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Childhood Sweethearts - A Quiet at the End of the World short story

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Shen and I are eating lunch on the terrace with my parents when Dad says, "I came by the river with some ice creams for you two yesterday, and I couldn't find you. Did you go for a ride in the park?"

Shen and I look at each other, panicking. Dad must have come by while we were secretly exploring the crash site at Big Ben. We'll be in huge trouble if they know what we've done. They told us we definitely weren't allowed to explore there, because it would be too dangerous.

"Oh!" I say. "That might have been because we were off, um . . ." Floundering, I widen my eyes at Shen, begging him to jump in with an excuse, but he just stares at me.

I suddenly remember that Mum is always implying that we're in love. They were all thrilled by the idea that we were together – maybe we could use that against them, to work for us instead of embarrassing us, like usual.

"We were kissing!" I say. "We rode out to the old hunting lodge to kiss."

What am I doing? That's the worst excuse I could possibly come up with! There's going to be at least a million follow-up questions.

"What?" Shen croaks, like there's a frog in his throat.

"We're going out," I say. I reach across the table, and carefully wrap Shen's hand in mine, rubbing my thumb across his knuckles. I try to keep a straight face, silently begging him to play along with my eyes.

There's a moment of silence, and then Shen says, in a quick burst like he's getting it over with, "We are. It's true." His expression blanches.

Mum tears up and clasps her hands to her chest. "I knew it! Oh, young love!"

Dad claps Shen on the back. "Good lad," he says.

"Lowrie, I'm so glad!" Mum continues. "It's such a relief to know that you two will always be there for each other. You won't ever be alone."

I feel a twinge of guilt, but nod and smile.

"How did you get together? Was it ever so romantic?"

Shen and I both go to speak at once. "We were riding, and-"

"It was when we were mudlarking-"

We stop, and look at each other.

"It happened over the course of the few days," Shen explains with a little laugh. "We just . . . decided it was time. It had been coming on for a while, and after the crash, we thought, why wait?"

Mum sighs dreamily. "When did you first realise that you liked each other like that?"

I open my mouth, and then close it again, and look over at Shen. I have no idea what to say.

Coming to my rescue, he looks up at the ceiling and says, "I saw Lowrie one morning last summer sitting on the patio in her plaid pyjamas, hair unbrushed, wrinkling her nose as she forced down the coffee she doesn't actually like, but makes herself drink because that's what grown-ups do, and I knew. I knew I loved her, and wanted to wake up every day seeing her like that."

I stare at him. That was . . . oddly specific. When did he even have time to come up with that?

"For this is the golden morning of love, and you are his morning start!" Mum said, wriggling with delight.

How does she remember this stuff? It's like she has an internal database filled with every poem ever written. Whereas I can barely remember the names of characters in TV shows.

Shen stares into his cup, foot tapping repetitively against the wooden floor with a soft clicking noise.

Dad clasps Shen's shoulder and squeezing, beaming. "What about you, Lowrie?"

I stare across the garden, searching for inspiration. A marble nymph stares back at me serenely.

"He was helping me with a Chemistry problem," I say, remembering a day a few months ago, near Christmas. "He pointed out what I'd done wrong, and he was so nice about it, and I just looked at him and thought . . . I can't imagine anyone I would rather spend the rest of my life with."

I can feel myself blushing. I clear my throat, avoiding Shen's intent gaze. I may have just made an enormous mistake. This is not going to help with my utter determination to keep everything involving Shen completely platonic.

I stand up abruptly, patio chair squealing on the stone. "I'm going to change into my tennis clothes."

Shen looks panicked at being abandoned to their questioning, and jumps up too. "I'll come with you!"

We go upstairs together, and both try to go into the bathroom at the same time.

"Oh!" I say. "You – you go first."

"No!" Shen says, voice high-pitched and oddly awkward, for him. "You go!"

"Sorry about that," I say, unable to meet his eye. I've never felt so close to him, or so far away. "I didn't mean to spring it on you. I just – panicked."

"No, it was good," he says quickly. "Quick thinking. Well done. I'm, er, I'm going to get changed into my tennis kit too." He disappears into the spare bedroom and I hide in the bathroom.

I glare at myself in the mirror, telling my reflection to get a grip, to stop being such an idiot. This shouldn't be so weird. I don't think of Shen like that, and he doesn't either.

I rub my jaw, grimacing. I've clenched it so much that it hurts.

*

"You know Mum and Dad are going to have told your parents we're dating," I tell him as we walk down to the tennis courts. I rub the bronze rose on the bannister for luck. We're going to need it.

He shrugs, looking remarkably calm. "I don't mind."

"You don't?"

"Why would I? You're a catch, Lowrie."

My worry dissolves into pleasure. "Well, maybe you should use this as an opportunity to practise your chat up lines. To make it look like we're really together."

He winks at me. "I could never use just a line on you. You deserve a whole thesis, baobei."

"Good one."

He walks casually with his hands clasped behind his back. "What about you?"

"What about me, what?" My brain feels slow and gloopy.

"You should practise your chat up lines, too."

"Shen," I say, low and husky. I pause, and lick my lips. "I don't need a chat up line to make you pay attention to me."

Immediate and absolute embarrassment rushes over me. Where had that come from?

He smiles up at the ceiling. "You win. This time."

I arch one eyebrow. "Oh, is this a competition now?"

"It is. One you should probably prepare to lose."

"Well, even if I do lose, I'll have a lot of fun doing it, handsome," I say.

Shen's eyes widen, and I test out my own wink on him.

He scowls. "I didn't know we'd started."

*

After we've finished playing tennis, Shen pulls up the website for the local hospital.

"What are you doing?" I ask, as he starts downloading maps.

"I want to find out if Alexei is really okay after his crash. They aren't going to tell us what really happened to the helicopter to make it crash, and I think we'll be able to get more information there."

We agree to pretend to go to bed, and then sneak out to the hospital at midnight. Before I leave for bed, I pause. I bend over and press a kiss to Shen's cheek, without giving myself time to second-guess the decision.

 

 

Lowrie MB and 张申 are in a relationship

Today

Sarah Fields said: Oh my goodness! I always knew you two would got together one day! Congratulations, my loves!

Aisha Maxwell said: I knew it! I'm so happy for you both! What a beautiful couple you make.

[See 39 other comments]

*

Mum knocks on my door when I'm getting ready for bed, so that I can pretend to be asleep before we sneak out to go to the hospital.

"I thought you might want to discuss what's happening with Shen," she says carefully.

"I don't want to talk about my feelings," I say, firm and final. "Not now, not ever."

A hurt look crosses her face. We've always been close, and I feel suddenly guilty. She thinks I'm shutting her out, that I don't trust her to talk about this stuff. But the truth is, there's nothing to discuss. It's all lies.

I sigh, and backtrack. "Okay," I say, grumpily. I can put up with more embarrassment, if she really wants to have this mother-daughter talk. "What did you want to say?"

It's not like she can ask us to be 'safe'. If I got pregnant, it would be a miracle. The whole world would literally throw a festival in our honour. And neither of us have ever had sex with anyone else. Diseases are hardly an issue either.

Unable to meet her eye, I brush out my wet hair, still dripping from my shower.

"I want to be sure you're comfortable with everything," she says. "I know it's been a long time coming, but -"

I look up at her, surprised. "What do you mean, a long time coming?"

"Well. You've had quite the crush on Shen for a few years now. I thought you liked him when we went to Cornwall last summer. You were getting ready to go surfing in the sea and you tripped over yourself when you saw Shen in his board shorts, remember?"

I open my mouth and then close it again, flushing. I do remember that, but not how she describes it. I hadn't been looking at Shen when I tripped. I mean, I specifically remember that I wasn't looking at him, and that's why I . . .

Oh, crap.

I can't believe Mum noticed, after all the times I insisted I didn't see him like that. Does Dad know too? I've been embarrassing myself for months, haven't I? It must have been obvious to everyone except me.

This is horrible. I promised myself I was never going to develop a crush on him. I blocked out every hint that I might like him. And this whole time it's been happening anyway? I need to have a firm talk with my heart.

I wonder if I blurted out the lie about us kissing at the hunting lodge because I'd been thinking about it so much. Maybe it was a Freudian slip. Otherwise, why was it the first excuse that sprang to mind? Have I been obsessing over Shen, without even realising it?

Mum says, "Feeling so much for someone for so long, and then finally having somewhere to focus that emotion – there's always a rush of joy and love and feeling. That doesn't mean you need to rush into things yet, even if you want to. You've got the rest of your lives to explore and let the bond between you both strengthen in its own time. Okay?"

"Okay." I don't know what to think anymore. I don't even want to like Shen like that. It's best if I just ignore it completely. It'll go away on its own, then.

We decide to ride our bikes to the hospital at midnight, as we don't want to start a car in case the engine wakes someone up. We follow the path of a navigational laser beam, projected from my tablet. It's a warm night, and the full moon is out. Even though this was an impromptu plan, we couldn't have chosen better timing. I can see everything, even the flag fluttering from the roof of home.

When we near the hospital, we prop our bikes against the wrought iron railings of an alleyway and walk the last few streets to the hospital's car park. It's too late for visiting hours, so the main entrance is deserted except for a security bot.

We find an alcove behind the rear wall where we're hidden from view, and I kneel down to unzip my rucksack.

As Shen stands guard, I set up my drone. It's fitted with two sensors – the sonar imaging scanner which I use to map out underwater features, and a second, which I'm going to use for this. It has a ground penetrating radar, which can scan the ground, searching for any changes in the underground structure using radio waves.

I never actually intended to use the drone for treasure hunting. I only bought it because of another one of Shen's conspiracy theories. For months and months, he wouldn't stop talking about the secret passageway that he thought was on the grounds. He would spend every evening pouring over historical blueprints of the buildings and gardens, searching records for any traces of a cellar or secret bunker.

Eventually, I got fed up to listening to his theories without him actually doing anything about it. I ordered the scanners and drone, and set it all up. I spent a weekend making Shen help me fly it over all forty-two acres of the grounds, until we had a complete three-dimensional model of the above and below ground structures. We compared that with the blueprints to see if there really was a secret passageway.

We did find a forgotten well, and I lost my earring when we explored it. We dug up a few other suspicious objects too, including an old bike and a water fountain - but there was nothing valuable.

Shen eventually gave up on that conspiracy, and the drone sat in a cupboard until I had the bright idea to use it for mudlarking when it was raining. We sit under a bridge in the dry and send the drone out over the Thames, scanning for anything underwater. We've found a few sunken boats that way. Once we even saw a dolphin, drowsily picking its way upriver.

Today, the drone is going to be used for a more unethical purpose.

"Hurry," Shen says.

"Why? Is someone coming?" I ask, quickly flying the drone vertically upwards to roof level.

"No, I'm just getting cold. I want to go in."

I roll my eyes, guiding the drove into the air. It rises smoothly until it's hovering at stomach level, rotors spinning with an almost inaudible hum. I fly it slowly up and over the roof of the hospital, giving the scanner time to update on my tablet, so it doesn't knock into anything.

Shen watches in silence. He isn't allowed to operate the drone anymore, because he smashed a rotor once when he flew it into a lamppost. He struggles with visualisation and perspective sometimes, which I think is why he finds it so hard to remember how to tie knots. I think he feels a bit embarrassed by it.

I've tried to tell him that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses – and that he is really good at science, which I find impossible – but he doesn't listen. He's so used to being clever that he trips up on anything he can't do perfectly on the first try. I'm used to being bad at things, so it doesn't usually worry me as much as it does him.

I guide the drone around a chimney pot, then bring it to rest in the centre of the roof, so it can scan as much of the hospital as possible. The radar is already picking up the layout of the top floor, roughly sketching in walls and doors.

"Ready?" Shen asks, wrapping his arms around his body. He's shivering.

"Give it a few minutes to update the model," I say, and shrug off my cardigan, passing it over to him.

He pulls it on, and then taps at something on his tablet. A second later, a message pops up on my screen: SHEN ZHANG HAS REQUESTED ACCESS TO 'LOWRIE'S DRONE'. I approve it, and we both watch as the drone's scanner creates a real-time image of the building.

A blob drifts past on the model, as a doctor or patient walks down the corridor. The drone takes a few seconds to update, so they're probably . . . I tilt my head up, flicking away the screen of my tablet just in time to see someone walk past an upper story window.

"There's a lag of about ten seconds," I say. "Maybe more." The model is still showing the person is walking along the corridor, while in reality they're climbing up the stairs.

"That'll be enough time for us to hide, right?" he asks, a little nervously.

"Let's hope so." I grin at him. "So where are the emergency rooms? The third floor, right?"

Shen nods, and zooms in on a room filled with rows of neat rectangular objects. "Baba is probably in here. But I think we should get the research first. We're more likely to get caught in the hospital ward, but we can explain why we're there more easily by saying I really wanted to see my baba. If we get caught in the labs, we'll be in trouble."

I zoom out again, tracking down the corridor to where the research labs are, on the second floor.

"If we can get past the security bot at the main reception, we should have a clear route to the labs. There's a staircase that's not near any of the areas being used right now."

Shen nods. "There looks like there's a bathroom there too," he says, highlighting a room near the labs. "We can duck inside if someone comes past."

"Perfect. We just need to set up the distraction, then."

I zoom in on the ventilation system, tracing the lines of the air circulation pipes in the walls. "There's a vent on the outer wall of the east side of the building. That'll work. Are you definitely sure you want to do this? There's, like, an eighty percent chance we're going to get caught."

"Um . . ."

"I bet it's nice and warm in there," I say, teasingly. "Not that you don't look lovely in my cardigan – it really defines the muscles of your shoulders." I wink at him, trying to distract him from his nerves with another cheesy chat up line.

"Lowrie Mount-Batton Windsor, are you trying to get me to take my clothes off?"

"No, I'm trying to get you to take my clothes off."

He grins at me, and it takes me a minute to work out why. "Off – off you!" I splutter. "Not off me!"

I clear my throat, ignoring his silent amusement. "Come on," I say gruffly. "Let's get this over with."

Shen follows me meekly, but I can tell that he's still grinning. I ignore him, walking around the perimeter of the building until we reach the vent that I think we can use as a distraction.

I pull a wireless speaker out of my backpack, and press play. The sound of a miserable whining puppy blasts from the speaker, on repeat. I push the speaker into the vents, and the sound amplifies, passing through the air-conditioning pipes and spreading through the building.

Then I pull up the drone's model, watching the main reception. The bot doesn't move for several minutes, but eventually starts to glide towards the corridor. Its path is winding as it searches for the lost puppy, unable to locate where the echoing sound is coming from.

"Go!" I say to Shen. We start running for the main entrance. The bot is heading away from us, but we don't want to waste any time while it's distracted. We slip through the automatic doors and race towards the staircase. I check that the path ahead of us is clear on my screen, so I can keep an eye on where we are, and where we're going.

Our footsteps clatter as we run up to the second floor, but the only people in the building are on the next floor up, so I don't try to dull the sound. Speed is more important than subtlety right now.

Then I notice a figure move down the corridor on the model.

"There's someone coming," I say.

We turn down a different corridor, which is empty. The drone's model shows our route is clear, but the time delay must be longer than I realised, because when we turn the corner, Dr Ahmed is walking towards us.

I back up, knocking into Shen, and twist, tugging at his elbow until he trips back around the corner after me.

"In here," I hiss, pushing open a door labelled 'Supplies'. We both squeeze inside, and I pull the door closed. It's a small space, and there's barely room for both of us.

Holding my breath, I shift in the darkness, my lower back pressing against rows of shelves. Shen's chest is pressed up along the length of mine. When I shift, trying to move away from the shelves digging into my back, his arm loops around my waist, tugging me closer.

Tentatively, I wrap my arms around his back, so that our elbows don't knock together. He shifts in my arms, stretching to find a more comfortable position.

"Okay?" he asks, under his breath.

I nod, the tips of my hair brushing his cheek. "Better."

I can smell sunshine on his skin. He's musky, a little sweaty. I brace myself, expecting to panic about touching him like this, but instead I just feel . . . safe. I don't want him to let go, even when my brain is screaming that this is dangerous, that this might mess things up forever.

"Can you distract me?" he says suddenly. "I can't – I need something to focus on right now."

"Well, I read this thing that said . . ."

He snorts, and nudges me. "Very funny. What's your name, Shen Zhang?"

"Okay, okay. Think about that hot blonde from that TV show, if you want a distraction."

He laughs into my hair. "Not that kind."

My mouth goes dry. Mum was right. I do like Shen, and I thought I could ignore my feelings, but I can't. It's becoming obvious that however hard I try to make them go away, it's not going to work. And if I keep trying, I'm just going to hurt myself – and Shen too.

He shifts against me, tracing an idle pattern on the small of my back as he listens for footsteps in the hallway. When his hand brushes against my neck, I break out in goosebumps.

I'm filled with the sudden urge to lean in and lick along his collarbone, to press my nose into the dark hollow under his ear. I can remember exactly what his mouth tastes like.

I want him. I want him so much, but I can't have him. I tell myself all of the reasons why we can't do this – that it's not worth the risk, however much I want him. I can't have him now like this, not if it means I won't even have him as a friend if it goes wrong. I can't do this. But I want to. So, so much.

Unable to resist, I let my fingers drift into his hair, smoothing through the short strands at the back of his head. I can't –

- the door opens, washing us in light.

My hand jerks in surprise, accidentally tugging at Shen's hair. He gives a full body shiver, right there in my arms.

I swallow back my reaction and twist to see Dr Ahmed standing in the doorway, arm raised to take something off the shelf.

"Oh! Lowrie! Shen! What are you doing here?" Her eyebrows are raised so high, they're almost touching her hair. When she isn't directing the operations of the country's only hospital, she holds a knitting circle on the newsfeed every Sunday evening.

"Dr Ahmed!" I say, feigning surprise. "How embarrassing – you've caught us kissing!"

I lean over and, eyes scrunched shut, press my lips to Shen's. His mouth is stiff and first, and then relaxes. He tilts his head to the side and suddenly our lips slot together, as smoothly as if we've been doing this for years.

When I risk a glance over at her, she's cooing at us. "How sweet!"

Shen makes a cut-off noise, and then leans in to kiss my cheek, casual and easy. I lean my head against his shoulder, snuggling into him even as agony swoops through my belly.

"But what are you doing here?" Dr Ahmed asks. "I wonder why the entry bot didn't notify me of your arrival – I'll have to run a software check. Are you here to see your mama, Shen? She's seeing a patient at the mo."

"I am," he says. He doesn't move to untangle us. He stays wrapped around me like he's completely comfortable like that. I can't understand how he can be so good at pretending we're together. How is this so easy for him? How is he not scared of all the same things that I am?

"I don't see the harm in a quick visit before we get you home. Now, let me just get my -" she reaches up to the shelf behind Shen's head, and tugs down what looks like a computer chip. "Great. Follow me!"

We follow her, as she tells us about the latest gossip in the hospital.

*

As soon as we're home and Mum has ushered us back to our beds, I sneak across the hallway and knock on the door of the spare room. Shen answers, arm halfway out of his shirt. He must have been changing into his pyajams.

I cross my arms, staring at the floor. A hot flush washes over me. "Sorry about all the kissing earlier," I mutter.

"It's fine," he says, rubbing the back of his neck. "But - is kissing seriously the only cover story you can come up with? Ever?"

"I'm sorry! I panicked!" I scrub my hands over my face. "We can just tell them we're not actually together, if it's getting too weird."

"No," he says quickly. "No, I don't mind. Though maybe . . ."

"Yes?" I ask, heart in my throat.

"Maybe we should . . . practise kissing? Just in case? That was really awkward. For everyone."

I rub my chin, considering it. It wasn't so bad, kissing Shen. It was almost nice – or at least it might have been, if someone hadn't been watching. And I should at least know what it's like to kiss someone properly, for once in my life. It doesn't have to mean anything. "Okay."

He leans in, and then hesitates, biting his lip. Summoning my courage, I reach out and hook a finger into his collar, pulling him in the last centimetre.

He exhales against my lips, bringing a hand to my face and hovering just above the skin like he's not sure if he's allowed to touch. I tilt my head, pressing my cheek against his hand.

It's easier, this time. We're both expecting it, and it doesn't hurt. His lips are so relaxed that I can feel his teeth, softly pressing against them.

When I pull away, his eyes are shut. I'm close enough to see the hairs on his lower lip, the scarring of old spots on his cheeks. He opens his eyes.

"Better? Or do you think we should . . ."

"We should definitely try again."

I lean back in, pressing our lips together again. I'm trying to work out what's the next step when his lips part. I breathe in the scent of wine from his mouth, waiting for the grossness to kick in; the instinctive this is Shen, what are you doing! repulsiveness that I thought would take over. There's nothing but warmth and surprising ease.

When my lower lip catches between his, I almost gasp. The skin inside my lip is so much more sensitive than I was expecting.

I fight the urge to pull away. It's too much, too intimate.

Shen sighs into my mouth, and I feel the warm tip of his tongue skim across my lip. My whole body relaxes. I twist closer, hand reaching up to wrap in the front of his shirt. His fingers slip into the soft, thin hair at the back of my head, and he tugs, just enough to encourage me in the right direction.

Shen sucks on my lip, then does that thing with his tongue again, small touches and then long, wide swipes. When his teeth nip at the skin, a moan bubbles out of me, rising up my throat and crossing from my mouth to his. His tongue dips into the gap between my front teeth.

I pull away, mortified, and twist to the side, wiping at the tender dampness of my mouth. "Good. Good, that was – that was good."

Shen mirrors my movement, turning so we're both sitting side by side, staring off into space. He clears his throat.

"Yeah," he says, voice grinding like pebbles on a beach. "Good work, team."

I stand up abruptly, lifting my head just enough to catch sight of the vivid red blush of his lips, roughened by our kiss. "Sorry about your shirt."

He looks down, surprised, and brushes flat the creases my fist has left in it. "Don't worry."

"I'll – I'll ask the bots to -" I can't look away from his lips. Why can't I look away from his lips?

"Really, don't worry."

I nod stiffly. "Right. Well. I'll – see you tomorrow."

"Right. I mean, good night."

I leave him still standing there. I lock my bedroom door behind me and run a shower, peeling off my clothes and climbing in. I lean against the wall under the cold water, replaying the kiss in my head. I can still taste him when I lick my lips.

I tell myself that it's just a physical reaction, that my body would do this no matter who I kissed, that there's nothing about Shen personally which is making me feel like this. It was my first kiss; of course I'm giddy.

It was Shen's first kiss too. I'm glad it was with me, so that it wasn't awkward for him. I'm glad he didn't have to get nervous and sweaty-palmed while kissing some random older woman. I'm glad I could give him a safe space like that. For him.

I think about how his fingertips on my cheek felt rough from years of playing bass guitar, and think about how those fingers would feel touching me somewhere else. I don't get out of the shower for a long time.

*

I'm about to sit down at breakfast the next day, when I notice a pile of pile of presents, bouquets of flowers and trays of casseroles at the far end of the table.

"What's all this?" I ask, lifting up a long, thin gift, wrapped in silver paper with pink hearts.

"Is it your birthday?" Shen asks. He looks exhausted after our night's adventure. "Is it my birthday?"

My heart drops. I hate birthdays, enough that I try my best to forget about them. Birthdays are a sign that we're all getting older – including my parents. It means that soon they'll be gone forever.

"It's no one's birthday," Mum says, a smidge too smugly. "They're for you."

I pick one up to read the tag.

To Lowrie and Shen,

With best wishes for your future happiness.

Love and kisses,

Mr & Mr Yates

Feeling faintly horrified, I drop the present and step away from the table. I grab Shen's upper arm, knees locking. "Shen . . . they're, like, wedding presents, or something. They're congratulations-on-your-new-relationship gifts."

There must be fifty presents here. That's one from every household, more or less.

"Everyone knows," he says, fear in his voice. "Everyone knows."

"Of course they do," Mum says, and claps her hands. "Everyone is so pleased for you both. It's all over the feed!"

Even though I know what I'll find, I turn on the newsfeed anyway.

"-the age gap is small enough that it won't necessarily be an issue for either of them," the newsreader says. "Lowrie is mature for her age, and Shen-"

"I'm sorry, Shirley, but I simply must disagree," a guest speaker says. "Even though there is no need for birth control-"

I quickly turn it off, mortified. I am so horrified that I can't actually see anything at all. There's a hissing noise in my ears, as if every cell in my body is screaming.

"What have we done?" Shen asks, sinking into a chair. "What have we done?"

He looks seemingly amazed he can be utterly mortified and still speak at the same time.

Everyone knows. Everyone knows, and they're discussing our hypothetical sex life on national television.

"I think we're dead," I say. "I think – I think this is what hell feels like."

Shen doesn't disagree.

I sit down, and start eating croissants as fast as I can.

"Lowrie," Dad says, disapproving but amused. "Save some for the rest of us."

I think I've made a huge mistake.

THE END (in this universe....)