. . . . . .
Lenore is eighteen years old when her life ends.
Or so she proclaims, very dramatically, as she drapes herself theatrically across the sofa in the front room, and to prove just how serious she is, she resists the temptation to point out to her younger brother Edgar just how nerdy it is that he is reading a book over summer break, on a Friday night no less.
She couldn't say whether Edgar notices the lack of sass, but he does lower his paperback enough to shoot her an annoyed look over the top of it.
"Clearly your life isn't over," he says flatly, "as you're still here with us."
"I'm talking about my social life, obviously," she says, and rolls her eyes for good measure even though he won't be able to see it, having gone back to his book. She can just read the title from where she lies: The Mysteries of Udolpho. Knowing him, it's something old and obscure and probably involves vampires, or at least a gloomy old castle.
"Ah," says her brother, "this is the day your last friend goes off to college."
"Caroline," Lenore confirms with a pout. "As of today, I am officially the only one of my friends left in town. And since that leaves me with only high schoolers and the weirdoes who hang out at the Circle K as friend options, my social life is officially over."
Edgar is not particularly sympathetic. "Well, I don't know what you expected to happen when you decided to stay here after graduation. You knew your friends were all planning to leave."
She did know that, she has to admit, but she supposed she'd thought that at least one of them would change their minds and would stick around with her. She had not expected that, starting the week after graduation, her high school friends and her boyfriend Guy would leave town one by one, heading off for college or the military or just the lure of someplace bigger than Baltimore, Indiana, population 5,100. Even those classmates she didn't hang out with, but that she would have considered befriending now out of desperation, have left. Now, three months after graduation, all that's left of her graduating class is her, a handful of farm kids, and the guys who used to do drugs out behind the metals shop and are still too strung out to realize that they probably ought to up and leave Baltimore one of these days.
But she doesn't want to admit she was wrong, so instead she says "Thanks, Dad," and Edgar rolls his eyes at her.
"Dad's right, you know. You should go to college. And not just for the . . . the social opportunities. A college education is one of the greatest possessions a person can have—"
"Oh my gosh, stop," says Lenore, blindly tossing a throw pillow toward his face and hitting him in the shins instead. "How did I end up related to such a nerd?" She still tries to convince him every so often that he's secretly adopted, or there was a mix-up at the hospital, because it seems impossible that she, Lenore Poe, student body president, fashion plate, and undisputed queen of Warren County High School, should be the sister of the guy whose personal quote in the yearbook this year was "I like books more than I like people." But no one would ever buy it, at least not anyone who's seen them together; they're nearly identical, from their dark coloring to the shapes of their faces to the lines of their noses and eyebrows. The Poe siblings are a good-looking pair, or at least she's good-looking and he could be if he made an effort and stopped slouching.
"Anyway," she says after a moment as Edgar tosses the pillow back at her, "I'll go to college when I'm good and ready."
Before her brother can answer, the doorbell rings and he stands, setting the book down on a side table and nearly knocking over a lamp in the process. A recent growth spurt has left him long-limbed and uncomfortable in his own skin, and as usual he doesn't seem to know what to do with his hands; they flutter like pale moths around the lamp, trying to steady it, and not until it's safe does he start to leave the room.
Halfway to the door, however, he pauses. "That's probably my friends at the door," he says. "We're going downstairs to watch a movie." He hesitates. "You . . . could join us," he says reluctantly, clearly only saying it to be nice. "Since your friends have all left town?"
Even if she thought Edgar was sincere and not just being polite, that doesn't sound like anything she wants to do. Edgar and his weird little posse of misfits get together often, usually at their house, mostly to watch old black and white movies but occasionally to play board games; she's even heard they have a book group together. She'd have to be much more desperate than she currently is to agree to spend any time like that with those dweebs.
"Nope!" she says, forcing herself to her feet. "I think sleep sounds like a better use of my time. Since literally anything would be a better use of my time."
"Fine, do whatever you want," grumbles Edgar, and leaves.
Lenore goes up to her room and opens her laptop to play some music and check Facebook. But she has to admit something: as she sits up there, listening to the laughter occasionally roar up from the basement, she's just a little bit jealous. Those nerds are for sure doing something weird and dorky down there, which she doesn't envy. But she does envy that they're all down there together.
. . . . . .
It's two weeks before her boredom drives her to do something desperate: two weeks of watching her friends have fun via Instagram, two weeks of dull work at Dantes' Diner, two weeks of spending every evening up in her room. She's running out of things to do in her bedroom, and she's tired of dodging her parents' concern about her lack of social life.
So, driven by desperation, she does the unthinkable: she tells Edgar she's joining his friends for their movie night—not asks, tells, because it doesn't sit quite right with her sense of self to ask if she can join a bunch of nerds to watch something absurd. At least ambushing Edgar while he gets popcorn out of the microwave, and informing him that she's joining them whether he wants her to or not, makes her feel better.
He doesn't look entirely pleased, but clearly he hears something in her tone that makes him realize that resistance won't get him anywhere, because he reluctantly agrees and leads her down to the basement family room. "Lenore is going to watch the movie with us," he says flatly, and maybe Lenore has made a terrible mistake when she thought they'd welcome a chance to hang out with the Lenore Poe, because now four pairs of eyes are staring up at her, filled with surprise and disbelief and mistrust.
She recognizes all of them, even if she doesn't know their names. There's Louisa Alcott, the girl next door, whom Lenore actually likes well enough, despite the girl's absolutely tragic fashion sense; they grew up together, and when they were young Lenore and Edgar would join Louisa in tramping across the the fields and climbing trees and listening while the girl waxed poetic about the beauty of nature. There's a mousy girl with curly brown hair; Lenore can't come up with a name for her, but she knows that she's supposed to be some kind of poetry writing genius. There's Oscar Wilde, and of course she knows who he is—how could she not? He's president of the drama club, the lead in every school play, and as flamboyant as they come; he's impossible not to notice. And then there's a slight boy with dark hair, blinking owlishly at her from behind a pair of big round glasses; Lenore's seen him with Edgar plenty of times but she's not sure she's ever heard him speak.
Until now. After a long moment of stunned silence, Owl Boy says, "You—you want to hang out with us?" His voice is quiet, a little timid and halting, but she's not sure if that's normal for him or if he's just blown away by talking directly to the most popular girl in school. "Why?"
"Why shouldn't she?" asks Louisa kindly, and Lenore supposes that the times she said hi to her neighbor in the halls at school are paying off. "Come in and sit down, Lenore."
"I always assumed you didn't like us," says Mousy Girl quietly.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," mutters Edgar from beside her.
"Why would you think such a silly thing as that?" says Lenore with false cheer, all the while thinking that if this interrogation is the price she has to pay to avoid being bored and lonely tonight, maybe it's not worth it.
"Years of ignoring us," says her brother promptly.
"I mean, I don't ignore you guys," she protests.
"Okay," says Mousy Girl, "prove that you know anything about any one of us. Besides your brother."
Ha! Now this one she can do, because Lenore Poe, as editor of the school newspaper and a member of the yearbook staff, knew all the gossip worth knowing at Warren County High. "You won a statewide medal for your poetry last year," she says promptly. "And you've been published in literary magazines." The girl looks surprised but gratified, and Lenore mentally pats herself on the back. She only knows it because they did an article about the medal in the school newspaper, and she and Guy went together to interview and photograph her. The incident stands out in her mind because Guy had been genuinely impressed and had asked the girl lots of questions about it; he always was kind to their fellow students and interested in their lives—but she'd rather not think about Guy right now.
Oscar has been staring at her all this while with a look of intense concentration, and suddenly he straightens with an A ha! "I have it," he announces in his overblown drawl. "All of your friends from school have left town and you're bored—so bored that you'd willingly spend time with us. That is hysterical."
She reacts without thinking. "Just as hysterical as you wearing that shirt with that jacket."
They stare at each other in surprise a moment, and then a grin breaks out over Oscar's face. "Oh, I like her! She can stay. Come sit by me, dear."
Pretty pleased with herself and her new ally, Lenore makes her way to the couch and seats herself between Oscar and Owl Boy. After a moment, the others shrug and turn their attention back to the TV. Edgar turns the lights off, and the movie starts.
It turns out to have been Oscar's choice: an old black and white comedy called Bringing Up Baby. Lenore tries at first to spend the movie talking to Oscar—her usual MO during movies—but after Edgar shushes her a few times and finally threatens to throw her out of the basement, she quiets down and pays attention to the movie. And okay, she is normally not an old movie fan—she doesn't think she's ever seen a black and white movie—but this one is actually hilarious, and made even more hilarious by Oscar's ridiculous laugh, which makes her snort every time she hears it. On the other side of her, Owl Boy is very quiet, laughing so softly she can hardly hear it, and sitting stiffly upright like a board the whole time. She wonders again if this is how he always acts or if he just doesn't know how to deal with a hot girl sitting close enough to him that their arms keep brushing. She hopes it's the latter; she likes knowing she still makes Warren County High boys swoon, that her days as the most desirable girl in school aren't completely over.
"Next Tuesday night," Oscar says as they all get up to leave after the movie is over. "We're classing up our usual movie night with pizza, since school starts the next day—senior year! Very big deal. You will come, won't you?"
She's not sure what inspires her more to say yes: the fact that she actually had fun tonight, or the fact that Edgar is behind Oscar and his face is like a thundercloud when he hears Oscar's invitation.
"Definitely," she says, and Louisa applauds excitedly while Edgar scowls and Mousy Girl looks calmly resigned. Behind them, she catches a glimpse of Owl Boy's face just for a second, but she thinks there's a smile there.
. . . . . .
When Lenore gets home from her shift at Dantes' Diner on Tuesday afternoon, Edgar is waiting in the kitchen with his usual dour expression. "Are you really coming to movie night tonight?"
"Well, I've been invited," she says sweetly. "It'd be rude to say no, don't you think?"
He considers a long moment. "And you're just doing this because you're bored?"
"Well, duh," she says. "You think I'd hang out on your Island of Misfit Toys if I had another option?"
"Don't do that," he says sharply. "These are my friends and I don't want you . . . messing anything up."
Oh, she knows that, and she doesn't plan to mess anything up. She knows full well how worried their parents were about Edgar, that all through elementary school his only friend was Louisa who was really taking pity on him more than anything. (She also knows, although her parents don't realize that she does, that Edgar asked in sixth grade if he could just be homeschooled, and they said no because they knew that without school forcing him to be out and about, he would literally only leave the house to get more books from the library.) And she knows how happy Mom and Dad were when he finally started making friends in junior high. So no, now that Edgar has a solid group of friends, she's not going to do anything to mess that up—even she's not that cruel. Even if they are a bunch of nerds.
"I won't," she said. "But speaking of your friends . . . Poetry Girl. What's her name again?"
"I knew it," Edgar muttered. "Her name's Emily Dickinson."
Lenore repeats that to herself a few times, then: "And the guy with glasses?"
"I suppose I should be glad you're finally bothering to learn my friends' names."
"I could keep calling him Owl Boy, if you'd prefer."
Edgar sighs. "HG. HG Wells."
She blinks in surprise. "His name's HG? Does that stand for something?"
"We don't know," he shrugs. "He won't tell us."
"Must be terrible," she says with relish, and determines then and there that she's going to find out HG's real name if it kills her. "So what's his shtick?" Edgar looks confused. "You know, Oscar has drama, you have . . . horror, I guess? Louisa writes really boring essays about beautiful trees. What's HG's shtick?"
Her brother looks suspiciously at her a long moment. "Sci fi," he says. "And engineering. He won the state science and engineering fair last year for developing that camera that lets you change the focal point and depth of field in post. But you should remember that." Lenore stares blankly at him. "Seriously?" he asks. "I went to Indianapolis with him for the state finals. I was gone for three days. You wrote about it in the school newspaper."
She considers a long moment. "I think that was Caroline," she says finally.
He huffs. "Just . . . don't be a jerk tonight."
"When have I ever been a jerk?" she demands, and as he sighs she adds, "You know, I'm getting the impression that you really don't trust me, baby brother."
"Good," he splutters. "That is—a very good impression for you to get. I don't entirely trust you."
Lenore decides to take that as a challenge. "You just watch," she says. "I'm going to be so nice to your little friends, they won't know what hit them."
And—joke's on Edgar—she is. She helps Oscar carry the pizzas in, she makes sure to compliment Elizabeth on her shirt (which is a lie, that thing is ghastly), she pretends to care when Louisa drags them all to the back porch to go into raptures about the sunset, and she even pulls HG aside to congratulate him on his computer winning the city inventing fair.
"Ah, it was a camera," he says hesitantly, "and it was the state science and engineering fair. But thank you!" he adds quickly, visibly anxious, and maybe even blushing a little? Either way, she's very pleased with herself, and winks at Edgar who has been watching their conversation with concern written all over his face.
"By the way," she says suddenly, "what does HG stand for?"
"Oh, I couldn't possibly tell you," he says promptly. "It's terribly embarrassing."
"Is that why you're such an engineering dork?" she asks. "You were already used to being embarrassed?"
Edgar looks irritated at that, but HG stares up at her with wide hazel eyes a long moment, and then breaks out in the tiniest of grins. "Oh, ha! A joke." Color rushes to his face, and Lenore has to admit, it's kind of fun to watch the little nerd get flustered.
They watch To Kill a Mockingbird—Amy's choice—which is a little long but actually pretty interesting, and danged if Gregory Peck isn't a fine-looking gentleman. Oscar had the good sense to get the pizza from Dupin's, which is so much better than that cardboard garbage at Le Bon, and all things considered it's a very pleasant evening.
When everyone's gone home—they don't linger much, because it's a school night—Lenore turns to Edgar with a triumphant look on her face. "See?" she says. "Nothing to worry about."
His mouth is set in a thin line. "You called Emily 'Edith,'" he says.
"Oh. Well, I'll get it right next time."
"See, this is why I was hesitant—"
"I really don't see why you're so concerned I'm going to hurt your friends somehow," Lenore interrupts. "Aren't you the one who suggested I could hang out with them in the first place?"
"I was being polite," he insists. "I didn't think you'd say yes!"
"And yet you offered," she points out sweetly.
"I—you seemed so upset about your friends moving!" Edgar bursts out, then immediately looks taken aback. "I didn't . . . want you to be sad."
He looks away, embarrassed, and Lenore finds herself suddenly fascinated by a spill on the counter. "Anyway," he says after a moment, "I'm going to bed. School in the morning."
He lopes away, all self-doubt and awkward limbs, and Lenore is glad he's gone; a moment longer, and she'd have done something embarrassing like hug her little brother.
. . . . . .
Somehow, over the next several weeks, Lenore finds herself entrenched in Edgar's little group of friends. Only for movie nights, of course; she has no interest in the evenings they play Settlers of Catan for hours, or, even worse, when they have their book group.
But she's happy to watch movies with them, and is even surprised to find herself looking forward to those nights. It's no longer just something to fill the time, she admits to herself. She likes the movies they watch; she likes having an excuse to order pizza, because ordering a pizza for one is just sad. And she likes their company. This has renewed her old acquaintance with Louisa, who's still totally certifiable but so cheerful that it's hard to get irritated at her. And she and Oscar get on like a house on fire, finding themselves matched in their passion for making fun of people's fashion choices (including Louisa, who takes it all with her usual good cheer). Ellie is still a little defensive around her—probably something to do with all the times Lenore's forgotten her name—but she is clearly trying to make the best of it, which seems to be her default. And Edgar—well, this is the closest the Poe siblings have been in a long time.
The one she interacts with the least is HG. He always addresses her at least once an outing, to make some quiet but eloquent comment about the weather or her hair or the state of US politics. She responds by asking him what HG stands for; he never tells her. After they've had a few sentences' worth of polite small talk, he excuses himself and goes off to do whatever it is that he does. She supposes he's still in awe of her.
But all that changes in late September, on the day of the homecoming football game. Lenore has had this day circled on her calendar for weeks, because some of her friends are coming back into town for the game . . . and more importantly, Guy is coming back into town for the game.
She shows up to the Warren County High School stadium looking, as she puts it, "mega hot" in black and gold, their school colors. Caroline and a few others are waiting for her, and she's missed them so much she can't handle it, and then Guy shows up and gives her that smile of his and she knows she's missed him even more. The night is perfect. The storm has held off long enough for the game to be played, the Ravens win their game, and she's amused and pleased to see that Edgar's group has actually come out to the game, mostly looking very uncomfortable, very out of place, or both. Louisa catches her eye and waves enthusiastically, and Oscar gives her the once over, then gestures to her dress and gives her a thumbs up.
"You know those dorks?" Caroline asks.
"They're my brother's friends," Lenore says as she gives the group a small wave in return.
Caroline looks appalled. "Don't tell me you've been hanging out with them. I know you've been alone in this town, but seriously? Those guys?"
"Of course I haven't been hanging out with them," says Lenore automatically, but then she hesitates; her conscience, which she usually keeps buried down pretty deep, manages to make itself heard long enough to tell her she's being unkind to a group that's been very accepting of her. So she adds, "But I see them around, and they're really not so bad." Caroline still looks skeptical, so Lenore gives her an insincere smile. "But maybe I'm just a little more evolved than you; I can talk to whoever I want without worrying about what people think of me."
Caroline looks affronted but suitably quashed, and Lenore smiles. She's missed this.
"I think it's cool you're friends with them," says Guy. "They're all pretty smart and talented." And Lenore tries not to swoon. He always was the nice one of their group.
Edgar's friends aren't the only seniors Lenore says hi to; she also gets nods from Mary, Ernest and Charlotte, who have taken her group's place as the senior class student government and head of the school social scene. She says hi to Mary Ann Evans, who made a lot of headlines in the school newspaper when she campaigned (eventually succesfully) to be allowed to be part of the men's wrestling team. And she sees this year's student body president, Annabel Lee, walking with her boyfriend Eddie Dantes, son of Lenore's boss. She and Annabel are actually pretty close, having spent a lot of time together at the end of the last school year so that Lenore, as the retiring student body president, could educate Annabel on her duties; she thought about trying to hang out with Annabel after all of her own friends left, but while the red-head is super friendly and very welcoming, she spends all of her time these days with Eddie, and Lenore has no desire to be a third wheel. As she and Annabel talk briefly, she happens to glance over and see her brother staring hard back at her—no, she realizes, staring at Annabel. Oh dear, does Edgar have a crush?
The thought stays with her, absolutely hilarious, as her friends head over to Dantes' Diner to grab some pie after the game . . . but two hours later, as she's returning home with a heavy heart, it's the last thing on her mind.
She's walking home, dragging the tattered remains of her hopes and her dignity on the ground behind her. The late night has finally gotten cold, the wind picking up around her as the storm rolls in, and her arms are wrapped tightly around her torso for warmth. She's just started shivering when a car pulls up beside her, a green Geo Metro that she recognizes on sight: HG must be on his way back home after dropping Edgar off after the game.
"Lenore!" he says through the open window, sounding quite surprised. "Why are you walking in this weather?"
"Because the cold feels so nice in my lungs," she says flatly.
"Please let me give you a ride," he says. "You're miles from home, and I would feel—I would feel terrible leaving you out in the cold."
"You think?" she says, and pulls open the passenger door.
She's never been in HG's car before—never been in any of Edgar's friends' cars before—but it's too dark for her to notice much about it other than that it's old but it's warm, and it will get her home much quicker than her feet, and that's literally all she wants from it.
He makes a U turn, turning on his blinker first—it doesn't surprise her to learn that he's a conscientious driver—and they're on their way back to the Poe home when he finally speaks. "Where's your car?" he asks, eyes still fixed on the road. "I thought Edgar told us you'd driven yourself to the game. Not that, not that I've been keeping track of your driving habits, but when he called and asked for a ride, he explained that there—there was no other car available at home—"
(He has an odd way of talking, a sort of start-and-stop to his cadence, where one moment he's rushing headlong through his words so quickly that she can't always keep up with him, and the next he's hemming and hawing and halting. She thinks it comes from being as bright as he is; it's like his mouth can't keep up with his brain, so every now and then, when his thoughts have outstripped his ability to express them, he stutters as the two struggle to get back in sync with each other. It's odd, but it's so very him that somehow it never annoys her.)
"It's still at the school," she says, looking out the window. "My friend drove me from the game to the diner, and then I . . . didn't really want to get a ride back with him."
"Ah," he says, and is quiet a moment. "Is this . . . is this friend by any chance your ex-boyfriend Guy?"
She sighs and leans her head against the window, and in silence they pull onto Tamer Lane and into the Poes' driveway. Now would be the moment for her to get out of the car, but instead she sits there, quietly. "What does HG stand for?" she asks eventually.
She can hear the smile in his voice, as well as the confusion, when he replies. "I'm still not going to tell you that."
She smirks a little, then stares out the window a while longer. "Guy pulled me aside at the diner," she admits finally. "I thought, from the way he'd been acting all evening, getting kind of cozy, insisting on paying for my pie, that he was about to say we should get back together. Turns out he just wanted to see how I was, and to tell me that he'd been doing really well since the breakup and that it had definitely been for the best."
"Ah," says HG quietly.
"And I'd kind of been throwing myself at him—I think that's why he decided he needed to tell me we're still broken up." She doesn't know which upsets her more, that embarrassment or her disappointed hopes.
"You . . . you wanted to get back together with him?"
She shrugs, her gaze fixed on the house, where the porch light is burning, waiting for her to return home. "Guy was . . . the love of my life." She hears HG shift in the seat beside her, and she adds, "At the time. I go through a lot of 'loves of my life.'" She imagines that's a foreign concept to HG; she imagines that when he falls for a girl, he shows her the kind of single-minded devotion he bestows on science and engineering. She can't decide if that would be more romantic or creepy. "And I just . . . the thing is, I agreed with Guy when he said that it made sense for us to break up—he'd be at Notre Dame, a couple hours away, and we both didn't like the idea of a long-distance relationship, and honestly we hadn't really been dating that long when graduation rolled around."
She sighs and glances over at HG, whose hazel eyes are shining, wide and round, in the light from the porch. "But now you regret agreeing with him," he guesses, and she can't help smiling a little, because there's something about him that makes it strangely easy to be vulnerable and honest. Or maybe it's sitting here side by side with him, with the darkness to cover her face, and with his car a little island of warmth and comfort in the cold ocean of night.
Either way she answers and tells him that she's not over it; she's not over Guy. She doesn't know if it's that he'd unexpectedly mattered more to her than all her previous boyfriends, or simply that she's used to being the one doing the breaking up and so Guy breaking up with her really sticks in her craw. All she knows is that having him back here . . . matters. Much more than she would have expected.
When her confession is finished they sit in silence a moment, then HG speaks quietly. "I—I think he's making a terrible mistake. If I were him, I would be . . . extremely sad to lose you."
There's another pause, and then she turns to look at him, slowly. He meets her eyes for one moment, and then he's fiddling with his keys. "I should go," he says. "I have early morning plans. Good night, Lenore."
What an odd little duck he is. But even so, she's grateful for the ride and the listening ear, and tells him so. He gives her a timid little smile as she gets out of the car, and he stays in the driveway until she's opened the front door, making sure she gets inside all right, and she's not surprised at all to see how thoughtful he is. She's misjudged HG, she thinks; there's more to him than she gave him credit for. But not anymore.
. . . . . .
Maybe it's inevitable that soon after this, Lenore gives in and starts hanging out with the gang every time they get together. It's a better choice than yet another evening of watching YouTube hair tutorials, anyway.
Board game nights turn out not to be so bad, even though she hasn't played a board game since she was about 12 and is much worse at them than they rest of the group. They play Pandemic that first time, and Oscar keeps her in stitches by acting out dramatic death scenes whenever a city starts to get overrun by contagion, and HG, seated next to her at the table, keeps an eye on her cards and quietly gives her hints and advice so she doesn't lose the game for everyone. The next week it's Boggle and Speed Scrabble, at which she loses so spectacularly that by the end of the evening, she's given up trying and is standing behind Amelia's chair, helping her cheat. And the third week she convinces them to play poker, which she is very good at, and she destroys everyone without mercy and smiles as they scowl at her.
The first time she actually goes outside the Poe home with them comes in mid-October, when they're all going together to West Lafayette to support HG at the region science fair. HG corners her after a movie night about a week before, standing in that way he has where he holds his arms impossibly close to his sides, like he's trying to take up less space, and invites her. "I, I know this isn't the sort of thing you normally do for fun," he says quietly, "but if you thought you could bear it, it would be—it would be nice to have you there." And she'd already been considering going, but that's what makes up her mind for her, the endearing way he looks at her (he's a little taller than her, but somehow he always gives the impression that he's gazing up at her, and she kind of likes it) like he hopes but doesn't believe that she'll attend. Her friend Caroline had a sugar glider when they were kids, an adorable little animal with enormous eyes, and she thinks about it sometimes when HG looks at her the way he is right now. And how could she say no to a sugar glider? She's not totally heartless.
"Obvi I'm coming," she says confidently, and he perks up. "I need everyone to know that I'm friends with the smartest guy in the state." He drops his gaze to the floor at that, but the way the tips of his ears are flushing pink tells her all she needs to know, and she smirks.
They go that next Friday after school, Lenore getting off work early to attend. HG's dad drove him to West Lafayette that morning, so the rest of them pile into Lenore's Kia and spend the half-hour drive arguing over the radio (unsurprisingly, Oscar is the only one there whose music tastes she can tolerate). The fair is held in one of the science buildings on the Purdue campus, and it doesn't even occur to Lenore until they're there that one of her friends now enrolled at Purdue might see her, which would be embarrassing for all sorts of reasons. Oh well, she decides, too late now.
The fair is nerd central, obviously; Lenore doesn't think she's ever seen this many pairs of glasses in one place. Her companions, as she should have expected, are fascinated; none of them are into science like HG, but they're all dorky enough to enjoy the exhibits, even Oscar, who spends ages at an exhibit about a chemical compound that could slow the affects of aging. Louisa and Irma get distracted by any about the natural world, although Irma also has an unexpected interest in any that involve dead animals; Lenore is starting to suspect that she's a lot more morbid than you'd think on first meeting her. And of course dear baby brother Edgar just likes the weird ones.
But Lenore only has eyes for one exhibit, and she smiles when they finally round a corner and see HG, standing anxious and upright in front of a table with something mechanical on top of it and a poster behind. He's wearing a shirt and tie in honor of the occasion—she's never seen him in anything but a t-shirt and zip-up hoodie—and she thinks privately that if this is what he wears when he wants to dress up, she seriously needs to take him shopping. When his eyes fall on the group, he breaks into a relieved smile and walks toward them, talking a mile a minute.
"I'm so glad you came!" he exclaims fervently. "All of you. I mean, I know you said you would, but I—but I still worried, I suppose. My father had to go back to work after lunch, so I've been here alone since then, but he's coming by for the prize announcement, are you planning on staying for that? Not that—that you have to, of course, it's nice enough that you came here at all, I don't want you to feel you have to stay all day—"
"Hey, HG?" Lenore cuts in. "Breathe."
He stares, then his face softens into a smile. "I apologize—I'm, I'm getting a bit nervous. I always do. The judges will be by here in—" he checks his watch— "twenty minutes and I need to give them my presentation."
"Oh come on," she says, "you love this. You can't tell me you've never dreamed of lecturing crowds of eager minds about your science. So practice on us, Professor. Tell us what this gizmo is."
He looks at her, clearly waiting for confirmation that she really wants to hear about his gizmo, and when Louisa and Oscar chime in their encouragement, he smiles and turns toward the table behind him. "This," he says, "is an improved touchless respiratory monitor." And he's off explaining the science and what it's supposed to accomplish and honestly she follows about ten percent of it. But he's compelling to watch as he talks; she has no idea why he was worried about this presentation because he is confident and eloquent and he positively glows with his enthusiasm and passion for the project. Lenore privately wonders if she's ever been as passionate about anything . . . besides where to get great deals on fabulous footwear.
"That's so impressive, HG!" comes an unexpected voice from behind them when the presentation is finished, and they all jump and turn to see Annabel Lee beaming at them, Eddie Dantes in tow.
"What—what—why—Ann—Annabel, how good to see you, why are you here?" That's Edgar, of course, as eloquent as he ever is in the presence of a pretty girl.
"Mr. Usher mentioned in science class that HG would be here, and I wanted to come support him."
"Really?" That's HG speaking.
"Of course," Annabel smiles. "One of our own student body? Our little school being represented at a regional event like this? Of course I wanted to come support you."
She seems absolutely sincere—probably is, knowing her—and Lenore feels a twinge of guilt. She would sure as heck not have done something like this back when she was student body president.
HG looks at once embarrassed and pleased, but it's Edgar that catches the eye; he's been staring at Annabel like Lenore might stare at a Prada Cahier bag in caramel leather. She's really going to have to talk to him about that.
"That's so nice of you," Louisa gushes, and she and Annabel start asking HG questions about his presentation.
Eddie stands in the back, arms folded; his expression is attempting to show interest, but Lenore Poe is the queen of faking interest in boring things, and she knows thinly disguised boredom when she sees it. "So how'd you end up here?" she asks.
He glances at her and his expression softens when he sees who it is; they worked together on the prom committee last year, so they're pretty well acquainted. "You know Annabel," he says, and there's fondness there but it's mixed with irritation. "She just wants to be nice to everyone. But you—I hadn't pegged you as the science fair type. Why are you hanging out at this nerd convention?"
And it's an exact echo of what she thought when she walked in, but she can't help it, she's instantly annoyed. She's allowed to bag on these nerds, because they're her nerds. Eddie "King of the Jocks" Dantes is not.
"Well," she says, sickly sweet, "you know the kind of people I hung out with in high school. After four years of that, I was really hurting for some intelligent conversation."
Her arrow hits his mark, and he gives her a dirty look and pulls out his phone to distract himself with Facebook. She lets her own smile fall as she turns away from him. Annabel deserves so much better than this jerk.
The judges come by not long after, and their little group stands to the side while HG gives his presentation again. Lenore can see that he's a little nervous before it starts, and she honestly thinks he has no reason for that—seriously, there's a guy down the row with a fricking potato battery, and she's pretty sure that HG's touchable resuscitation madrigal is going to blow all this crap out of the water.
He's one of the last to be judged, and now there's a dinner break while the judges deliberate, so they all decide to head off campus to find some food. Lenore assumes that Annabel and Eddie will leave at that point, and is surprised when the pair attaches themselves to the dinner group instead—Annabel's doing, no doubt, based on the mutinous look on Eddie's face.
Edgar, of course, can't bring himself to say more than three words together to Annabel the whole time, and Lenore reminds herself to teach him to flirt some time. But she and Annabel and Louisa keep the conversation going very comfortably all evening, with Irma and HG occasionally chiming in and the two Eds looking irritated on either end of the table.
Mr. Wells joins them back at the science building for the awards ceremony. Lenore has never met him before and is not surprised at all to see that he is a quiet, skinny, dark-haired man who sometimes moves as though he doesn't know what to do with his hands: basically a grown-up HG, then. She is surprised, however, to learn that he is a welder and a former track star—she'd been assuming he'd be a sedentary little rocket scientist, like his son—and while he's clearly very supportive of his son, he seems to understand HG's science talk about as well as Lenore does.
HG wins first prize, of course—is anyone surprised?—and something in her chest swells when he walks up to the stage. If you'd told her three months ago that there would come a day when she'd be full to bursting with pride over her precious little baby professor, she never would have believed you, but here they are. A lot can change in a few months, clearly.
When the ceremony is over, and everything is packed up and put away, she hugs HG goodbye and she doesn't think she's ever seen him so happy and so proud. Which is why it's a shock when she sees him Monday evening, coming by the house to return a book to Edgar, and his face is solemn. His expression falls even further when she asks if he's planning on getting "Science Fair Champion" tattooed on his forehead.
Surprised, but not completely insensitive, she waits until he's gone to ask Edgar what that was all about.
He sighs. "Louisa asked Charlotte at school if she was going to do a piece in the school newspaper about HG winning. Charlotte said . . . no. And a lot of other things that I don't want to repeat, but the basic idea was that 'no one wants to hear about some geek winning some geek contest.'"
Lenore sees red, she really does, but her first shameful thought is that it sounds like something she might have said last year, faced with the same question. And it haunts her, Charlotte's words and HG's disappointed face, all through the rest of the day.
So toward the end of her shift at Dantes' the next day, when she sees Charlotte, Mary and Ernest come into the diner for french fries, she decides that it's a sign that she's meant to right this wrong. Luckily for HG, Lenore Poe can be very persuasive when she wants to be.
But she plans it carefully; she waits until they're paying their check. "Hey, guys," she says in her perkiest, fakest voice as she makes their change, and then she pauses, as though she's just remembered something. "You know, I heard the most interesting thing today," she says. "I heard that you're not going to put anything in the school newspaper about HG Wells winning the region science fair."
"Why would I?" asks Charlotte disdainfully. "Literally no one cares about that."
Lenore gives a theatrical sigh and shake of her head. "Standards have really gone down at that paper since I left, haven't they?"
"Why do you even care?" says Ernest. "Just because he's your dorky brother's dorky friend—"
"Correction," says Lenore loudly, cleanly cutting him off, "he's my dorky friend." She turns to Charlotte. "And you are going to do a piece on him winning, and you are going to have Agatha write it because I know she's the only one on your staff I can trust to do a good job on it and not treat it like a big dumb joke."
"And why would I do that?" scoffs Charlotte.
Lenore leans forward, getting right in Charlotte's face. "Because if you don't," she whispers, her words meant only for the redhead's ears, "if I don't see that story on the front page of the next school paper with a great big picture and nothing but good things to say, I'm going to tell everyone about you and Professor Crimsworth."
Charlotte blanches. "Fine," she says tightly. "There will be a piece about it in next week's paper."
Lenore returns to the cash register and smiles. "Now who had the garlic fries?"
Charlotte rolls her eyes and Ernest still looks baffled, but Mary shoots Lenore a grin.
On the Friday after that, Louisa shows up at board game night with a copy of the Raven's Roost, from which she reads aloud the glowing piece Agatha wrote about HG's win.
"Wait," says Oscar, "I thought you said they weren't going to do a piece on it."
HG shrugs, pink with embarrassment but clearly fighting down a smile. "All Agatha said was that Charlotte changed her mind."
"Well, for once she's being sensible," says Lenore a bit smugly. Edgar turns and gives her a long, considering look, which she cheerfully ignores. For once, this isn't all about her.
. . . . . .
She spends her Halloween with the gang, which she's not proud of but it's not like she had any other offers. They put Edgar in charge of the movie for the night, of course, since Halloween is basically his lifestyle. But he confesses to Lenore that he's a little worried about choosing, because last year he picked some ancient German horror movie called Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari that everyone hated. So this year he considers more carefully and comes up with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, explaining that "it's Gothic enough for Halloween but it's also about, you know, romantic relationships."
And maybe it's because the movie is about, you know, romantic relationships, that when its over and they're all sprawled across the couches and the carpet, stuffing their faces with fun-size Snickers bars, the conversation turns to relationships. Well, sort of; it actually starts with Louisa saying "Wow, sometimes movies make being married sound really scary."
"Preach, sister," says Lenore. "You guys ever see that J-Lo movie where she has to learn Krav Maga to kill her abusive husband?" She is answered with four blank stares and one enthusiastic nod from Oscar.
"You just have to make sure you marry the right person," says Edgar, very unexpectedly. Lenore is not the only one to think that is surprisingly sentimental for him, she can tell, because the rest of the room is also staring at him. "What?" he says defensively.
Maybe Lenore is a little hopped up on sugar, because she finds herself saying sweetly, "Any particular 'right person' you have in mind, baby brother?"
Edgar scowls. "No."
"You sure?" she presses, and his scowl deepens.
"Oh, stop, Lenore," says Oscar. "If he doesn't want to talk about his massive crush on Annabel Lee, he doesn't have to." Edgar glares at them both, and Lenore reaches blindly behind her head, knowing that Oscar will give her a high five. He does.
"Normally I'm not one for putting people in uncomfortable situations," says Amberlyn kindly, "but we basically all already know, Edgar."
Edgar grows very still, except for his eyes, which flick uncomfortably from side to side.
"Oh, leave him be," says HG, who's sitting on the ground next to Lenore's sofa, his tipped-back head just brushing her knee. "If he doesn't want to talk about it, he . . . he doesn't want to talk about it."
"Well, far be it from me to do anything that would make you unhappy, baby brother—"
"Ha!" he interjects scornfully.
"—but I'm just saying, if you need a little help in the romance department, I'm basically an expert. Just ask; I'll teach you how to flirt."
Louisa sits up very suddenly. "Really?" she asks. "Will you teach us all how to flirt? I'm so bad at it."
For ages now, Lenore has tolerated (very politely, she might add) classic literature and word games and movies with subtitles, but finally, they are in her field of expertise, and she grins. "Totes! Flirting lesson, right now." She stands up and pulls HG up after her; he's the nearest to hand, and also she's definitely not going to use Edgar as her flirting example.
She positions him where she wants him to stand across from her, then turns to Amber and Louisa. "Now, the thing to remember," she says, "is that guys like girls who make them feel masculine. So your goal should always be to make them feel like they are stronger than you and smarter than you."
"What?" splutters HG, sounding horrified. "Is that honestly what you think guys want?"
"Uh, duh," she says.
"That's not been my experience at all," he insists.
"Well, you must be dating different guys than I am," she says breezily.
He blinks in surprise, then shakes his head. "I suppose some of us might feel that way, but—but not all. Sensible guys do not want silly girlfriends."
She rolls her eyes. "Okay, Professor, what do sensible guys want?"
He opens and shuts his mouth a few times. "They want . . . they want girls they can have conversations with."
She considers, then shakes her head. "Yeah, I don't where any of these 'conversation' guys are hanging out. But if I meet one, I'll keep what you said in mind." She turns back to her audience. "So a really good way to make a guy feel masculine is to laugh at all of his jokes, even if they're terrible."
"Oh, I hate this already," says Amberlie softly.
"No, it's great," says Lenore. "It totally works. HG, say something funny."
"I honestly have no idea how to respond," he says flatly.
She fakes a coquettish giggle and slaps him lightly on the arm. "Oh my gosh, HG, you're so funny." She turns back to her audience. "Do you see what I did there? I established playful physical contact early on. I call that 'breaking the touch barrier.' The arm's your best choice; anywhere else is a little forward, at least right at first." She demonstrates by touching a few places on HG's arms and shoulders. "Although maybe forward is what you're after," she adds, and to demonstrate, plays with the drawstring on his hoodie. "So," she says coyly, "what does HG stand for?"
He looks like a deer in the headlights. "Uh . . ."
Edgar harrumphs a little, distracting her from HG. "And this actually works for you?"
She scoffs. "Come on, Edgar, how many boyfriends have I had?"
He hesitates, then reluctantly admits, "Dozens."
"See?" she says, turning back to the others. "It works."
"All right," says Edgar, "how should a guy flirt with a girl?" He flushes when everyone looks at him. "Just asking for a friend."
"Well, what girls like is very simple." Lenore pauses for effect, then finishes, "Presents."
"Very helpful," grumbles her brother.
"But besides presents," she continues, "girls like to be listened to; they like to feel like you take what they say seriously, like you take them seriously. They want to feel like you put some effort into paying attention to what they have to say. So if you're looking for a good conversation-starter, try a sincere, and not creepy—" she turns and gives Edgar a stern look— "compliment that shows you've paid attention to something she's done. Nothing too intrusive, or you'll look like a stalker. You know, 'You wrote a really great article in the newspaper,' or 'I really liked what you said in English class today.' Stuff about her looks or her personality are okay too, but again, it needs to be thoughtful and not creepy. Come on, HG, you try one."
He stares at her, speechless, then finally, weakly, he says, "Your face is very symmetrical."
"Wrong!" she says. "Edgar?"
"Uh, I wish I could immortalize your beauty in marble—"
"Wrong again! Oscar?"
"I absolutely love what you've done with your hair," says Oscar promptly. "It's almost enough to make me forget the time you had the Rachel."
"That was three months in the 10th grade," she reminds him firmly. "But that's the best so far."
"And after the compliment?" Edgar asks.
"Focus on that for now," says Lenore. "Annabel's got a boyfriend, and he's a lot more popular than you. If you give it enough time, hopefully eventually she'll realize that he's a total tool bag and that she deserves way better. In the meantime, you just need to make sure she knows you exist. And whenever this thing with Eddie is over, there you are. You'll be an option." She points an accusing finger at him. "But don't be nice to her just because you hope she'll date you. That's totes sucky."
Edgar actually seems to be considering this thoughtfully, and Oscar and the girls start practicing pickup lines on each other. Lenore heads over to the corner table to grab another soda, and HG follows her there, his shoulders a little hunched, his hands clasped behind his back.
"I couldn't help but notice something," he says quietly. "You seemed to say two very contradictory things back there."
"Oh?" She glances up from her Shasta.
"It's just that, that you said that girls like to be listened to, but that guys like girls that hang off their every word."
"That's basically how it works," agrees Lenore. He looks concerned and she smiles a little. "I don't know, I guess sometimes when you're just starting out with someone, you act differently around them at first. If you're a girl, you act like he's funnier than he is. If you're a guy, you act like she's more interesting than she is."
"How thoroughly depressing," he says. "Have you never been in a relationship where he liked you just as you are?"
"Talk about things getting thoroughly depressing," she says, and doesn't answer his question because come to think of it she's not entirely sure.
HG nods, and then squares his shoulders as though he's facing the firing squad. "Well, I thought of another compliment for you, because my first one was such a failure."
"Ooh, this should be good," she says. "Hit me."
He takes a deep breath. "You have a great deal more to offer the world than just making some Neanderthal feel more masculine, and you deserve to find someone who values you just as you are."
She considers a moment. "I mean, that's a little strong if you've just met the girl, but yeah, definitely an improvement from your first one."
He blinks in surprise and confusion for a moment, and just then Edgar's voice distracts her. "I know," he says, "I shall write her a poem."
"Oh," says Oscar delightedly, "or shall you write her a Poe-m?"
"Okay, I've got to get a handle on this," Lenore says, and launches herself back into the main conversation, yelling "No poems, Edgar!" and leaving HG standing quietly in the corner.
. . . . . .
(She's not an idiot. She knows HG has a little bit of a crush on her, a little bit of starry-eyed wonder that he's suddenly spending his weekends with the former Hottest Girl At School. She doesn't blame him for that, and it doesn't bother her, and honestly it's a little flattering. So she's totally fine not letting his crush change anything between them.)
. . . . . .
In mid-November, Edgar announces at dinner that he finally learned why HG hasn't been to school in two days: he had an appendectomy and is recovering at home.
"Oh, that poor boy," says Mrs. Poe, placing one hand over her heart. "Ed, you're going to take him some of this soup we're eating, all right? I can't bear to think of him all alone in that house recovering. His father works such long hours."
"Who's this we're talking about?" Mr. Poe asks.
"You remember, the Wells' son," she replies.
"Oh yes, that poor boy. Terrible thing, to watch a parent die like that," says Mr. Poe, and Lenore feels like someone has punched her in the stomach, because how has she spent so much time with HG over the last few months and never known that his mother is dead?
But Edgar can't go, having an early college application that must be turned in by 9 pm tonight, so Lenore volunteers instead. Her mother gives her a Thermos of soup and a Tupperware full of rolls, and Edgar gives her HG's address and tells her there's a spare key under the third flower pot by the front door.
If you hear someone at your front door, she texts when she pulls up to the old two-story farmhouse, it's not a murderer, it's just me.
After letting herself in, she's only had time to look around and see that the inside of the house is a lot like the outside—well-kept but pretty sparsely decorated—when she hears footsteps at the top of the stairs. "Lenore?" asks HG incredulously, staring down at her. "What are you doing here?" He looks sort of adorable, actually, wearing his pjs with his hair tousled, and she's never seen him without his glasses before.
"Whoa, back in bed," she says. "Are you even supposed to be up on your feet?"
"Yes, it's absolutely fine," he says, but she ignores him.
"My mom sent soup," she says. "Have you eaten? Are you hungry?"
He smiles a little. "Actually, Mrs. Hall next door brought me dinner today," he says, then hurries to add, "But, but it was so kind of your mother to think of me! I don't want you to think I don't appreciate the soup—"
"It's fine," she says, "I'll put it in the fridge and you can eat it tomorrow. Now back in bed!"
He nods meekly while she makes her way to the kitchen and puts the food away, then climbs the stairs and follows the sound of creaking bed springs to what must be his bedroom. He's just getting back into bed, and his face brightens when she appears, as though he'd thought she might leave without coming in to say goodbye.
"So this is your room," she says, looking around. "It is . . . exactly what I expected." The room is large, with a weathered wooden floor and a high ceiling. An antique-looking telescope is pointed out one of the two tall windows, and the wall opposite the bed is taken up with a large desk and dozens of designs and sketches, some sitting in piles and others pinned to the walls. The bed he's in has an old brass frame, and there's a large dark dresser in one corner and a braided rug on the floor. The overhead lights are off, and the room is lit by the fading light of sunset and by strings of globe lights, glowing a soft gold in the darkness over their heads.
"You were born in the wrong time period, you know that?" she says. "You should have been steampunk."
He mutters something that sounds like "Not a real time period" as she invites herself into his desk chair, spinning it around to examine all the drawings on the walls. "This is some pretty cool stuff, Professor."
"Thank you," he mumbles. "And . . . was that all you came here for? Bringing the soup?"
"No," she says, and spins around. "I came here to ask you something important." He's sitting up in his bed, looking a little uncomfortable—probably because he's been caught in his pajamas. She rolls her desk chair up close to the bed while he watches with wide eyes. "What does HG stand for?"
He laughs quietly as she smirks to herself and makes her way to the telescope. "So what's this thing pointed at?"
He moves to the edge of the bed. "Oh, I can show you—"
Her response is immediate and firm. "Bed, now."
"I'm allowed to get up, you know," he mumbles as he climbs back into bed.
"You can show me the telescope another time," she promises. She rolls back to the side of the bed and leans back in the chair, propping her feet up on the mattress not far from his; he's semi-reclined, propped up on a pile of pillows. "Now, tell me about your medical adventure."
Surprised but willing, he tells her about the last few days. She can tell from his tone of voice that he was fascinated by the medical equipment but not entirely fond of being in the hospital. "And now I'm here," he says finally. "I can go back to school on Monday, and for a while I need to be careful about certain activities, like climbing up stairs. My father had to carry me up here."
She tries to picture Mr. Wells carrying his son, who's nearly the same size as his father, and fails.
"So—so what's going on with you?" he asks.
"Absolutely nothing. Just work."
"Work is something, you know. Tell me about that."
No one ever asks her about work, because it's super boring. But he seems genuinely interested, so she tells him about it. She tells him about waiting tables, and cleaning ketchup and salt spills a hundred times a day, and about the lunch regulars who know her by name, and about the jerks who tip poorly, and how the brightest spot of her job is that sometimes Mrs. Dantes lets her help bake the pies.
"So this isn't your plan for the rest of your life?" he asks.
"OMG, I hope not," she says fervently, and he laughs.
After a pause he speaks, struggling to meet her eyes. "Why did you decide to stay in Baltimore?" he asks quietly. "If you don't mind my asking. Since most of your friends left for college. That's not to say that you—you have to attend college," he adds quickly. "There are many other options. Trade school, or the military, or even just finding a town with more job opportunities than Dantes' Diner."
She sighs. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I didn't want to bother applying to any colleges until I did."
"And now?" he prompts.
"I still don't know."
He's quiet a moment, not looking at her. "I, I always rather thought your interest lay in fashion."
She blinks, wondering how he knew that. "That is what I'm interested in, actually." She laughs a little. "It's kind of my jam. My mom tells me I came out of the womb crying and wouldn't stop until someone wrapped me in an organza swaddle."
"So why not pursue that as a career?"
She sighs and tips her head back until she's staring at the globe lights above her head. "Do you know how many people want to get into fashion? And do you know how few make it? I didn't want to waste my time studying something useless."
"But—that can't be entirely true."
She tips her head back down to stare at him.
"I mean," he says, blushing, "not to contradict you, but my understanding is that there are more jobs in fashion than you might realize. It's more difficult to make it as a model or a designer, certainly, but there are also . . . merchandising, and purchasing, and production management jobs. A bit more on the business side of things, but still—still related to fashion and still requiring great fashion sense." He hesitates, then gives her a half smile. "Plus I think you'd do very well in a business environment. You like telling people what to do."
"Professor," she grins, "did you just tease me?"
He gives her a pleased little smile and they lapse into silence for a while. "I'll look into that," she promises eventually.
They talk idly a while longer, about when he's expected to recover fully from his surgery and about the upcoming Baltimore Thanksgiving Day parade and about Oscar's crazy plan to put on a production of Hello, Dolly with his tiny, budget-less drama club. Lenore is just thinking she ought to start heading home when the front door opens, and she grimaces. Mr. Wells is clearly home from work; is he the type to freak out to see a girl in his son's bedroom? HG doesn't seem too worried, but still, she pulls her feet off his bed and sits up as they hear footsteps on the stairs.
"I'm in here!" HG calls, and glances at Lenore. "With a friend!"
Mr. Wells steps into the room and eyes Lenore with surprise but not mistrust. "We've met, haven't we?" he asks politely.
"Lenore Poe," HG says. "And my father, Joe Wells. You two met at the science fair."
"Of course," Mr. Wells says, and steps forward to shake Lenore's hand.
"Mrs. Poe sent over some soup when she heard I'd been hospitalized," HG explains.
"It's in the fridge, if you want any," says Lenore.
"That's very nice of her," says Mr. Wells. "Tell your parents hello for me."
Lenore wonders how he knows her parents, but then she remembers, Edgar and HG have been friends for years. It would have come up eventually, somehow.
"Anyway, I want to go eat, so I'll leave you two to talk."
Lenore stands. "Actually, I should go," she says, and turns to HG. "Umm, feel better, I guess?"
She means it to be a quick goodbye, because it's weird doing this with his dad watching, but HG catches her with one of those wide-eyed looks. "Thank you," he says. "For everything."
HG is back at school by the next week, and comes to board game night that Friday, where he finds a moment to speak with her alone, a stack of papers in his hand.
"What's all that?" she asks.
"I was on the Purdue website last week—still waiting to hear back about my application, but I wanted to start looking at classes—and I found this."
He hands her the sheaf of papers, and she sees it's some printed out webpages. The top one reads "Purdue University Department of Consumer Science, Retail Management." She looks up at him.
"It seems like an excellent program," he says quickly. "A, a great deal of the business side of fashion, with classes on visual merchandising and so on as well, with an option to spend one of the four years at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The tuition's very reasonable for Indiana residents, and if you wanted you could live at home and commute to West Lafayette. I'm not trying to push you into anything, of course, but it's—it's just something to give you an idea of the sorts of programs that are out there. There are many good schools in New York City as well, and I understand Kent State is supposed have a good program—" He hesitates, and he must misinterpret the surprised look on her face, because he quickly backpedals, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be pushy—"
"Sweetie," says Lenore as she steps forward to hug him, "shut up."
. . . . . . .
"So when's the state science fair?" Lenore asks HG lazily one evening at the very end of November. They are not, for once, at a movie night. HG came over after school to work with Edgar on a group English project, and when they were done Mrs. Poe invited him to stay for dinner (with Lenore's encouragement; she's come to realize that with his dad long working hours, HG eats alone every single night, and that's just sad). And when the meal is over, somehow the three friends end up on the sofas downstairs while Mrs. Poe finishes up dessert.
"February," says HG.
"Do you have everything ready?" Edgar asks.
"I'm going to make a few improvements to my poster," he says. He hesitates. "And, and as an early Christmas present, my father has told me he's giving me some money so I can buy new clothes for the event. I do want to look my best, but I'm not very good with . . ."
He trails off as Lenore sits up and stares at him, a gleam in her eyes. "HG," she says, "you just said my favorite word."
"Uh . . ."
"Shopping," she explains.
Edgar rolls his eyes at her. "He never actually said the word 'shopping.'"
"Nuance," she says dismissively. "HG, can I please take you shopping? I've been waiting for this moment since I saw what you wore to the region science fair."
Edgar scowls at her, and she supposes that was a little impolite. But HG doesn't seem offended at all; he looks surprised and pleased. "That would be . . . wonderful, actually. I don't know much about fashion."
"Done," she says. "Next Saturday. I'm going into Indianapolis to do some Christmas shopping anyway, so we'll do both at once."
"Indianapolis?" he says, surprised. "I thought we would look here."
"And that is precisely why you need my help. Have you seen the shops we have here? I wouldn't dress my worst enemy in that." She hesitates, then smiles maliciously. "No, that's not true, I def would."
So the next Saturday, HG and Lenore set out for Indianapolis in Lenore's car. HG had tried to insist that he hadn't meant to make her drive him around, but she shot that down pretty quick; she knows where they're going and he doesn't, and anyway she loves driving, and anyway he's still recovering from his appendectomy ("I can still drive," he mutters).
The drive's an hour and twenty minutes, but the time flies by. She and HG have absolutely nothing in common on paper, and in theory they should have nothing to talk about. For fun he likes to read Isaac Asimov, and she didn't know who Isaac Asimov was before meeting him. He cannot for the life of him figure out why she follows the news from every single Fashion Week. But even if he doesn't understand or share her enthusiasm, he listens earnestly to everything she says; he cares that she cares. And he speaks about his hobbies with such passion and energy that she can't help but find herself invested in them.
"See, and then what's fun," she says as they take their exit off the freeway in Indianapolis, "is sometimes the challenges are totally crazy stuff, like making that day's outfit out of something weird, like food, or garbage, or plants. So it's extra hard to make it look good and hold up when their model wears it on the runway."
"It's an interesting idea," he says doubtfully, "but . . ."
"But let me guess, you'd rather read another book about robots?"
"I would rather read another book about robots," he agrees. "Which I really think you ought to try, before you write the whole genre off so completely."
"I'll give them a try when you give Project Runway a try," she retorts.
He gives her a considering look, mischief in his eyes. "I'll make you a deal," he offers. "If you read I, Robot, then I will watch Project Runway."
"Professor Wells," she says, surprised, glancing over at him in the passenger seat, "this is a side of you I've never seen. I like it." She thinks a moment. "How much Project Runway?"
"I don't know—"
"A season. You watch an entire season with me, and I will read your book. I won't even cheat and watch the movie instead. Not even to see Will Smith's face."
"Deal," he says, and reaches out for a handshake to make it official (they're at a red light, obviously, or Mr. Safe Driver would never have distracted her from the road like that).
"The library's got all seasons on DVD," she says when the handshake is done. "I'll go pick one up on Monday."
"I'm a little excited, actually," he says. "Your description of the unconventional materials challenge sounds—it sounds interesting."
She frowns. "What," she says flatly.
"Clothing construction is a form of inventing, you know," he says. "Understanding the materials and fabrication methods, and how to make something that's functional, beautiful, and cost-efficient . . ."
She turns to glare at him. "This is totes unfair. You actually want to watch the show, and now I have to read your robot book."
He gives her a pleased little smirk, and she can't help laughing.
They pull into Lenore's favorite shopping center and she starts leading him into shops, pulling clothes off the racks and piling them in his arms. He obediently tries everything on, but nothing is quite right; she wants not just to find an outfit for the science fair, but to find a look for him, an aesthetic, so he can use this as a guide for buying more clothes in the future. But nothing is speaking to her.
It's not until the third store, and about the eighth outfit, that she suddenly finds herself thinking of his bedroom, of the old farmhouse with the antique telescope and the brass bed. She thinks of the way he stands and the way he talks, precise and careful and old-fashioned. She was right when she said he was born in the wrong time period. Even though he's usually in a hoodie, there is something about him that feels like the elegance of a different age. And she knows exactly what to put him in.
When he comes out in the ninth outfit, she knows they've found it: black slacks with a white button-up shirt rolled up to his elbows, simple but slim fitting and very flattering; dark tie under a black silk vest. He looks elegant and old-fashioned, but also like he's tossed away his jacket and rolled up his sleeves because he's about to do something dramatic and important, like build a time machine or fight robots or whatever it is they do in those books he's always reading.
She doesn't like to brag, but she is really good at this. Because he looks fab. He's a pretty skinny guy, and the hoodies he always wears just make him look like a kid wearing oversized clothes. But putting him in something this fitted makes him look slim, and kind of attractive . . . if she passed him on the street, she'd give him a second look.
The way she's staring apparently makes him uncomfortable, because he says, "Is this—is it all right?"
"HG," she says firmly, "you look, like, way good."
"Do you like it?" she asks.
He looks in the mirror again, then smiles a little. "I do. I do rather like it."
"Done," she says. "We're getting this one. Now go get out of that; we need to buy you some shoes."
After the shoes are bought, they eat a late lunch at the food court, and then HG obediently follows her around while she does her Christmas shopping, offering his opinions when she asks and examining all the wares they pass as though he's never looked at women's jewelry before—which, she supposes, it's entirely likely that he hasn't. She sends him away for a few minutes so she can buy his Christmas present—a nice tie he can use if he wants to give his new outfit a pop of color—as well as presents for the rest of the gang; they've decided to exchange gifts for Christmas, and Louisa had immediately clarified that she's getting a present for Lenore too, which had been fortunate because Lenore hadn't been super sure if she was included in this or not, since she's never quite been sure if she's one of the group or just an interloper.
HG does some shopping of his own, and then the cashier at the last store mentions that there is a Christmas street fair not far away, and Lenore's eyes light up.
"We're going, aren't we?" HG guesses.
"Excellent deduction, Watson," she grins, and is proud of herself for the literary reference (ignoring the fact that she's never read the books and just watches the BBC show because Benedict Cumberbatch is strangely attractive).
"Surely you're Watson," HG mutters, but Lenore chooses not to hear him as she drags him out to the car.
"This is, like, so Christmas-y I'm going to puke," Lenore says a few minutes later. "In a good way." A city park has been filled with craft and food vendors. Above their heads hang strings upon strings of Christmas lights, and somewhere nearby a brass band is playing Christmas carols. The sun has started to set, and as the temperature drops, Lenore is more and more glad she brought gloves and a scarf.
HG, however, was not so prepared, and although he doesn't complain and tries to hide hands in the pockets of his hoodie, she can see him starting to shiver. And maybe it's that she feels bad for him, or maybe it's just that she doesn't want to have to leave this awesome Christmas fair already, but she grabs him by the elbow and tugs him over to a lady selling nice fleece-lined gloves. The lady quotes her a price and she hands over the cash, then tells HG, "Ok, find a pair that fit."
"You don't have to—"
"Already did," she shrugs. "Besides, I don't want you ruining my Christmas fair by getting hypothermia. Consider it a Christmas present."
"You already got me one."
"Then consider it a late birthday present," she says. "Now hurry! I want to go watch that puppet show."
He hesitates, then smiles a little. "I had no idea you loved Christmas so much."
"Obviously I love Christmas." She rolls her eyes, like he's said something absurd. "I mean, like, it's Christmas."
He seems to be blushing as he chooses a pair, and thanks her profusely. That's not enough to assuage his feeling indebted to her, clearly, because nearly an hour later, when they've watched the puppet show and the brass band and hit nearly every stall in the park, he insists on buying hot chocolate for the both of them. She's not going to say no to free hot chocolate, so he goes to stand in line while she finds a park bench to wait on. It's got a great view of the Christmas tree in the center of the park, but it's also pretty cold to the touch, so by the time he returns with two large cups, she is very happy to bring her face up close to hers and let the steam warm her skin, and also she finds herself unconsciously scooting close to HG on the bench and winding her free arm through his.
He smiles a little, not meeting her eyes, and sips his hot chocolate. "Oh my goodness," he says fervently, "this is excellent."
He's right, it's like a melted candy bar. "OMG, this is amaze," she agrees. "Good choice, Professor." She hesitates. "I do have one question, though."
He looks at her expectantly.
"What does HG stand for?"
He turns his face away and laughs. "I'm a little surprised you haven't taken to the Internet yet," he says. "I'm sure it's—it's up there somewhere."
"That's cheating," she says. "This is about me wearing you down, until you trust me enough or are sick of me enough to just tell me."
"It is terribly embarrassing," he tells her, not for the first time.
"After all this time and all the horrible things I've imagined, I'm pretty sure it's not going to shock me."
He smiles and says nothing, returning to his hot chocolate. She turns her gaze back to the Christmas tree, glowing in the darkness, and unconsciously hugs his arm tighter. "I am so glad we came here," she says. "This is, like, the best."
"I am also glad," he says after a moment. "I haven't done anything like this in years."
She pauses. "Dad's not a big Christmas guy?" she guesses.
"Oh, he is," he assures her. "But he's always at work. So it was always my mother who . . ." He trails off, and she listens to the sound of his breathing and the carols in the distance for a moment or two.
"I'm sorry about your mom," she says quietly. "How long ago was it?"
"Three years last August."
"And . . . can I ask . . ."
"Pancreatic cancer," he says stiffly. "By the time she was diagnosed, it was too late. It was all over in six months." He hesitates. "I can—I can never decide if it's better for her that she didn't have to suffer too long, or worse that she didn't get more time."
And Lenore has absolutely no idea what to do. She's never had anyone close to her die, and she's never had anyone close to anyone close to her die. How are you supposed to offer comfort? What could you possibly say that wouldn't be totally stupid and unhelpful?
So she just says "I'm sorry," which is useless but at least not offensive, and she leans her cheek against his shoulder, and now it's him hugging her arm tighter. His shoulder is surprisingly comfortable.
After a few moments of this, something occurs to her. "Is that why you're so interested in, you know, medical technology?"
He nods. "It's too late to help her, but maybe if I can help someone else in the future . . ."
"Horace Gertrude, you're, like, the sweetest guy I know."
He gives a surprised laugh. "Not even close," he says, and then, in an uncharacteristic fit of boldness, he teases, "With the name, I mean. I think it very possible that I am the sweetest guy you know."
She laughs, and then stands from the bench and offers a hand to help him to his feet. "Come on, Professor, it's time to get home."
. . . . . .
As December rolls in, Lenore pulls out the Christmas decorations and decorates the entire house to bursting, and Edgar rolls his eyes every time he sees them but Lenore catches him sitting in the dark one night, just watching the lights on the Christmas tree twinkle, and tells him to stop pretending he doesn't love Christmas.
She spends the month trying to read I, Robot to keep up her end of the deal. She's not used to reading for pleasure, and she's not too interested in the subject matter, but it ends up not being as bad as she'd expected; it's a collection of short stories, so she only has to focus on a storyline for a few pages at a time, and there's not as much technical mumbo-jumbo as she'd expected.
In the meantime, she and HG binge-watch an entire season of Project Runway in two weeks. The first night they watch at the Poe home, but this seems to annoy Edgar for reasons she can't put her finger on, so after that they watch at the Wells home instead, in the home theater room that turns out to be way nicer than the Poe's family room anyway (HG confesses that he would invite the group to his place for movie nights if he could, but watching sports on a weekend night is basically his dad's only pleasure in life, and he does't want to interfere with that—but since they're watching Project Runway on weeknights, there's no conflict). HG gets surprisingly sucked into the show, fascinated, as he'd predicted, by the science of clothing construction—although he's far less interested in the people actually doing the clothing construction. More than once, when an episode finishes and he reaches for the remote to start the next episode, she has to remind him how late it is and that he has school in the morning. And when the season is over, he shyly informs her that if she ever wants to watch any other seasons, he'd be willing to join her. She's quick to agree, because this has quickly become the high point of her days: long evenings cozily ensconced in the Wells' home theater, with HG by her side being surprisingly funny and surprisingly good company and debating the merits of taffeta versus silk. She's not ready to give that up yet.
Near Christmas, the gang has a Christmas party where they watch Miracle on 34th Street (which is sappier than Lenore would stand for if it weren't Christmas). Louisa makes wassail, Lenore brings pies from the diner, and they all exchange Christmas presents after. Lenore has gotten the girls scarves and the guys ties—"I decided it's time you got a tie that's not black, Edgar"—and when she hands Emily her present, the girl looks shocked. "You got my name right," she says, looking at the tag, and Lenore smiles smugly.
"I'm pretty good with names," she brags.
Louisa has painted everyone pictures of the local scenery; Oscar has made everyone a specially personalized mix tape with songs he thinks they ought to be listening to, and Emily has made everyone mugs painted with quotes from their favorite books—or, in Lenore's case, their favorite Beyonce song. Edgar, as awkward as ever, bought everyone candles—not nice scented candles, just tall white ones—and he doesn't seem to understand why Lenore rolls her eyes at him. ("You never know when you're going to be catastrophically immersed in total darkness! You should always be prepared.") And HG gives the guys tie pins and the girls jewelry, all made of some copper wire twisted into intricate designs, and as Lenore examines bracelet she realizes it's handmade. Looks like everyone came up with thoughtful homemade gifts and the Poe siblings struck out. At least her stuff is way better than the candles.
That night they also get a surprising piece of news from Oscar: Annabel Lee has broken up with Eddie Dantes. "She's finally realized that he's a liar and a cheater," Oscar shrugs, and of course every eye on the room is immediately fixed on Edgar, who grows blushing and embarrassed and gruffly asks them to all stop looking at him.
"Apparently all hope is not lost for you, baby brother," says Lenore.
After that night she doesn't see any of these people for a while. First Christmas comes and goes, and after it's over they all have a week off school and not only does she have to work all day, she finds herself taking evening shifts for co-workers who are leaving town for the holiday. And then what free time she has is spent catching up with her high school friends who've come home for the holiday.
And then New Years rolls around. Edward & Co. plan a lengthy movie and board game marathon, but Lenore, for the first time since the summer, is going to a real party: Caroline is keeping up the tradition of her annual New Year's Eve bash at her parents' enormous house on the outskirts of town. And of course Lenore shows up just late enough to still count as fashionable, dressed to kill, and ready to party until they drag her out of there
The place is pretty packed; in addition to the old gang and all the usual suspects, some of the current Baltimore High upperclassmen are there. Lenore smirks when she sees Charlotte turn and change direction to avoid interacting with her—still unhappy about the blackmail thing, she supposes—and she talks to Ernest and Mary for a while about all the latest news from the school. She catches up with Mary Ann Evans, who talks excitedly about her wrestling season, and who introduces her to a Russian foreign exchange student named Fyodor with big mournful eyes. She does not see Annabel Lee at any point, which surprises her, but maybe she decided to avoid the party since Eddie Dantes is here.
Lenore mingles, she dances, she talks to her friends about what life is like outside Baltimore and tries very hard to keep them from asking what she's up to now, because it sounds so boring by comparison; if pressed, she claims she's looking into that retail management program HG found at Purdue, because at least it sounds like she has a plan. She also hits the refreshment table, since Caroline's parents are rich and they always have the best snacks. There's beer available—pretty standard for parties at Caroline's house, as her parents are the sorts who are so keen to have their kids think they're cool that they basically let them get away with murder—but Lenore abstains; she's driving home tonight.
She enjoys herself all evening. But she doesn't realize until the door opens at 10:30 and Guy walks in that this the real reason she came, what she's actually been waiting for all night. Because she's over him, she really is, but somehow her body failed to get the message because when she sees him her pulse accelerates, her breath catches in her throat, and her hands unconsciously clench into fists. She's over him; she's moved on; anything she feels now is just her getting a little desperate because it's been six months since Guy left and she hasn't had a date since then, which is a record for her. Of course she's going to feel a sort of longing for her last successful relationship. This isn't affection, it's desperation and wistfulness and loneliness.
But that doesn't stop her from feeling like someone punched her in the stomach when she sees that Guy is walking in with a cute little blonde on his arm.
"This is Marie," he explains, a little apologetic, when he gets close to Lenore. "I've brought her here to meet my parents."
What the heck? she wants to demand. Guy was single as of September. And he's only nineteen years old. Why the heck is he getting serious enough with a girl, this fast, to take her home to meet his parents? And why has everyone in her life moved on except her? Does that say something about her?
Lenore stays so lost in her miserable thoughts as Guy and Marie move on that she's quite surprised when Caroline approaches, a sympathetic look on her face and an offering of comfort in the form of a beer. In a moment, Lenore has completely forgotten that she drove. She downs the whole thing fast, and then she's on her way to find more.
At 11:15 she's done; she's over this party. She's tired and irritable from all those extra hours at work, and she's upset and bothered to see Guy with this new girl, and she's kind of drunk, and she wants to go home. She tells Caroline that she has another party to get to, and Caroline, to her credit, informs her she can't drive like this.
"Oh, I'll walk!" says Lenore, too bright and cheery to be real. "It's not far."
It is far, in fact. It is more than a half-hour walk from Caroline's house on the outskirts of town to the Poe home on the other side of Baltimore, but Lenore is a combination of too stubborn to ask for help and too sensible to try driving like this. So, thankful she didn't wear heels tonight, she begins the long trek home. And with every step she scowls: no dates since the summer, scowl. Her friends are gone, scowl. They're all doing things with their lives and she's still here, scowl.
It's nearly midnight when she arrives back home, fully intending to sneak upstairs before Edgar and friends notice she's here; she really doesn't want to answer their questions about why she's home so early. But luck is not with her; they're in the kitchen, and every single head turns to her when the door opens.
"Lenore," says HG, sounding concerned, "you're home early."
And maybe she would have confessed what was going on—she definitely would have if it had only been Edgar or HG—but there's an extra attendee at the party: Annabel Lee has somehow agreed to spend her New Years playing Risk and eating Emily's caramel corn, apparently. And while this development actually makes her really happy for Edgar, it also makes her clam up, because Annabel is connected back to that group she left behind at the party, and while the girl is not a gossip, Lenore can't help but worry that if she admits she just walked home because she got all sad and drunk because Guy has moved on, somehow that will get back to Charlotte and Ernest and Mary and Caroline and even Guy.
So she lies; she's pretty good at that. "I'm actually not feeling super well," she says. "Mystery illness! Happens all the time, even to us hot people. So I came home."
Amid their expressions of concern, she excuses herself and goes up to her room. Her first instinct is to throw herself on her bed, but it's nearly midnight and ringing in the New Year by moping in her room is just a little too pathetic for her. So instead she goes to her parents' room—fortunately they're away at a party with friends—where there's a balcony where she can watch the stars without anyone else in the house seeing her. She wraps herself in a warm blanket from their room and leans against the railing, and that's where she is, a moment later, when HG steps cautiously out onto the balcony.
"Sorry to intrude," he says quickly. "But, but are you actually unwell? You seemed more . . . sad."
Darn him for being so observant. "Yeah, maybe," she says quietly.
Hesitantly he moves up and takes a spot against the railing next to her. "Would you like to talk about it?" His gaze is fixed out over the fields, she sees when she glances up at him; carefully trying to keep from pressuring her, of course, because he's the sweetest guy she knows.
"You're the sweetest guy I know," she hears herself say, and decides, Blame the alcohol for the lack of filter.
"Thank you," he says shyly, and okay, how has she never noticed how cute he is when he smiles all shy and embarrassed? Come to think of it, he's always been cute, really, even though he's not her usual type.
And that's the thought ringing in her head, along with the reminder that it's been six months since she's had a date or a kiss, all jumbled up by the alcohol, when she hears the neighbors down the street start banging pots and pans together. "It's midnight," she says.
"Yes," he agrees, but that's all he manages to say before she grabs his hoodie, pulls his head down to her level, and kisses him.
She barely has time to notice that he has pretty nice lips before he pulls away; apparently he's smelled the alcohol on her because he says regretfully, "Lenore, you've been drinking—"
"Don't care," she says, and pulls him back in; after a long, surprised moment, a pair of cautious hands lift to her waist, and he relaxes under her touch and attempts to kiss her back. It occurs to her that this might be his first kiss; he's never mentioned any previous romances to her. It would certainly explain the care and timidity with which he touches her, and weirdly that really works for her and she kisses him harder, and this is a surprisingly great kiss and she thinks she'd be perfectly happy to just do this for the rest of the night and not think about Guy.
But with that thought, the spell is broken; the sadness she's been trying to hold back breaks over her like a wave and she chokes on it, and now she can do nothing but take her hands out of HG's hair and step back. He looks dazed but happy, his hair mussed, his face pink, but she can barely look at him now that the alcohol is suddenly making her want to cry.
"Was that—was that okay?" he asks, uncertain and shy, and somehow that's the thing that tips her over the edge, and the next thing she knows she's crying and HG is looking horrified.
It's not you, she wants to reassure him. It's that I'm a mess right now, and everyone I know is growing up and moving on and I'm still here, and that despite everything, I miss Guy. But when she opens her mouth to explain, all that comes out is, "I miss Guy."
HG grows very still, and for a long moment all Lenore can hear is the happy cheers and music, floating in faintly from around the neighborhood. and then he nods. "I should—I should get back to the others," he says, so quietly she can barely hear him, and leaves. And Lenore walks slowly into her room and collapses on her bed. She's asleep before she remembers to even take her shoes off.
. . . . . .
On New Year's Day, Lenore wakes with a hangover and a sore back, having fallen asleep at an uncomfortable angle last night. The alarm clock reads 10:07, and she's glad the diner is closed today, because she doesn't think she could handle her shift. She hears her parents moving around in the hallway, and she knows they've been planning to go to the neighbors' New Year's Day brunch, so she waits until they've left before she makes her appearance. They disapprove of underage drinking, and they'd know with one look what she's been up to.
When they're gone, she changes out of last night's clothes and goes downstairs to get some water, and the cup is barely half full when Edgar appears out nowhere with fury in his eyes. "What were you thinking?" he demands loudly, and she winces a little at the noise.
"About?" she asks weakly.
"I just got back from HG's," he says, and she doesn't know that he's ever been this angry with her before. "I wanted to know why he left so suddenly last night. And he told me, so now I'll repeat, what the heck were you thinking?"
Oh yes, HG. "It was just a New Year's kiss."
"From what he said, it was a little more intense than that."
Yeah, that actually was true. It had been quite the kiss, and Lenore feels her face heat, just a little, at the thought of it. "It was NBD, okay?"
"It was certainly not NBD," he nearly shouts. "Lenore, what were you thinking? He likes you!"
"I know," she shrugs, though in truth she hadn't been thinking of that when she kissed him. "A lot of people do."
"No, I don't mean he's one of your . . . your sycophants, hanging on your every word because you're the prettiest, most popular girl in school. He really likes you! And he has for a long time."
She blinks. "Oh," she says quietly.
"Why do you think I was so reluctant to have you hang out with us? Or why I was so upset about you two watching your ridiculous fashion show together?"
That's true, he has been sort of discouraging of her friendship with HG.
"Because I knew that HG was just going to get his hopes up, and fall in deeper and deeper, and you were never going to actually consider dating him, and he was just going to get hurt. And I was right, because you kissed him because you were drunk and missing your ex, and now he is heartbroken. I haven't seen him like this in a long time, and it's all your doing."
She stares at him a long time while the pounding in her head increases and an unfamiliar feeling of guilt steals into her chest. Then wordlessly she leaves the kitchen, climbs the stairs, and locks herself in her room.
. . . . . .
For the next few days she manages to avoid Edgar entirely, keeping to her room and avoiding family meals by once again claiming mystery illness, to her mother's concern. But on Friday morning she squares her shoulders and goes downstairs to catch Edgar on his way out the door to school. "You can tell HG not to worry," she says quietly. "I'm not coming to movie night tonight. I won't even be in the house."
Edgar gives her a look she can't quite interpret, then nods.
So, true to her word, Lenore leaves after dinner that night and finds her way to the tiny, two-screen movie theater on Main Street. She buys a ticket for the romantic comedy that's starting soon and sits in the very back, so no one will see her and realize she's there alone—in a town this size, it's nearly a guarantee that she'll see someone she knows here tonight. The movie is terrible (which, coming from someone who loves ridiculous chick flicks, is really saying something), but she hardly notices. Her mind isn't on the screen; it's on the Poe house and the group of high school seniors currently gathered there.
She wonders if the others know the reason she's not there. She wonders if HG was relieved when he heard she wasn't coming, or if he's sorry at all that she's not there. She wonders if he is still, as Edgar said, heartbroken.
She hadn't meant to hurt him. She hadn't even known she had the power to hurt him, honestly; she'd known that he had a little crush on her, but loads of people did and she'd never broken their hearts. Maybe the trouble, she decides eventually, is she'd been imagining his crush in terms of how people crush on celebrities, or how, as a freshman, she'd crushed on dreamy senior class president John Proctor: distant, starry-eyed and unreal, a crush on an idea more than a person, with absolutely no expectation that it would ever go anywhere and therefore no disappointment. But apparently it had been more real than that for HG, and she hadn't known—she'd never . . . she can be mean but she's not that cruel.
She hadn't meant to hurt him.
After the movie ends she pays to watch the one playing on the other screen, just to give the people currently in her basement plenty of time to finish and clear out. Finally, near midnight, she returns home. The house is quiet and dark, but she runs into Edgar on his way to brush his teeth. "How was it?" she asks, forcing a smile. The other thought that had occupied her mind during the movies was the hope that hadn't made things really weird between her and her brother; she's been surprised to find, over the past several months, that she values her relationship with him more than she would have expected.
"Fine," he says brusquely, but then his expression softens, as he says, perhaps by way of extending the olive branch, "Annabel Lee came."
"Seriously?" she grins.
He nods shyly. "Louisa invited her. It was . . . we had . . ."
"A good time?" she guesses.
He smiles faintly, a secret, quiet smile. "A good time," he agrees.
So begins Lenore's month of self-imposed isolation. She won't—she can't—go back to hanging out with Edgar's friends, although she honestly doesn't know if that's more for HG's sake or for her own. It is at least partly out of consideration for HG; he can't want to see her, that she's certain of, and she's not going to make him any more unhappy and uncomfortable than she already has. And for her . . . it's not that she doesn't want to see him, exactly; it's that seeing him again like this, with so many people watching, would be very uncomfortable, and she refuses to deal with that. Because that's the deep dark truth about Lenore Poe: as much as she's confident and strong and independent, and as much as she prides herself on not letting other people's opinions change her behavior, the truth is that when things get difficult, a lot of the time she just bails. She doesn't like feeling wrong-footed or guilty or embarrassed or uncomfortable, and rather than fix it, she just avoids the situation altogether. And so she finds herself spending her weekend nights at the movies or going on long drives or just locking herself in her room and pretending she's not home. It's better this way, she tells herself, and never even slightly believes it.
The other thing that happens that surprises her is that she basically completely forgets Guy. Where he used to cross her mind fairly often—I wonder who he's dating, I wonder if he ever thinks about me—now she honestly doesn't care. It's like seeing him that one last time and having a good cry over it has completely gotten him out of her system, and she's glad of it; she's tired of being sad about that. And she wishes this could have happened before she nearly had a public breakdown at Caroline's party.
In mid-January, Edgar approaches her after dinner. Things have been getting better between them; he seems to have accepted that her regret is sincere and that her actions were unintentional, and he apologized for assuming she was deliberately leading HG on, and they are cordial to each other—like they were before she ever started hanging out with him and got to know him as something like a friend, only she makes fun of him less now than she did back then. "I have a message for you," he says, "from HG."
"He wanted me to let you know that applications for Purdue are due by the end of the month." He hesitates. "Are you considering Purdue? I didn't realize . . ."
"Maybe," she says when she finds her voice.
His expression lightens. "That's one of the places I applied," he says. "We could . . . be classmates."
She smiles a little, then asks, striving for nonchalance, "How is he?"
Edgar gives her another one of those inscrutable looks he's been giving her lately. "He's quieter than usual."
Seriously? That's worrying; if that kid gets any quieter he might just fade out of existence.
"But he's . . . improving."
Lenore nods. "Thanks for passing on the message."
She thinks about it all night. HG's still thinking of her and her future, but the fact that he sent the message with Edgar . . . he has her phone number, and they were very comfortable texting each other before this all went down, and the only reason she can think of that he wouldn't text now is that he really doesn't want her to respond. So, okay, he doesn't want to talk to her anymore. That's what she would have expected, really, but this proof of it still makes her kind of sick to her stomach, makes the back of her throat feel thick and strange.
She thinks about it all night, and then the next day she gets the afternoon off work and goes to the high school to visit the academic advisor. Miss Lasalle is surprised at the visit, as Lenore never visited when she was still in school, but her afternoon is wide open and she's perfectly happy to help Lenore locate her academic transcripts and test scores and get started on an application to Purdue.
Lenore spends all her free time on the application over the next few days, and she thinks she's put together a pretty impressive one. She's always had good grades, because all the teachers loved her, and because she's always had an uncanny ability to bluff her way through tests. That same skill aided her when her parents made her take the SAT last year, and her score falls within the range that the Internet says she'll need to get into a school like Purdue. Plus she did just about every possible extracurricular and held every possible position—student body president, editor of the newspaper, yearbook staff, French club, first alto in the choir (which she never cared much for, but her friends were all doing choir and that was reason enough for her). So she's feeling reasonably confident by the time she sends off her completed application.
That leaves her once again with nothing to occupy her evenings, and she finds herself finishing I, Robot. She doesn't hate it, in the end, and she's proud of herself for finishing it and she reaches automatically for her phone . . . and then she puts it back down. Because HG made it clear that he doesn't want to hear from her, and she's going to respect that. But as she sits on her bed, his book in her lap, she finally admits something to herself that she's been ignoring for three weeks: she misses him.
She misses all of them, really: Louisa's absurd laugh and Emily's kindness and Oscar leaning over mid-movie to mutter in her ear "I don't care if it was the thirties, there is no excuse for that neckline." She misses them, and she wonders what they think about the fact that she appears to have abandoned them, and she wonders whether Edgar told them the real reason or if he came up with an excuse.
But most of all she misses HG. Of all the group somehow he is the one she became closest to, which makes no sense whatsoever on paper: the brash, confident beauty queen and the shy, diffident inventor. But somewhere between the board game nights where he'd sit by her side and patiently explain the rules yet again and the Project Runway nights where they'd share a blanket and argue with the people on TV about their choice of fabric . . . he became important to her, above all the others, and she misses him. She misses talking to him; she misses his quiet smile and his thoughtfulness; she misses the way the unexpected passion in his eyes when he gets talking about something he cares about always makes her smile.
She misses him, and she's tired of pretending she doesn't, and she will never stop being mad at herself for that very ill-advised kiss because now everything is ruined between them forever. If she'd just been a little less drunk and mopey (or if he hadn't come looking for her), they could have gone on being friends and she could have texted him about finishing his book and he could have helped her with her college application and they could be finishing another season of Project Runway together.
(And it's not until she's going to bed that night, still wishing she hadn't kissed him, and caught in that hazy moment between waking and sleeping, that she lets herself wonder what might have happened if she hadn't started crying over Guy that night. It had been a great kiss, after all; what if she had just let it run its course? What if she and HG had just . . . But that's a crazy thought, and even half-asleep Lenore won't let that stand, and she puts it out of her mind. But that doesn't stop her from replaying the kiss a time or two as she drops off to sleep.)
. . . . . .
On February 4, Lenore's phone buzzes to remind her that the state science and engineering fair is tomorrow; she put it in her calendar ages ago and forgot it was there. She looks at the notification for a moment, a frown marring her brow, and remembers the way he didn't even text her about the Purdue thing, he sent the message with someone else. But even with that thought lurking in the back of her mind, she can't help herself; she types out a text to HG: Good luck tomorrow.
The response doesn't come until an hour later, and is only two words: Thank you. She supposes she deserved that.
At dinner that night, she learns from Edgar that the whole gang, including Annabel Lee, are taking tomorrow off school and driving to Indianapolis to spend the day at the fair with HG. So she is surprised when, the next morning, Annabel comes into the diner around 10.
"Hey, I thought you were going to Indianapolis today," Lenore says, surprised.
"I am!" smiles Annabel. "But I volunteered to bring snacks, and Mrs. Dantes' muffins are so much nicer than the ones from the grocery store." Then she confesses in a stage whisper, still smiling, "I think her cooking was the best part of dating her son."
Lenore laughs aloud at that and follows her to the baked goods case by the cash register, where she fills her order then rings her up. Annabel doesn't leave then, though; she glances around the diner, and then at her watch, and asks, "Do you have a minute to talk?"
The place is empty other than Annabel, so Lenore shrugs. "Sure, come have a seat."
They sit facing each other in one of the booths, and Annabel plays with the salt and pepper shakers, avoiding Lenore's eyes. "Are you mad at me?" she asks finally.
"It's just—I know you used to hang out with Edgar and Louisa and everyone, but as soon as I started hanging out with them, you stopped. Were you avoiding me?"
"Don't even think that, Ginger," says Lenore firmly. "My not being there is . . . it has nothing to do with you, I promise. I'm glad you're hanging out with them, honestly. You've always been really nice to them." Annabel looks hugely relieved, finally meeting Lenore's eyes, and Lenore can't help asking mischievously, "Is that causing an uproar at school, though? Student body president hanging with the nerd herd?"
Annabel smiles a little. "It hasn't quite been social suicide, but it certainly hasn't helped my social standing. But it's not like they can impeach me, and four months from now I'm never going to see most of these people again, so what does it matter what they think of me?"
Now that is a novel thought, Lenore has to admit.
"Anyway, I was tired of my old group of friends. Hanging with them meant seeing Eddie, and seeing all the girls that he cheated on me with. Your brother and his friends are . . . sweet. They're sincere. They'd never do anything to hurt me." She considers a moment, smiling. "Except Oscar when he insults my clothing choices."
"No one is safe," agrees Lenore with a grin.
Annabel is quiet. "Lenore," she says, looking down at the salt and pepper shakers again, "does your brother . . . like me?"
"Sorry," says Lenore promptly, channeling the Law & Order reruns she watches with her mom, "brother-sister confidentiality. I cannot divulge that information." But she can't help smiling and asking, "Why? Do you like him?"
Annabel blushes. "I just—he's very sweet. And very smart—Mrs. Pym read part of his essay in class last month and it was . . . it was very impressive."
Lenore wishes more than anything that Edgar was here to hear this. But at the same time, it baffles her to think that the student body president, the widely-loved Annabel Lee, could ever consider dating her weird little brother, the socially awkward Edgar Poe. "Obviously I love him," she says."I have to, he's my brother. But . . . I'm sure I'm not telling you anything you don't already know if I point out that he's a little . . . odd? Are you sure you could live with that? And with what it could do to your reputation?"
Annabel frowns, and it might be the first time Lenore has ever seen a negative emotion cross her face. "I've worried about my reputation since I was in elementary school," she sighs. "And how I look and how I dress and do people like me . . . and good things have come of it. I'm glad I've done well in student elections because I think I've been able to use my position to do genuinely good things for the other students. But it's so tiring, and it's kind of miserable. I'm tired of working so hard for something that doesn't make me happy." She hesitates, then looks squarely at Lenore, who gets the impression that her next words are as much for the speaker's benefit as the listener's: "I want to finally be brave enough to do what makes me happy, even if it doesn't make me popular."
In the surprised silence that follows, Annabel's phone beeps, and she glances at it. "They're coming to pick me up in five," she reads, and picks up the bag of muffins, already back to her cheerful perky self. "Sorry to take up so much of your time."
"No prob," Lenore assures her.
Annabel doesn't move yet, though. She looks down at the muffins a long moment, then up at her companion. "You not hanging with the group anymore . . . did something happen with HG Wells?"
Lenore blinks. "What—why—"
"The week after New Years, when I hung out with the group, I asked where you were. Oscar and the girls didn't know, Edgar just said you were busy, but HG looked really sad."
Something in Lenore's jaw tightens.
"And he was acting very weird after he went up to check on you on New Years' Eve, and he left really suddenly not long after, and all month he's been a little quieter than normal, and now you're not going to the science fair, and, well, you don't have be as clever as he is to put the pieces together."
Lenore covers her face with her hands.
"I think you'd make a very sweet couple," Annabel says warmly. "You look good together."
"Sweet?" Lenore demands, lifting her face from her hands. "Seriously?"
Annabel ignores her. "So is there something going on?'
Lenore puts her face back in her hands.
"I'm a very good listener, if you want to talk about it." Annabel's voice is gentle.
And Lenore doesn't want to talk about it . . . but also she does. Very much. It's super embarrassing, but also she would love to get this off her chest, because she has been carrying it around alone for more than a month and it's driving her crazy. So without moving her hands, she says, her voice muffled, "I didn't mean to, but . . . I sort of led him on. And now he's heartbroken and I feel awful."
"Oh," says Annabel, sounding surprised. "I see. In that case, I suppose it is best that you give him time to recover without having to see you all the time." She hesitates. "But . . ."
"Edgar told me you two had gotten very close: that you took him to Indianapolis for shopping and a Christmas fair, and that you'd started hanging out all the time without the rest of the group."
"So you never once in that time considered becoming something more than friends?"
Into Lenore's mind comes the memory of that night not long ago, when she found herself dwelling on that kiss and wondering what would have happened if she hadn't started crying after it. "Maybe the thought has crossed my mind," she admitted. "But we're not like that."
"But you could be. If you wanted."
Again certain traitorous thoughts creep into her mind, and she quickly quashes them. "He's, like, a total nerd. And he's still in high school, and he's younger than me, and he's my brother's friend. I don't go for any of those things. I'm Lenore Poe, okay? I'm not that desperate."
And Annabel, to her surprise, looks disappointed, but when she speaks her voice is still gentle. "So you're going to completely write off a great guy who you admit you've considered dating, just because it wouldn't be cool for you to go out with him?"
Okay, it sounds really lame when she says it like that. "That's not exactly . . . I mean . . ."
"Do you know what I've always admired about you, Lenore?" asks Annabel. "You've always been strong. You never let what other people think affect you or change you; you do what you want, and what you think you should, and anyone who doesn't like it can just deal with it. Or so I thought," she adds, and Lenore is surprisingly hurt by that. "But it turns out you're making decisions based on what your high school friends will think, even though they're miles away and you haven't been in high school for months." There is gentle reprimand in her tone. "I expected more from you."
Her phone beeps suddenly, shattering the tense silence, and Annabel seems to suddenly realize what she'd been saying. "I'm so sorry," she says, looking suddenly very embarrassed, "I didn't mean to pry into your personal affairs, I just . . . I've always liked HG, and I'm sorry to see him hurt." She gathers up her things, her face pink. "The others are waiting outside."
They walk together to the door, Lenore's head still whirling with everything that's just been said, and Annabel stops with one hand on the door handle. "I'm not trying to tell you to date HG—I don't even know how you really feel about him. I'm just saying that I hope that if you really have feelings for him, or anyone else, you won't let other people's opinions, or whether or not this person is popular, affect your decision." The smile she gives her then is still a little embarrassed. "So, umm, bye."
Lenore returns to her work in a quiet daze, Annabel's words still echoing in her ears: "You never let what other people think affect you, or so I thought." "I expected more from you." And most of all, "I want to finally be brave enough to do what makes me happy, even if it doesn't make me popular." Lenore has always thought of herself as brave. But now she's wondering if maybe her definition of 'brave' needs some tweaking.
But this is HG they're talking about. Like, she loves the kid, she really does, but that doesn't mean she wants to date him. Probably. I mean, yeah, to be fair, that kiss was actually pretty fantastic, and yeah, she still gets butterflies in her stomach when she thinks about it, and yeah while it was happening she didn't want it to stop. And yeah, he's really fun to talk to and being around him is so much more comfortable and easy than it's ever been with any of her past boyfriends. And yeah, she definitely finds him attractive, although he's not really her usual type. And yeah, she has cuddled up to his side on more than one occasion, generally on Project Runway nights, and each time she just kind of wanted to stay there forever. And yeah, there was that time at the Christmas fair when he talked about his mom and she just wanted to gather him up and take him somewhere safe where she could protect him from a world that doesn't deserve someone so sweet. And yeah, she . . . she sort of forgets what point all this was supposed to prove.
But she can't deny that thinking about HG in this light is making her pulse accelerate. She thinks of what Annabel said and tries to take all her old prejudices about high school social groups out of the picture: she imagines what it would be like if she and HG were miles from here, somewhere where all her current hangups didn't exist. She imagines HG, in this imaginary life, asking her on a date with that sweet smile and that shy way he has of looking up at her from under his brows as though she's taller than him. And her stomach does a pleasant little lurch at the thought.
That's a much more compelling idea than she would have expected.
She walks to the kitchen where Krishanti, the good-natured hippie who trades off cooking duties with Mr. and Mrs. Dantes, is chopping tomatoes. "How do you, personally, know when you're interested in someone?" she asks without preamble.
Krishanti takes the question absolutely in stride. "When I want to spend all my time with him," she says promptly, sliding the chopped tomatoes from the chopping board into a bowl. "But that could also describe a friend. So I have to add, I want to spend some or all of that time mashing faces with him." She smiles beatifically. "Does that help?"
Lenore nods, still deep in thought, and goes out to serve early lunch crowd. It's a pretty crappy morning, actually, because she's so distracted that she keeps messing up orders and failing to notice people trying to wave her down. She's thinking about HG, who, come to think of it, she wants to spend all of her time with, and who she kind of wants to mash faces with again.
She treads the same paths in her mind over and over again, until they are well-worn grooves. And finally she admits to herself that she can no longer ignore where all those grooves are pointing to, and she makes a decision: it's a crazy decision, but making it is the first thing in a month she's felt genuinely good about. "Can I have the rest of the day off?" she asks Mrs. Dantes, who has come to help with the lunch rush. "It's an emergency. There's something I've got to do."
. . . . . .
It's after five o'clock when she pulls into Indianapolis. Mrs. Dantes couldn't spare her until after the lunch rush was over, and then she had to go home and shower and change—smelling like fryer oil is really not that alluring—and then it's an hour and twenty to Indianapolis. It takes a while to find parking on the Butler campus, and then to walk to the science building where the fair is held, so by the time she steps into the exhibition hall, people are starting to pack up their displays. She checks her watch; the awards ceremony is in 45 minutes.
She turns a corner and comes face-to-face with her brother, who is carrying one of HG's posters and who jumps at seeing her. "Lenore," he says, visibly trying to calm himself from his scare, "what are—what are you doing here?"
She's a little startled herself, and her automatic reaction is sarcasm. "I love science," she says as though that should have been clear. "Obvs." Edgar just stares at her, and after a moment her expression falls and she makes herself answer honestly. "I came to try to . . . make things right with HG."
Edgar looks at her a long time, his brow furrowed in thought, and then he tilts his head to point down one of the rows. "He's down here and around the corner," Edgar says. "The others are in the car, waiting to go get dinner; we'll just head to the McDonald's on 38th. Come find us when you're done. Or, you know, tell HG to come find us, if he'll be coming alone."
She really does not give Edgar credit for being as awesome as he is. His arms are full with the poster, so hugs are out of the question; she settles instead for leaning in and kissing his cheek. "Thanks, baby brother."
He bristles a little. "Don't touch me," he grumbles, but there's a reluctant smile on his face. Then he heads to the exit and Lenore is left alone in the middle of the science fair.
She follows Edgar's directions and turns a corner and there he is, the man of the hour; his back is to her—he seems to be putting his teaching resonant magnetometer away—so she has a moment to observe him. He's wearing the outfit she picked out for him, the vest and the slacks and the shirt with the rolled up sleeves, and he looks dang good, if she does say so herself; he looks trim and put together and much more grown-up than usual. And now that she's come to the conclusion that it's not that bad to be attracted to someone a year younger than you—even if that means he's still in high school—she admits to herself that she would really, really like to go straighten his collar and smooth his shirt, as a transparent excuse to run her hands over his slim shoulders.
But obviously that would be just about the worst idea right now, so instead she watches him quietly for a moment longer, and then she speaks: "What does HG stand for?"
HG jumps about a mile, then freezes. Ever so slowly he turns and looks back at her over his shoulder, and she sees his chest move as he takes a deep breath. "I couldn't possibly tell you; it's terribly embarrassing."
It's an echo of what he said to her the first time she asked, but it's all wrong; instead of the answer being full of eager awkward shyness, his expression is shuttered, his tone flat. He turns back to the table, which causes a sort of pang in Lenore's chest, but soon she sees it was just to finish taping the box shut before he turns to give her his full attention. He might not be very happy with her right now, but he's not going to be a jerk about it.
"I—I didn't expect to see you here," he says, expression bland, voice polite.
"This is a big deal for you," she says, reaching for some semblance of her usual light-hearted tone and failing, because she'd known she'd hurt him but she didn't expect him to be so . . . so nothing toward her. He will forgive her, right? she asks herself, and is less sure of the answer than she was when she walked in the building. "I wanted to come be supportive."
"That's very nice of you," he says, like a child who's been reminded to say thank you. "But I'm afraid it's basically over; we just have a break before the awards. The others are . . . are waiting for me to join them to go find something to eat."
"I saw Edgar," she says. "He said for you to meet them at the McDonald's on 38th . . . after I told him I needed to talk to you."
For the first time a spark of something lights his eyes, and he looks curiously at her. But they are for sure not having this conversation in the middle of all this madness, with all these parents and students constantly walking past and the twins at the next table over waiting their conversation with matching stares. "Go back to your mushrooms," she hisses at them, and turns to HG. "Can we walk? Anywhere?"
He nods hesitantly, but the problem is they still have the box with his project in it and he doesn't want to leave it unattended. So they don't walk far, just out the nearest exit and into an empty hallway, where he sets the box down with a relieved sigh, then looks up at her. The blankness on his face has been replaced with timid curiosity, and he's fidgety, the way he used to be around her, before they became friends.
She's been thinking about how to put this since she decided to come here, and she shoves her hands in her pockets and starts, "Edgar told me you like me."
It isn't a question—she's not going to put him on the spot like that—but HG clearly takes it as such, and he gives an embarrassed little huff of laughter and looks down, nodding. "I do."
"I didn't mean to—"
"And I have, for a long time. I don't mean to, to interrupt what you were trying to say, but it's . . . rather nice to get that off my chest, actually."
Now thoroughly sidetracked, she looks at the top of his head—he won't meet her eyes—and can't help asking, "Why? We didn't even know each other until this year."
"We weren't friends until this year," he agrees, and finally looks up into her face. "But we had a class together my sophomore year. Mr. Hillyer's current events class, do you remember?"
Honestly? No. She remembers the class, but not that there was a very quiet sophomore in a hoodie somewhere in the room with her. She shakes her head, and he smiles like he'd expected it.
"I kind of supposed you would have forgotten. Anyway, I was the only sophomore in the class, and I didn't know anyone in there. And—and we had to do these presentations on news stories we'd read, if you recall."
That she does remember, and she nods. He stuffs his hands in his pockets and turns to look out the window beside them, over the snowy campus.
"I dreaded those so much; I had a terrible fear of public speaking, and I, I knew I was going to embarrass myself in front of all the popular kids. Half the student government was in that class, including Charlotte's brother Bran. Do you remember him? He was horrible—I had other classes with him, and he was . . . he was constantly calling me names and giving me a hard time for being so far ahead of the other sophomores. And he was sitting right at the front and as soon as I started my presentation, he began a running commentary, very audibly, from the audience—cracking jokes and making fun of what I was saying and what I was wearing and how I acted, and of course Mr. Hillyer never bothered to tell him to be quiet, because Bran was his favorite. And just as I was about to—to give up or panic or cry or something equally embarrassing, you spoke up."
She blinks in surprise.
"If I recall correctly, you said, 'We know you're in love with the sound of your own voice, but don't the rest of us have to suffer through it enough when you do the announcements?' And then you added that if he is going to insist on always doing the announcements, he probably ought to learn to read first, and in the meantime he should 'shut up so this kid can finish his presentation.' And you asked Mr. Hillyer, 'Since apparently you're going to let the students completely run wild like this, can I bring in my laptop tomorrow and watch Netflix?'" He smiles. "Mr. Hillyer looked very embarrassed, and from that point on he started reprimanding Bran for bullying me in class. It didn't stop Bran being a jerk outside of class, but it was an improvement."
Lenore doesn't remember any of this, although she can certainly believe she'd done it; she'd always been at odds with Bran, and that was not their only altercation. And she'd never liked Mr. Hillyer, who was forever playing favorites (and she was never one of them).
HG shoves his hands into his pockets and looks down at the ground. "You were . . . fearless. And for someone who's always—always been timid . . . I was fascinated, and I admired you. And before long it was . . . more than admiration."
Before today, she'd never had anyone compliment her for being fearless, and now it's happened twice. She's never had a guy, in particular, admire how she always speaks her mind—they generally tolerate it because they have to, but no one's ever liked it—and she remembers suddenly what HG said at Halloween: "You deserve to find someone who values you just as you are." And she smiles.
She leans back against the windowsill, half-sitting on it with her hands curled over the lip and her elbows brushing the glass, and HG follows suit, moving carefully as though the moment will shatter or he'll wake up if he moves too quickly.
"I didn't know you liked me until Edgar said something," she says, not looking at him so as not to freak him out too much. "Or at least not seriously. I could tell you were kind of smitten but, like, I didn't think it was that . . . intense. I never meant to lead you on. And I kissed you because it was New Years and because it had been, like, a super long time since I'd been kissed. Crying over Guy . . . that was the beer speaking, it was nothing you'd done, and honestly I never even think about him anymore. But anyway, before that moment, I'd never thought about you like that, and I felt awful for hurting you, and that's why I've been avoiding all of you guys since then—I didn't want to make it worse for you, and I felt guilty."
HG is nodding resignedly, his gaze fixed on the floor tiles, and Lenore feels her smile grow as she examines him, because oh my gosh his adorable little head is going to explode.
"But the thing is," she says, over the top in her nonchalance, "ever since then, I've . . . started thinking about you like that."
After a long shocked moment, he lifts his head to stare at her in surprise, his wide hazel eyes behind his glasses reminding her why she thought of him as Owl Boy when they first met.
"I'm as surprised as you are," she shrugs. "But that was actually a pretty good kiss. Was that your first?"
He blushes pink and ducks his head.
"Not bad for a first kiss, Professor," she says approvingly. "Imagine what you could do with some practice."
He is now beet red.
"But also I just—I miss you," she says, and now it's her turn to look down at the ground, fiddling with the ends of her hair to keep her hands busy. She's never been good at the serious stuff. "I miss talking to you, and hanging out with you, and if all that comes out of this conversation is us being friends again, that would be . . . that would be good."
He is still a long moment, then asks carefully, "Is that what you want?"
"It's one thing I want," she teases, pushing away from the sill and turning to face him.
He swallows hard, even as he angles his own body to face her. "And the other things?"
"Why don't you take a guess?"
He is very pleasingly flustered at all this, but it's a little bit too much for him, apparently, because he says all in a rush, "I think you're flirting with me, but I—I would really like it if you would just tell me what you're thinking because I don't want to be wrong again."
She laughs at that, and finally gives into the temptation she's been fighting all this while, and reaches out to straighten his tie and smooth down the collar of his shirt. "I think you should kiss me," she says, very matter-of-fact, "and then I think we should hold hands when we go find everyone else and seriously just blow their little minds."
HG looks excited but still cautious. "Because we're . . . together?"
"Tentatively," she says by way of qualification. "We still need to figure out if we really want to do this. You might not like me as much once we're spending that much time together."
"That's not possible," he says fervently, taking a step closer, and she was right about him: when he gives a girl his heart, he does it with the same devotion he shows toward science.
Turns out she likes having all that devotion focused on her, and she smiles, even as a whisper of heat comes to her cheeks—it's been a while since someone looked at her that way. "You say that now," she teases, "but wait until I make you hold my purse while we spend the entire day at the mall."
He just smiles, and they stand there a moment until she leans forward and says in a stage whisper, "You still haven't kissed me."
"Oh!" he says, becoming once again very flustered. "Right. How should . . . do I . . ."
"Oh, for Pete's sake," she grins, and grabs the front of his vest to pull him down to her height.
They stare at each other, a breath's width apart, and unexpectedly he murmurs two words: "Herbert George."
She stares at him a moment, then bursts into laughter. "Seriously? You're right, that's pretty terrible."
"That's why I only tell it to people I can trust not to tease me about it." He smiles as he puts his hands on her waist to draw her near.
"Then you picked the wrong person to trust," she grins. "Because I am totes going to tease you about it."
"I guess I can live with that," he says, but no more than that because Lenore is kissing him and trying to avoid creasing his nice vest and shirt while still crossing her wrists behind his neck like in that famous kiss from Moulin Rouge because she's a sucker for that—that and grabbing guys by their ties, which HG will learn soon enough.
His lips are still pretty great, and and the kiss still sends a thrill all through her, but he's even more cautious with his hands than he was last time—probably because she drew attention to how much she enjoyed the last kiss, and now he's panicking and second-guessing himself. But that's all right. They've got plenty of time to work on it.
. . . . . .
And they do, several more times over the course of the day. For instance, when they finally get to McDonald's (with only fifteen minutes to get food and get back to the awards ceremony) and see Edgar & Co. inside the restaurant, watching them through the windows, and Lenore has the idea to clue them into what happened by coming to a stop and pulling HG in for another kiss, and they laugh against each other's lips as they hear Louisa cheering and Oscar yelling "I knew it!"
And when HG wins first prize at the fair, and she gives him a quick kiss before he stands up to go collect his plaque, and Mr. Wells, with surprise and pleasure in his expression, turns and gives her the happiest smile.
And back at the Wells home, where Lenore is dropping him off. He'd gotten a ride to Indianapolis from his father and had been planning on going back with him, but it turns out Mr. Wells is a big fan of "young love," as he rather embarrassingly calls it, and encouraged HG to ride back with Lenore: "I imagine you two want to spend some time together." So they do. Lenore wishes she could hold HG's hand, but in the dark, on the freeway, in weather that might result in ice—she doesn't trust herself not to have two hands on the wheel, and maybe HG senses how much she's concentrating on the road, because he keeps the conversation light: what news she missed not seeing the gang for the last month, and how he's thinking of entering his project into the Google Science Fair, and that he was not only accepted to Purdue, he was given a scholarship, so now he's definitely going there and now just needs to decide whether to live at home. She tells him that she completed her Purdue application, and he expresses his absolute confidence that she'll get in. Very supportive: good boyfriend so far.
When they get back to Baltimore and Lenore pulls into the Wells' driveway, they sit quietly a few moments. Lenore slips her hand into his and sees him smile, his face illuminated by the porch light.
They're silent a long time, then: "What made you change your mind?"
"A lot of things, over a long time. But what actually made me act was Annabel Lee giving me a lecture."
"I'll have to thank her," smiles HG.
"And help me give her a lecture about dating my brother," Lenore agrees.
"And what do we do now?"
She shrugs. "I've got no plans tomorrow; we could get another season of Project Runway from the library? Start spending time together in this new . . ." She lifts their joined hands by way of illustration.
"Context?" he supplies helpfully. She nods. "I think that sounds like a good plan," he says.
They talk a while longer, hands joined across the center console, and eventually HG lifts his free hand and starts running his thumb over her knuckles and tracing patterns on the back of her hand: he's got good instincts about this whole dating thing.
Dating. Her and HG! Who could ever have imagined it? What an odd pairing to put together, but it's working so far; she's sitting here thinking that if there weren't this huge center console, she'd probably be in HG's lap kissing him right now. (Maybe it's for the best, actually, that she can't; that might be too much for him, too fast.) But also she's perfectly happy to sit here in the dark, their hands intertwined, her enjoying the sound of his voice floating through the darkness.
Finally the clock catches their eyes, and HG apologizes that he really needs to get to bed. So Lenore walks him to the front door—"This is kind of like our first date, right? If you don't count the Christmas fair. And all the times we hung out here."—then turns to face him. "You know," she says, "it doesn't always have to be me kissing you. You can initiate them too."
"I see," says HG.
Lenore looks at him expectantly.
"Oh, I see!" says HG, lifting one hand to hesitantly stroke her cheek, and leaning down carefully to press his lips to hers. This kiss is slow and sweet, and she decides there's definitely something to be said for letting him take the lead occasionally.
"Wow," she breathes when they broken apart, "I think this is going to turn out to be a really good idea."
(Tomorrow he'll text her unexpectedly while she's at work, just to point out something that reminded him of her, and when she shows up for Project Runway he'll have her favorite soda and they'll spend the evening half focused on the show and half focused on each other. Many such days will follow, and movie nights and board game nights with the gang, including the wonderful day that Annabel and Edgar announce they're dating. By the time graduation rolls around this will officially be the longest relationship of her life, and when Charlotte sees Lenore at graduation she'll roll her eyes and say something about slumming, and Lenore will answer by kissing HG hard and long in front of the entire student body and half the town, and the picture that Mr. Wells takes immediately after, of HG looking thoroughly dazed, will become Lenore's phone wallpaper.
And they'll spend one last glorious summer in Baltimore, and when the autumn comes, almost the whole gang will go off to Purdue together, and movie nights will get replaced increasingly often with study nights, but they'll all have each other for support, and Lenore will always be able to rely on HG to be there with a helping hand and a sweet smile, and eventually she'll work past her commitment hangups enough to tell him how much she loves that—and everything—about him. And she'll see that life after high school can actually be rather perfect. And she'll see that dating HG really did turn out to be a really good idea.)
. . . . . .
Lenore is eighteen when her life as she knows it ends, but the one that starts in its place turns out to be even better.
. . . . . .