraines.
Still. Mary Anne couldn't forget trying to find her way down the stairs in the old farmhouse as smoke billowed low from the ceiling.
She shuddered, and Alan noticed.
"Cold?" he asked, glancing up at the air conditioning vents above them.
She shook her head and reached for her lemonade again.
"How come you and Claudia don't talk much anymore?" Alan asked curiously.
Mary Anne bit her lip and frowned. "I'm not sure, really," she admitted. "We all just grew apart..." She swiped her hand across her eyes, though they were dry. "I get so worried, you know? About fires. And college. I just... at some point it was easier to just keep it all to myself. And Kristy and Claud and everyone – I mean, you know what it's like. Everyone is so busy trying to sort their own lives out. We just... we didn't fight or anything. We just didn't stay friends."
Alan rolled his eyes. "Girls," he muttered.
Mary Anne was quick to shoot back. "You said you wanted to punch Pete Black."
"Yeah," Alan said, raising his hand for the waitress, "but he'd get over it. Want a cheeseburger?"
Mary Anne gave him a small smile. "Okay."
Mary Anne felt a lurch in her chest as she saw her father standing at the fridge with the door open.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
He looked up and smiled at her. "There you are," he said. He swung the fridge door closed. "Where have you been?"
"Sorry," Mary Anne answered, cringing. She still felt guilty when she came home late, or didn't tell her father where she would be. "I lost track of time."
The setting sun was sending its rays directly into the living room at the front of the house. Through the open doorway to the kitchen, everything glowed orange.
Richard appeared distracted. He opened the fridge again. "It's fine," he murmured. "I just thought you were with Kristy or somebody."
Mary Anne felt a pang. Suddenly she wished she had been with Kristy. Spending the afternoon chatting with Alan had reminded her how much easier everything became with a friend.
"No," she said slowly, "but Claudia wanted to catch up sometime this week. Could I call her now?"
"Of course you may," Richard murmured, still gazing into the fridge.
Mary Anne gave him a worried look, wondering if he was inspecting the light inside for faults. She went to the phone, her palms slightly sweaty and her heart racing, and dialled Claudia's number.
She felt a little sick, and very nervous, but her father's assumption that she had been with friends made her want to create the situation for real.
She cleared her throat. "Hi, Claud. It's Mary Anne."
Claudia didn't hide her surprise. "Oh! Hey! How are you?"
"Very well, thanks," Mary Anne answered, still eyeing her father rather suspiciously. "Um, did you still want to go for a soda sometime?"
There was a beat, but Claudia sounded excited when she spoke. "Of course!" she said. "You have no idea how bored I've been. Nobody is around. Stace is in New York for the summer, and Kristy's off teaching kids baseball or something, I don't know. And it's so hot – and oh God, Mary Anne, this Mars Bar totally melted all over my carpet. Do you know how to get chocolate stains out?"
Mary Anne smiled and nudged at the kitchen counter with her foot as she thought. "I'll try to find out," she answered. "Do you want to meet tomorrow?"
"Sure! I'll come by the library and we'll go to lunch or something."
"Okay." Mary Anne smiled again. "See you then."
She turned to her father once the call had ended, watching him nervously. He swung the fridge door closed and sighed again.
"What's wrong?" Mary Anne asked worriedly. "Is it the light in there? The motor is humming kind of weird, don't you think?"
Richard raised his eyebrows slightly. "I don't know about that," he answered. "But all we have in there is soy milk and tofu. How do you feel about take out?"
Mary Anne blinked, and then laughed. "Oh. Um, great, I guess?" She grinned at him. "Can we order something with meat in it?"
Mary Anne wiped a trembling hand against her mouth, the sharp taste of bile still on her tongue. Her stomach was tumbling over and over, and her knees wouldn't stop shaking.
When she finally emerged from the bathroom stall and glimpsed herself in the mirror, she winced at the sallow cast of her skin and the deep shadows that had reappeared under her eyes.
Outside, she could hear the excited hum of Stoneybrook University students as they hurried to their first classes.
"I can't do it," Mary Anne whispered, panicked, to her reflection. She shook her head, her face ghostly beneath the hard florescent lighting in the girls' bathroom.
She would have to go home. She would have to go home and explain to her father, and to Sharon, that college just wasn't for her – that she would just have to accept that she would never leave Stoneybrook, would never leave her job at the library or achieve anything.
She pushed miserably back into the crowd, fighting against the current of students pouring across the quad. Just when she thought everything would be okay – just when she'd found a new balance with her friends, and her work... Just when she thought she could do it... It all fell apart again.
Something – someone – caught her arm. "Hey, sugar momma. Where are you off to?"
Mary Anne winced and looked at Alan. He gave her a lazy grin.
"I'm ill," she said. "I have to go home."
He looked her up and down before he dismissed what she'd said. "Pfft."
"I am!" she insisted, annoyed with him, and close to tears because all she wanted to do was escape.
"Come on," he said, tugging at her gently. "You can't bail on me on the first day. You're supposed to call Claudia later, and Kristy, and tell 'em what it was like."
Mary Anne bit her lip. Her heart was slowing a little, gathering itself back into a normal rate.
"You should probably call California Girl, too," Alan said, still gripping her wrist. He started leading her with the crowd, back toward the main building. "And I need you, anyway, 'cos I don't see anyone else I know yet, and I need a wingman to hook me up with cute girls to sit with in class."
"A wingman?" Mary Anne asked in disgust. She followed him, her feet treading heavily.
"Woman," he corrected. "Wing... uh, woman." He grinned over his shoulder at her. "Unless you want to sit with me in class, Mary Anne? You're pretty cute, I guess."
"We've only got two classes together," she said, ignoring him, already exasperated. But she smiled in spite of herself, because once again he'd managed to distract her from what was really worrying her.
"Yeah, well," Alan said, sounding satisfied. "That still means you gotta stay."
Mary Anne felt her stomach clench as they approached the building. "You know," she said nervously, "they never went over fire drills with us or anything."
"We'll sit near the door," Alan promised. He grinned at her again. "Not gonna promise I won't trample you if the need comes to escape, though."
"Charming," Mary Anne answered.
Alan's hand slid from her wrist down to her fingers. He clung to her tightly as he led her through the crowd, his grip firm on her hand.
Mary Anne followed him. He had not, after all, led her astray yet.