Calvin is sixteen when he decides he's going to move to the Florida Keys and work on a shrimp farm. It seems like the logical thing to do. He's supposed to be a junior at school, but the collection of classes that he's actually managed to pass make him only some kind of freshman-sophomore mutant hybrid who doesn't really belong anywhere. Which is kinda how it's always been.
He does have a girlfriend, which is more than a lot of the honor student boys can say. She's a year younger than him but sort of world-weary already. Her name is Jessica and she's really pretty, hot, even, and not just in the sense that she likes to set things on fire. And if it weren't for the setting things on fire and for the whole getting Calvin arrested after she burned down the football stadium's concession stand incident, he might be willing to stay in high school just for her. But getting him arrested pretty much ruined his life, and now when he looks at her he just sees kind of a cartoonish devil woman with red horns, asking him what his problem is when he doesn't want to fool around. Also he's not so sure she's actually on birth control, though she keeps telling him she is and biting his ear hard enough to leave teeth marks when he doesn't believe her.
“What the hell are you going to do on a shrimp farm?” she asks when he tells her his plan. They're in his bedroom after school, or after half a day at school, anyway. Jessica is in her underwear, pacing and smoking a cigarette. If there's anything she loves as much as fire, it's sucking on ashes.
“Live off the land,” Calvin says. “Like a real, you know. Not like some suburban drone.”
“Whatever.” Jessica glowers at him. She wears a lot of black eye makeup and Calvin can't imagine what she'd look like without it. He wouldn't recognize her. “It'll stink,” she says. “Shrimp smell bad.”
“I don't care,” he says, though he has considered that. He's not sure why it's got to be shrimp, but he wants to live by the ocean and they were the first thing that popped into his head.
“Well, I'm going to move to New York as soon as I can save up enough money,” she says, as if this is a far superior plan.
“Will you open the window?” he asks, making a face. “You're going to set off the smoke alarm.”
“You don't care what happens to me,” she says. Calvin sighs. It's not completely untrue.
“You're on probation,” he says. “And so am I. If you get caught with a lighter they'll put you in juvie and me in real prison, probably.”
“I can't handle your drama right now,” she says, the cigarette flapping between her lips as she pulls her jeans on.
It's pretty hilarious, her accusing him of being dramatic, considering that she once asked him, with her eyes so wild that he was afraid she was going to bite his nose off, if he thought maybe they should burn down the school next. But she won't get the joke so he doesn't laugh, just stays on his back in bed, his head propped up on his pillows and his hands folded over his stomach.
“You're lucky I ever even talked to you,” she says when she's at the door, tears in her eyes because she must have figured out that this is the way Calvin is breaking up with her, telling her that he's going to run away from home to work on a shrimp farm and not inviting her along.
“Yeah,” Calvin agrees, listless and ready for her to leave. Certainly there were good times. Jessica was the first girl he kissed, the first girl he did everything with. She wasn't the first to look twice at him, though. He's widely considered a semi-dangerous loser at school, but some of the other less than stable girls have smiled at him once or twice. Jessica was just the first one who was at all interesting. Back when they first started dating she replaced the sky and everything in it, and Calvin lived under the shadow of her, worshipful and terrified that she would leave, because if she did there would be a nuclear winter, the sun and everything else up there blocked out and long gone. He actually wrote a paper that was semi-about this phenomenon for his history class when they were studying World War II, but the teacher didn't really get it.
Jessica slams the door on her way out. Calvin hopes his mother hasn't come home yet and that they won't run into each other on the stairs. His parents have forbidden him to see Jessica, but he figured out around six years old that they can't really stop him from doing anything without physical restraint, and that once he got older and stronger he'd get away with everything. Until the police got involved, anyway.
He's not actually a bad kid. That's what he can't seem to communicate to his teachers, the cops, even to his parents. He doesn't have a black heart and he doesn't wake up every morning trying to come up with new ways to make his parents' lives difficult. Such as with Jessica. He just wanted to have a girlfriend who was pretty and funny and kind of weird, and the fact that she got undressed without his prompting on their third date was a little alarming but definitely not unwelcome. Then she was burning things in bigger and bigger increments and telling him that her older brother killed a guy and that she'd never been able to sleep for more than an hour at a time because her mother did coke while she was pregnant and Calvin only knew that he didn't want to give her up. It wasn't like he wanted her to be that way.
His mother slams into his room and glares at him like he's the Antichrist, so he figures she must have seen Jessica.
“Do you want to spend the rest of your life in prison?” she shouts. Calvin doesn't move from the bed.
“No thanks,” he says.
“Listen,” his mother says, her jaw so tight she looks like a video game bad guy, something that makes its way across a level chomping mindlessly. “I can appreciate the fact that you are a teenager and you want certain things from girls. But if you think that girl is going to be worth –”
“I just broke up with her,” Calvin says. “God!” he adds, like this should have been obvious. His mother scoffs in disbelief, which is not entirely unfair. He has developed something of a reputation as a liar in this household.
“What's the matter with you?” This is his mother's favorite refrain. She acts like she sincerely wants him to explain.
“I don't know,” he says. “You raised me.”
“I endured you,” she says. “You were you right out of the box. We gave you everything—”
“Yeah, yeah,” Calvin says. He puts a pillow over his face because his eyes are watering and he would cry in front of the whole football team at school before he let his mother see it. “Get out.”
“Why can't you just make friends with normal kids?” she says. “Why don't you walk to school with Susie anymore?”
“She hates me.”
“Well, whose fault is that?” His mother slams back out of the room. She's always making dramatic entrances and exits, wound tight, jaw clenched. She has to wear a night guard so that she won't grind her teeth to dust while she sleeps.
Calvin rolls over when she's gone and reaches under the bed to find the stuffed tiger he hides whenever Jessica comes over. He still can't get to sleep without holding onto Hobbes; he got used to it when he was a kid and the shape of anything else doesn't work. He's tried pillows, blankets, Jessica. Hobbes just fits right into the lonely place on his chest, ducked under his chin and squeezed between his arms.
“It's okay,” he says, speaking into the matted fuzz of Hobbes' left ear. “In a week, we'll be up to our knees in shrimp.”
Calvin skips school the next day to work a shift at Bederman's grocery, where he is secretly employed as a produce unloader two days a week. It's one of his three jobs, the only one he has to do while he should be in school. He's saving up for a new transmission for the beater he inherited from his dad on his sixteenth birthday. As soon as the car is ready to go, he'll be headed for Florida.
“Sick of this yet?” Bederman asks when he comes out to the dock to watch Calvin unloading boxes of corn. He's under the impression that Calvin is a boy named Sven Larsen who has already left school, and he keeps trying to talk poor, misguided Sven into re-enrolling.
“No, sir,” Calvin says. “I like working with my hands.”
“Yeah, well, you're a kid,” Bederman says. “You think your back's going to like doing that for the rest of your life?”
Calvin shrugs. “I think I'm going to die when I'm eighteen, anyway,” he says. “I just have a feeling.”
Bederman laughs. “Yeah,” he says. “Everyone felt that way when they were your age. Even your parents. Where are your parents, anyway?”
“Dead,” Calvin says. “Train accident.”
“I hope you're not under the impression that you're a good liar,” Bederman says before returning to the front of the store.
After his shift, Calvin walks to the park and climbs up onto the roof of the men's restrooms to eat an apple he swiped from work and watch the giraffes. It costs like seventeen dollars to get into the zoo, but from the top of the men's restroom you can at least see the giraffes for free. Calvin is still kind of stuck in his fantasy about being a poor migrant worker during the Great Depression, his muscles burning with exhaustion after unloading shipments of produce all day, and he imagines he's on the roof of his tiny ramshackle house, his pretty, somewhat downtrodden but ultimately plucky wife inside cooking him stone soup while he tries to catch a glimpse of the animals that are being mistreated at some traveling circus that's set up nearby. He concocts a side plot about liberating the animals. His wife would totally support him; she would keep watch while he led the giraffes out on giant leashes like over-sized dogs.
“What are you doing?” someone shouts, and Calvin flinches. He keeps thinking he's going to get arrested again, for everything, even for watching giraffes that he hasn't paid to see. But when he looks down it's just Susie Derkins staring up at him, her eyes narrowed to slits by the sun.
“Eating an apple,” Calvin says, holding up the core like she's an idiot for not noticing this. She rolls her eyes. She's got her book bag on and a paperback novel in her hand.
“Why are you doing it on the roof of the men's bathroom?”
“Why do you care?” Calvin asks, and Susie turns to walk away in exasperation. For some reason, Calvin follows her. It's something about what his mother said yesterday. About how it's his fault that Susie hates him, because of course it is. She was always willing not to.
“You weren't in school,” she says as they walk back toward their neighborhood. He's surprised she noticed; they don't have any classes together. Susie has been in all honors classes since freshman year. Calvin is in a class called Math Helpers where they play with colored blocks in order to at least get some idea of what geometry even is.
“I'll tell you a secret,” Calvin says, because he hasn't got anyone else left to talk to. “If you promise not to tell anyone.”
“No,” Susie says sharply. “I don't need to end up the accessory to a crime, thanks.”
“That's what I was, actually,” Calvin says. “In the fire. I actually didn't do anything. They just didn't believe me because I was the boy and she was the girl.”
Susie won't look at him; the set of her jaw reminds him of his mother's. He and Susie were actually kind of friends for awhile, when they were about eleven, after they'd stopped throwing water balloons at each other and stealing each other's toys. Calvin was used to getting picked on at school, but Susie got awkward around middle school and suddenly she was the subject of ridicule by the cool girls. He would defend her by acting insane and distracting them, a moving target. Sometimes she still cried on the walk home from school, and once he had held her hand.
“I believe you,” she says, and he's so shocked that he laughs.
“Because Jessica Peel is crazy.”
Calvin tries to work up the indignation required to defend his ex-girlfriend, but he can't.
“I know,” he says. “I broke up with her.”
Susie darts a look at him to check if he's serious. He shrugs. He's still trying to remember why Susie started hating him. As middle school went on she continued to be the nerdy, mousy girl she still is, and Calvin resented her more and more as school got harder and harder for him. It had always seemed so easy to her, like second nature, like what she was designed to do. He's given up finding something that feels like that, because he's learned, too late, that to do anything important and fascinating you have to learn math first, and it feels impossible to go back and do that now.
“So what's your secret?” she asks.
“I'm leaving,” Calvin says. “As soon as I can get my car fixed. I'm moving to Florida.”
Susie stops walking and frowns at him, clutching her book to her chest. It's Pride and Prejudice, one of those old girly love stories.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
“I'm going to work on a shrimp farm. Or something. Some kind of farm. Do they farm crabs? I mean, they must. It's not like crabs just walk into the grocery store. Though I guess they could if they wanted to. Wouldn't that be funny? I don't know, maybe not. But I guess if I was farming crabs I might get pinched. What?”
Susie looks horrified. He should have known she'd disapprove. He's not even sure why he told her. She reaches up and pushes her bangs out of her eyes.
“You can't just leave school,” she says.
“Yes, I can. When you're sixteen you can leave whenever you want.”
“Yeah, but.” She shuts her eyes in frustration. She's always done this, even when they were six and she was always trying to explain to Calvin why he couldn't be the pet gorilla when they played house, because he had to be the husband, because it just wasn't house if there wasn't a wife and a husband.
“But, what – you can't be serious,” she says.
“Why should I stay in school?” he asks. “It's not really doing me any good.”
“You're not stupid,” she says, glaring at him like she will take it as a personal insult if he disagrees.
“I know that,” he says, though actually sometimes he thinks he must be.
“You're just not trying,” she says. “You could – I could tutor you. Maybe.”
“I think it's too late for that.” They both know it's true. There was always something about the very essence of school, not just the lessons and the books and the homework, that Calvin couldn't abide. It was the bathroom passes and the poster presentations and the lunch room. It all seemed poisoned with some banal evil and he'd always felt he was doing the right thing by battling against it.
“Calvin, you can't just leave,” she says, and something about the way she says his name strikes through him. Not a lot of people say it that way, like he's someone who can have sense talked into him. “Where will you live?” she asks.
“I don't know. I've got some money saved, I can rent an apartment. And then I'll get a job and –”
“What about your parents? Are you just going to – leave them a note?”
“No. I don't know. Yeah, I guess I'll have to. My dad might tie me to the bed otherwise.”
“That might be the best thing for you,” Susie says. She starts walking again, and Calvin walks beside her. It's fall, damp leaves plastered to the streets, and he wants to get out of town before it gets cold. He used to love the snow, but lately winter just makes him sad.
“Do you still want to be a doctor?” Calvin asks.
Susie says nothing for a moment, watching the ground as she walks. Then she smiles.
“I can't believe you remember that,” she says.
“I don't know. But yeah, I do. I want to be an oncologist.”
“See?” She snaps her head up to look at him. “You're not stupid.”
He grins, because he thinks she actually means it. She smiles back, and she looks sort of pretty with her cheeks going pink. They both look away and are quiet for awhile, walking slower as they get close to their neighborhood.
“What if you cured cancer?” he says, imagining seeing her on TV one day, in a white lab coat and science goggles, being interviewed with ten thousand microphones shoved in her face. Susie laughs.
“That's different,” she says. “That's, like, a research scientist. Oncologists treat patients who already have the disease.”
“Oh.” Calvin kicks a piece of gravel and it skitters into the gutter. “Like your mom?”
Susie's mother died two years earlier of bone cancer. Calvin was at the funeral with his parents, but Susie didn't seem to notice him. She was in pretty bad shape.
“Yeah,” she says. She stops walking and abruptly sits down on the curb. Calvin feels horrible; he shouldn't have said anything about her mother. She looks up at him, her face clear, and he sits down beside her.
“Don't go,” she says.
“What? Why not?” His heart starts racing. He still has dreams about Susie all the time, that she's mean to him and he pretends not to care, and he always wakes up angry and hurt.
“Because. Too much has changed already. Oh – Calvin.” She shuts her eyes and puts her hand over her face. “When I thought they were going to put you in jail—”
And then she is crying, but Calvin doesn't have time to react before she's popped up off the curb and is running toward her house at full speed. If he was still six years old he wouldn't think twice; he would chase her. But he's not a kid anymore, not really, so he sits, stunned, and watches her go.
Calvin goes to school the next morning hoping that he'll see Susie and be able to avoid Jessica. He dozes through his history class and builds an abstract sculpture with his geometric shapes in Math Helpers. At lunch, he sits out on the tennis court, eats the banana and peanut butter sandwich he made for himself that morning and drinks a grape soda. He thinks about Jessica and the days when she flattened herself over him on his bed like she knew everything. He secretly pretended he was her captive and went out of his mind with savage happiness. It was so good, but then when it was over she was still her, with her cigarettes and that big scar across her abdomen that she had a new story for every time he asked.
He thinks about Susie and how she's always out in her backyard before school, filling her mother's old bird feeders. The birds aren't afraid of her, and they're so crazy for the food that they'll come right up to the feeders while she's still standing there distributing sunflower seeds. He remembers one afternoon when it was pouring down rain and he saw her coming from school. He'd cut out after lunch and was just sitting at his window and staring at the sky, thinking about nothing in particular, a habit he'd always had that made his parents nervous. He saw Susie coming down the road, her umbrella blown inside out by the wind and her wet hair plastered to her cheeks. It was just a few months after her mother had died, and when she tripped in the mud and landed on all fours in a puddle it took her a few seconds to get up, as if she didn't have the strength for a minute. Calvin's heart had pounded as he tried to decide if he should do something. She would be inside her house by the time he could get downstairs, but she would be alone in there, her father at work for another two hours. He couldn't imagine what he could do to help her, and she would probably only have been embarrassed to know that he had seen her fall, so he just stayed where he was and watched her walk into the house. For the rest of the afternoon he'd stared at the house's dark windows and imagined Susie inside, and how things would have gone if he'd been brave enough to walk up and knock on her door. It was the closest he'd gotten to thinking about kissing her since he was a kid, back when Hobbes used to torment him with the idea.
He finally sees her at her locker before fifth period, talking with a guy from the marching band who was in Calvin's Spanish class freshman year. The guy is skinny and wears glasses, and Calvin walks over to the two of them trying not to feel like the skittish held-back loser that the kids in that Spanish class all surely remember him as. At least he's not doofy-looking like this kid.
“Hey,” he says, and Susie and the boy turn to him. Calvin ignores the boy and stares at Susie, thinking of that day when it rained and how he should have gone to the door. She smiles.
Again, he really likes the way she says his name.
“Hey,” he says again, smiling stupidly. She blushes and toys with the corner of her open locker. The marching band boy frowns in confusion.
“You guys are friends?” he asks in disbelief.
“We're neighbors,” Susie says.
“Yes,” Calvin says at the same time. Susie laughs.
“We sort of grew up together,” she says.
“Wow,” the boys says, making a face like Susie just told him she was raised by wild boars. “I gotta go to Physics.”
“See ya,” Susie says, looking back to Calvin as the boy walks off. Calvin can't stop grinning. This was how it was with Jessica in the beginning, only this is less terrifying. Or more terrifying, or something.
“Physics,” he says. “What a dork.”
“You would like physics if you had the patience to learn the boring stuff first,” Susie says, and Calvin remembers how much she can annoy him; she still thinks she knows everything. In a completely different way than Jessica did. “And Phil's nice,” she says, but her pitying tone re: Phil is encouraging.
“What are you doing right now?” Calvin asks.
“Going to Current Events.”
“There's a class called Current Events?”
“Yeah, it's really interesting. It's my favorite this year.”
“You know what my history class is called? What Happened Yesterday. I guess that's kind of like Current Events. But it's more like, 'what day of the week was it yesterday? Tuesday! Right!'”
Susie laughs, and boy is she prettier when she's laughing. Calvin is on the ceiling, through the roof.
“And my science class?” he says. “It's just a windowless room with a TV and a VCR that plays old Bill Nye the Science Guy tapes. Like, 'Hey, kids, if you put masking tape on two sides of a balloon you can stick a needle through it! Ooooh, science!' Only we don't actually get to try it because they don't trust us with pointy things.”
“I'd go to that class,” Susie says, laughing so hard that her face is red. She stops walking in front of a classroom crowded with actual juniors. “This is my stop,” she says.
“No, it's not.”
“C'mere. I want to show you something.”
“Calvin, I have to go to class.”
“I'm leaving town forever in like three days! Humor me, okay?”
She groans and turns to look into the classroom. There's an empty desk up front and Calvin is sure that it's hers. She probably watched two hours of the news the night before just to prepare for class. Or maybe she just stared at the TV while the news played and couldn't think about anything but him.
“Please,” he says, and he grabs her hand without meaning to.
Susie follows him out of school silently, as if she's a little irritated by the fact that he's managed talk her into it. Calvin isn't sure how he pulled it off, and he tries not to look at her too much, but suddenly he can't believe she's real. It happened overnight, probably; things usually change while he's asleep, without his permission. He wanted to make up with Susie before he left town just to prove something to his mother, but now he kind of wants to take Susie with him. Though of course she'd never go.
"Where are we going?" Susie asks as they cut through the woods toward the park.
"It's a surprise," Calvin says.
"Are you taking me back here to murder me?" Susie asks, but she doesn't really sound too worried. She's probably the only one in school who knows he's actually harmless.
"I said it was a surprise." He gives her an imitation psycho-killer grin and she snorts.
"You remember that time I painted that play house in your backyard black?" Calvin asks.
"Yes. Well, you started to, and then you got bored," she says, as if this is typical of him, which it is.
"I didn't actually do it to be mean. I was going to make a haunted house. You know? For Halloween? And then I realized it was kind of a dumb idea and then you came running out and got mad at me."
"I hope you're not trying to make amends," she says. "It's not like I sit around thinking about all the stuff we did to each other as kids."
Something about that makes them both go red, and neither of them speaks until they reach their destination: the men's bathroom in the park.
"What the hell?" Susie says, frowning up at it.
"You asked me what I was doing here yesterday," Calvin says. "Here, I'll show you." He kneels down and cups his hands together so she can boost herself up onto the roof. She gives him a suspicious look.
"Is this going to end up making me mad?" she asks.
"I don't know. I doubt it. Here, c'mon, you'll like it."
She sighs and puts her foot in Calvin's hands. It's a bit awkward, hoisting her up onto the roof of the restroom, but she's wearing jeans and she's able to scramble up fairly easily. Calvin hands her her book bag when she's on the roof, and she reaches back down again to help him up. He doesn't really need help, but he grabs her hand anyway, and stumbles against her as he climbs up onto the roof. She smells good, like synthetic citrus, and he remembers trying to eat one of her flavored chapsticks when they were eight and being extremely disappointed.
"Sorry," he says, peeling himself off of her. She touches her hair and sits Indian-style while Calvin searches the horizon for giraffes. He can't see any, and he prays they'll show up so she won't think he's crazy.
"So what am I looking at?" she asks. He offers her a hand and pulls her up, then turns back toward the zoo, squinting and desperate for giraffes. Susie sighs. She's still holding his hand.
"What, Calvin?" she asks, like she's already a little broken-hearted, like she was hoping for more than the usual weirdness.
"THERE!" Calvin shouts, so loudly that she jumps. She follows his gaze, gasping when she sees the giraffe that has emerged, just its head and the top of its neck visible as it lopes through its exercise area. She laughs and squeezes Calvin's hand.
"Oh," she says, soft and smiling, watching as two more giraffes emerge. "Why didn't you say so?"
Calvin is breathing kind of hard and shaking with something like triumph. Susie keeps adjusting her bangs and the process is just incredibly fascinating to him, the idea that she could somehow be nervous herself. When she turns to him, her smile fading, he knows he's got to say something big.
"Remember that day when I held your hand?" he asks. "On the way home from school?"
It had felt so natural at first, that day when Susie was sniffling and walking beside him, trying not to break into full-fledged tears. A girl had picked on her for wearing Keds when apparently Keds were not allowed to be worn anymore, at least according to the girls who knew better. Calvin had wanted to tell her that she wasn't alone in feeling like an outcast, or just like she wanted to be who she was without commentary, but he was eleven and he didn't know how to say those things, so he grabbed her hand instead. She didn't even look up at him, just wrapped her fingers tight around his and kept walking. They were like that all the way home, walking so close their shoulders bumped, and Calvin didn't feel weird or nervous about it until they got to her driveway and let go of each other. The next day he waited until he'd seen her leave to head toward school, because he was afraid she would expect him to hold her hand again, and afraid, too, that she wouldn't. That was about the time they stopped speaking to each other. It wasn't really anything to do with Susie doing well in school and Calvin doing horribly. It was that day when they held hands, and not knowing what to do about it afterward.
"Yes," Susie says, her voice shaky and small. "I remember." Something seems to pass from her eyes to his, an invisible but physical thing, and then his hands are on her shoulders and he's going to kiss her, but somebody is shouting and she turns.
Calvin turns to see what he first thinks is a policeman looking up at them with stern disapproval. He feels the color drain from his cheeks, and it's just a park services guy, but still, there's the uniform, and the look of accusation.
"What are you two doing?" the guy asks. "Get down from there!"
They scramble to do as he asked, Calvin dropping down first and reaching up to help Susie, but she grabs her book bag and jumps down without assistance, stumbling against Calvin.
"You can't be up there," the guy says, frowning at them like they're insane. "It's not safe. Shouldn't you kids be in school?"
"Sorry," Calvin mumbles, hurrying to lead Susie away. She's trembling a little and he feels horrible. Already he's getting her in trouble.
"I should get back to school," she says when they reach the gravel parking lot beside the park. Calvin nods, feeling shredded. Her gaze is shifty and she keeps touching her hair. Maybe she didn't want to kiss him anyway.
"Okay," he says, and he walks with her for awhile in silence, wishing he could come up with anything to say that isn't Come back to my room and take a nap with me, please, just come, we don't have to do anything but sleep. He wants her quiet and near him for a little longer, but there's no point, and what's he thinking? He barely looks at her when they part ways at the intersection that will take him home and her back to school.
"Calvin!" she shouts when he's halfway across the street, standing right under the stop lights. She looks angry, and then just pretty again.
"Don't start ignoring me this time, okay?" she says. She turns and heads for the school, not waiting for a response.
Calvin runs all the way home, jumping over pot holes and grinning like a maniac, as if she'll be there waiting when he arrives.
He spends the rest of the day in bed, thinking about Susie, but not the way he used to think about Jessica. Susie with her soft, fine hair -- he remembers what it feels like, though he used to only reach into it to pull. Susie with her old-timey romance novels and shoes that look like ballet slippers and her Current Events, the things she cares about, she's on the debate team and model UN, she's going to be a doctor, and Calvin wants to hold her in his lap until he leaves. And then maybe he would stay. Probably he would.
He falls asleep on his back and wakes himself up with a snore. The room is softly dark, just barely purple. He wipes the drool from the corner of his mouth and walks to the window. The light is on in the front room at the Derkins' house, and Calvin imagines Susie kneeling on the floor between the couch and the coffee table, her books spread out in front of her, staring into space with a smile her father will worry about.
He's going to run right over there, but then for some reason he eats dinner with his parents. They seem shocked; his mother checks his forehead for a temperature. He eats a plate full of couscous, which he usually hates, and drinks the V-8 juice his mother poured for him.
"What's going on?" his father asks. He looks vaguely frightened and Calvin isn't sure he's earned this level of concern, though there was a significant structural fire, and his parents are among the many who don't believe it wasn't his idea.
"Nothing," Calvin says. He pushes broccoli around on his plate, not quite out of his mind enough to eat it. "I talked to Susie today," he says, looking at his mother.
"Oh?" His parents share a hopeful look. They always wanted him to fall in love with Susie, or, more like, they knew that he would and prayed that she would continue to give him the time of day.
"How's she doing?" his father asks, trying to act casual.
"Good," Calvin says. "She still wants to be a doctor."
His parents look at him like he's got a big red bow tied around his head. It's been awhile since they gave him any look that didn't make him wonder if he had food on his face.
"Well, that's great," his mother says. "You should bring her over for dinner sometime."
Calvin begins to regret involving his parents; an hour ago this felt like an untouchable thing, but he's starting to realize that it's not just going to keep happening for him, that he's going to have to go over there and actually knock on the door like he's been waiting to since that day, two years ago, when he saw Susie walking home in the rain.
It's so dark out and he isn't sure what he would say if he went over there, and what if Susie's father answered the door? So he watches TV for awhile, and then he and his father get into the usual homework-related fight, and Calvin storms up to his room and slams the door.
He shuts out all the lights in his room and leans out the open window, though it's cold outside and the wind stings his cheeks. Susie's second-floor bedroom window is covered by a white and yellow checked curtain, and he can see her light on behind it, but no shadows moving about. Maybe she's on the phone with Phil the marching band guy, laughing about the pyromaniac who lives next door, who seems to think he's going to court her. But she told Calvin she didn't want him to ignore her, brought it up specifically, and that's not what he's doing, right? No, not even close. Tomorrow he'll walk to school with her. He'll actually get up on time, and maybe she'll have lunch with him out on the tennis court.
Her house starts to seem far away and impossible like it did that day in the rain, like it's inside a snow globe, something he's only imagined a real girl living in. He puts his headphones on and lies back on his bed, shuts his eyes and tries not to think about things that might actually happen. He imagines Susie's wedding to Phil, black roses in her bouquet, and just before she can say "I do," as she's struggling with the words, Calvin throws open the doors of the chapel and screams her name. Susie turns to him, her eyes wide with fear, and then she recognizes him, flings the roses away and runs down the aisle. Calvin grabs her and kisses her. This part lasts for awhile. Then they run out the door, just in time to duck the hands of Phil's furious relatives, and embark on a life of crime. For an hour he just thinks about robbing banks with her. She'd be the brains behind the operation, the book-learned brains, anyway, and he'd bring an instinctual knack for thievery. Or, whatever, no one robs banks anymore. She'll be one of those doctors who goes to Africa and he'll be her driver, with a big rifle in his lap, fending off road pirates and murderous animals. But he'd only shoot the animals with sleeping darts. He digs Hobbes out from under the bed and tucks himself around his childhood playmate, who once seemed so big. As he drifts off to sleep he's thinking about himself and Susie in a tent in the Sahara, shaking sand out of their clothes and reaching for each other in the dark.
But then he dreams about the fire anyway, like always. It's all around him, the whole stadium up in flames, and out in the parking lot the cops are arguing with Calvin's history teacher about what should be done. He's in the middle of the blaze, alone, Jessica long gone, and sometimes when he looks up at the sky, when he's lucid enough to change things, a pterodactyl swoops down to save him, but this is not one of those dreams.
He flips himself out of bed somehow, and Hobbes lands beside him. Calvin scoops him up guiltily and leans against the bed taking huge breaths, like the smoke from the dreams is still stuck in his lungs. Well, it was the scariest thing that ever happened to him. It's okay, it's normal. For a second after the cops showed up he was actually relieved, because they seemed to have come to save him.
Tired of feeling pathetic and scared, he tucks Hobbes into bed and puts on his shoes. It's around two o'clock in the morning, but he creeps downstairs anyway and lets himself out the front door. He's still dressed; he's been sleeping in his clothes lately, like a firefighter.
He can't exactly knock the door of Susie's house, but this feels like his last chance, like tomorrow things will have changed again unless he does something now. There's a white trellis covered in dead brown rose vines that is nailed onto the side of the house, and it leads up to a short stretch of roof below Susie's window. He grabs the trellis and pulls a little, testing its strength. Probably it could hold him. He likes the idea of climbing up to her window so much that he doesn't give it too much thought before he's halfway up.
That's when the thorns start, still in place on the vines that are growing near the top of the creaking trellis. Calvin curses as they bite into his hands, but when he looks back down the ground seems much farther away than he expected. He doesn't want to wimp out, so he keeps going, wincing when a particularly bad patch of prickers tears the hem of his t-shirt.
By the time he reaches the roof, which is not as flat as it looked from the ground, his hands are bleeding and throbbing from having been torn apart by the thorns. He tip-toes carefully over to Susie's window, almost glad for the distraction of the pain, because it makes the knocking seem easy.
It takes a few minutes but eventually she hears his knuckles rapping just hard enough to wake her and she gets out of bed, puffy-faced and pale. She's wearing a pale blue undershirt with lace along the bust and he's staring at it when she opens the window.
"Are you insane?" she hisses.
"I just wanted to see you," he says, hoping this will be enough to win her over. She frowns and crosses her arms over her chest.
"Calvin, I can't do this," she says, her voice going to a strange, high-pitched place. "This is too much, it's – I'm not Jessica Peel."
"I know you're not. Can I come in?"
"What for?" She looks so sad, and he should have known to stay out of her life or risk tearing it down until it was something like his. Her hair is a mess and he wants to reach up and comb it into place with his fingers, wouldn't care what happened next. But that must not be true, because he doesn't do it.
"I need a band-aid," he says, holding up his bloody hands. She gasps.
"Calvin – what –" She takes his hands in hers and examines them in the moonlight. He can see the goosebumps on her arms, and, oh. He wishes he could tell her now that he's secretly a superhero and that he's come to let her ride on his shoulders while he flies over the countryside on patrol.
"I climbed up that rose thing," he says. She looks up at him, and he feels it again, something that seems to land in his eyes and move down through him.
"Hurry," she whispers, ducking back into her room and motioning for him to follow. "It's cold."
She shuts the window when he's inside, pushes him onto her bed and sneaks out into the hallway. Calvin sits and listens to the tick of her bedside clock, examining the contents of her room in the darkness. He hasn't seen the inside of this room since he was nine years old and she had My Little Ponies lined up on the dresser. Now it's ninety percent books, stacked everywhere.
When Susie returns she's got a little first aid kit in her hands. She shuts her bedroom door quietly and begins to lay out her supplies on the bed beside Calvin, kneeling on the floor. He's so honored to be her practice patient, to get some glimpse of the doctor she'll eventually become, and he wants to live in her cluttered little room forever.
"Remember when we played doctor?" Calvin asks as she cleans his cuts with a damp wash rag.
"Yes, I remember," she says, not looking up at him. "Calvin, what are you doing?"
"Nothing – I – what do you mean?"
"Uh! Climbing into my room at night? Talking about when we were kids? You never – why are you suddenly – um?"
He watches her cover his cuts in tiny bandages like the ones his father uses when he nicks himself shaving. Her hair is neat and combed now; she must have fixed it when she went to the hall bathroom for the wash rag.
"You want me to leave you alone?" he asks. She finally looks up at him, and her eyes might be a little wet, but it's really too dark to tell.
"No," she says. "I hated it, before. When you left me alone."
"You were always asking me to."
"I know that." She stands up, and he does, too. He's maybe five inches taller than her, and he loves the new smallness of her, remembers when they were the same size.
"I feel like I messed everything up," he says.
"Yeah, well. You kind of did."
He looks down at his feet and she ducks in close, arching up to kiss him. Her hand shakes like a moth on his chest, and he puts his hand over it while he opens her mouth up with his, licking though her lips. She lets out a hard breath and he feels it all the way through him like she's giving him CPR.
"Not for good, though," she says. He touches her hair, not knowing why he wants to or what to do with it once he has. She shuts her eyes and puts her head against his chest. He isn't sure what to do next or why he's shaking with nerves, why it feels like he's never done this before when he thought he'd already done everything.
"You know what I've always wanted to do?" Susie asks, her arms locked tight around the small of his back.
"What?" He's just glad she's got something in mind.
"This," she says, leading him over to the bed. She pushes him down onto it gently, and his heartbeat is drowning out every sound in the world as he lies back on her pillows, because she can't possibly, right? Is this something that every girl in the world secretly does to every terrified boy?
She lies down beside him, a few inches away, but he can still feel how warm she is. She tucks her hands under her cheek and smiles at him. She's gone from progressively prettier to blazingly gorgeous, hard to look at directly, in the space of a few days. It's a neat trick. He rolls toward her, trying to keep his ragged breathing from getting loud enough to wake her father. She takes one of his band-aid-covered hands and kisses his dirty fingertips.
"I always wanted to do this," she says, her voice a new kind of low that makes him flush and fidget. She touches his face and he's gone, just blown to bits. "When we were kids, even. I wanted to play house and just lie in a pretend bed with you. I just wanted you to be calm and look at me and smile."
"I want to stay here," he says. "Can I stay here?"
"No," she says, but she scoots close and kisses him, wraps him into her arms and doesn't ask him to leave. Calvin squeezes her to him, every warm brush of her bare skin under his uncertain hands enough to make him fear spoiling the moment by shouting and shuddering and getting sent home with cold, sticky underwear. But he doesn't want it to be like that, not like it was with Jessica, one dizzying moment after another. He wants to stretch this out and linger inside it; he wants to be on fire, here with her.
"Oh, I hated you for getting so cute," Susie says, her mouth still over Calvin's and her eyes shut as if she's talking in her sleep. She hooks a leg around his hip and he almost loses it, but manages to hold himself together, arching backward a little in case she's not yet familiar with teenage boy anatomy.
"It would have been easy to forget you if you hadn't ended up with such a sweet face," she says, sitting up on her elbow like suddenly she wants to chat. Calvin is shaking and licking his lips, missing hers already. He scoots into the crook of her arm and looks up at her like she's going to sing him to sleep.
"It used to make me cry, just the way you looked," she says, running her fingers through his hair. He lets his eyes fall shut, spreading his legs apart and no longer bothering to hide what she's certainly noticed by now. "That you could look like that and still be the way you were, the way you are. It was like you weren't going to take advantage of it, not like the other guys who got cute, and I just, I don't know, it got to me. And then you were with Jessica." She sighs as if that was a very long time ago. Calvin keeps his eyes shut.
"I wish I hadn't been," he says.
"I know you do," she says, and she kisses him again, soft and slow, and her leg is sliding in the general direction of his lap. He should probably reach out to stop it, but instead he just turns into it and pushes against her knee once, and that's all it takes.
He sputters and winces, curling against her in shame even during the part that still feels so good, the best, worst, uncontrollable part wearing down. It's just like everything else: he learned it wrong and now he's stuck, remedial and hopeless. Susie tucks an arm around him and leans down to kiss his ear.
"Sorry," he says, lines of stinging tears gathering along his pinched-up eyes.
"It's okay," she says, stroking her fingers down the back of his neck. "Calvin, it's okay."
He laughs at himself and wipes at his cheeks, afraid to open his eyes. She kisses the edges of his eyes, licks up his tears, and he remembers that she's not really all that delicate.
"I just want to stay here," he says, again, because he doesn't know how else to explain what's happening. He opens his eyes and looks up at her. She's smiling, unfazed, and messy-haired again.
And this time she says, "Okay."
She sets her alarm for five in the morning so he'll have time to sneak away. He gathers her into his still-trembling arms and she fits against him better than anything he's ever tried.
Calvin wakes up dry-mouthed and achy, Susie's bedside clock blaring like a tripped alarm. She's awake before he is, rubbing her eyes and punching a button on the clock that shuts off the alarm. Calvin rolls onto his back, his chest ratcheting like he's woken up in a fox hole with bullets flying over his head. Then Susie turns to him and puts her hand on his collarbone, and he's okay again.
"What time is it?" he asks, liking the creaky gravel in his voice. He sounds like a grownup, like a man.
"Five," she says, her own voice pinched-up from sleep, the kind of thing he can't believe he's allowed to hear. He tucks a hand around her waist and squeezes just a little.
"Look at the window," she says. He could listen to her talk like this for hours, in her secret before-dawn voice. "It's all icy out there. You can't climb down the roof, you'll slip."
"I'll stay here," he says, and she laughs. She kisses him, just quick and dry, because they both have morning breath.
"Calvin." She sighs and puts her head on his shoulder. "What are we going to do?"
"Nothing," he says, not really understanding the question, and then, "Come with me to Florida."
She groans and sits up, yawning. He watches her profile for awhile, thinking that it already feels like they've slept in the same bed all their lives, like they were born married. Maybe it's all the games of house they played as kids.
"I can take you out the front," she says. "We'll just have to be quiet."
"Wait," he says, sitting up and catching her arm when she starts to move away from the bed. She lets him hold her back.
But he isn't sure why he's stopped her. It's just that something about what's happened feels fragile, like once they leave her room they'll have to remember everything else, all the things that kept them apart for so long.
"I'll walk you to school," he says. "Wait for me."
She smiles, though she looks kind of sad. "I guess I've been waiting five years for you to say that."
"I wanted to," he says. He wishes they could lie together in her bed for the rest of the day, feels like they were in the middle of something that got interrupted, something that was going to make everything okay.
"I know you did," she says, touching his bottom lip, soft and curious like it's a mushroom growing on a tree.
And that's why he loves her, she just knows.
Then he ruins everything, again, but this time he doesn't mean to. He goes back to his house, shivering and cursing the cold, sneaks back up to his bedroom and takes a shower so hot he can barely stand the water on his skin. He's got two hours to kill before he has to dress and meet Susie down in front of her house for the walk to school, so he falls face first into his bed and hugs Hobbes and smiles and just wallows in his happiness, generally. Which results in him falling asleep. When he wakes up the sun is neon-bright through the window and the clock says it's ten thirty.
The massive weight of what he's done is so heavy that he can hardly get out of bed. He tries to console himself by imagining that he dreamed the whole thing, but he didn't, it happened, he had it and now he's lost it already. All he had to do was stay awake for a few hours. It would have been so simple, but he's got to go out of his way to ruin everything, he's just got to, without fail. He peers out his window as he gets dressed, and Susie is not still waiting for him, sulking on her front porch. Not that he wants her to be. He hopes she only waited five minutes. Maybe ten.
He runs to school without his books. Lately he just wants to run everywhere, and he pretends that this is life or death, that Susie is being held captive by -- what? he can hardly think -- Nazi occultists, or something, anyway, he has to get to her, and there's not much time.
By the time he gets to school he feels like he's going to throw up, and then he does, mostly from the running, and it's all water. He shakes it off and chews some Big Red, trying not to give up. It's the giving up that's really ruined things in the past, not the screwing up. It's the moment after things are wrecked when he tries to save face, and he's not interested in self-preservation at the moment.
Second period is almost over, and he waits outside of Susie's Honors Chemistry class. He should be in Math Helpers, and he wishes he were, he wishes they'd walked to school together and held hands and that he'd kissed her cheek respectfully when they parted at the door of her home room. But that didn't happen and he's not giving up. He peeks through the skinny window on the classroom door and surveys the occupants, considering them as dangerous as any more traditional captors he might dream up. They could have brainwashed her already, reminded her that Calvin is not to be trusted. But he is, that's the hell of it. He can't even enjoy the experience of being a bad guy because he isn't one really.
Then the bell rings and Calvin feels like he's been shot and suddenly kids are pouring out of the classroom and looking at him like he's in the way. He stands there anyway, the kids flowing around him like they're water and he's a rock covered in moss and maybe barnacles, some always motionless thing. Susie is one of the last ones out, and she looks at him as if he's just flung fish guts at her and expected her to appreciate them. She's wearing lip gloss, which he's never seen her do.
"Listen," he says.
"Why do you hate me?" she snaps. "You know what, no, I don't even care, but if you do, why can't you just leave me alone?"
"I don't -- I just overslept."
"That's great, that's fine!" She laughs, moving past him. He follows her down the hall, pushing through the crowds of kids who are flooding out of the emptying classrooms.
"That's just how you're always going to be," she says, talking mostly to herself while Calvin hovers. "And that's fine. That's great! But I've just got to, I've just got to –"
"Susie, I –"
"And it would be helpful if you didn't show up in my room at two in the morning and kiss me," she says, stopping to turn and glare at him. "That would be good, for me, if you didn't do that and get me all worked up again over something that – that –"
So he just kisses her there in the hallway because he doesn't know what to do. Her books hit the floor with a loud slap that makes everyone turn, but Calvin shuts his eyes and pretends not to feel the other kids' eyes on him. He holds Susie's face and she's kissing him, she's kissing him back. Then she jerks away and looks at him just like she did when they were kids and he ignored the rules of whatever game she was trying to get him to play.
"Calvin," she huffs, indignant but not unkind. Some people are still staring, some are clapping and laughing. Calvin bends down to pick up her books, and when he stands up again she's not making that face anymore.
"Please," he says. "I shut my eyes for five seconds and then it was ten thirty. I'm sorry. I hope you didn't wait long. I'll never make you wait again, I promise, I swear."
She shakes her head and takes her books back, and when she heads down the hall he follows close, bumping his shoulder against hers.
"I want to take you on a real date," he says. She laughs, but when she does she accidentally looks authentically happy for at least two seconds.
"One you'll show up three hours late for?"
"No. I'll meet you and walk you home from school – no, I'm serious, I will! – and then we'll go to my house. And we can have snacks or something and my parents will be so impressed. And then I'll take you out. Wherever you want. I don't care. I've got money."
"Your parents will be so impressed?" she says, whirling on him again, and he's glad, because maybe it'll be another excuse to prove a point by kissing her. Her cheeks are bright red and she's still more beautiful than she was the last time she saw him, and maybe it will keep building and building until the sight of her face burns out his retinas. "Is that what this is all about?" she asks. "Impressing your parents? Dating a nice girl after you lost their trust with –"
"You know what this is all about," he says.
And he couldn't put it into words if he tried, but she must know, too, because her eyes change, the corners going soft.
"Meet me at the soda machines at the end of the day," she says, lifting her chin a bit. "If you're not there, I'll consider you a lost cause."
"I'm going to the soda machines right now!" he says, trotting alongside her as she heads toward her next class and tries not to smile. The warning bell is ringing. "I'll be there all day! I'll chain myself to them!"
"Oh, Calvin." And the way she says his name! She leans up to kiss him quick on the mouth before she ducks into her Trigonometry class, and he stands in place for thirty seconds, absorbing it, before he takes off for the vending machines.
But his plans are foiled, of course they are, when a gym teacher sees him loitering some time between fourth and fifth period and asks him for his hall pass.
"What if I said I quit school?" Calvin says, because he's going to anyway. "Could I just stand here if I signed a paper saying I quit?"
"If you're not enrolled here then I'll have to have you arrested for trespassing," the gym teacher says, and at the mention of being arrested Calvin allows the teacher to escort him to detention.
Unlike in the rest of high school, he's kind of respected in detention, a regular figure and not as superficially frightening as most of the usual suspects. It's where he met Jessica, and she's there when the gym teacher plants him in a seat near the front. Jessica is leaning against the wall and glowering at him so viciously that he wishes for the happy yet terrifying look she'd get when she was about to burn something down.
After half an hour of staring down at the graffiti on the desk, Calvin senses her coming closer, and he wishes he had a book to stare at or some worksheets to fill out. She slinks over, sits in the desk next to his, and stares until he looks over at her.
"Hey," she says. Her eye makeup is heavier than usual, as if it's armor that she's reapplied. He thinks of the first time she kissed him, in the arcade at the movie theater, and how surprised he was. It took him a few minutes to actually be happy about it.
"Hey," he says, and then he looks back at the desk he's bent over. Someone has scratched 'Parker Cox is a Homo' into the fake wood finish.
"Becky told me you were kissing Susie Derkins," Jessica says, scoffing as if this is actually impossible and she's only awaiting confirmation. Calvin picks at the news about Parker, pieces of graphite flaking out of the words and getting stuck under his fingernails.
"I was," he admits, not looking at her. She goes quiet until he glances at her. She's looking at him like suddenly she's a complete person and he should have treated her like one all along. It's something she probably should have communicated to him back when she was telling him he was a fag for crying in the backseat of the police car that took them in, because back then she was more like a screeching bat person who was sneaking bites of his heart, making it smaller and smaller every day.
"You like her?' Jessica asks.
"Well. I mean. I don't care."
Calvin can't look at her, and then she's just gone, disappearing to the back of the detention room-slash-holding-cell, where she is the reigning queen. This is where they met. Calvin had snuck a look at her and she was smiling like she already had big plans for both of them.
When the final bell rings he races through the halls toward the soda machines, banging into cheerleaders and smashing through gathered groups of D&D nerds, afraid that if he's even a few seconds late Susie will have already written him off. He crashes into the Coke machine when he arrives, and Susie is there, her shoulders tense and her hands tight around the straps of her book bag. She stares at him with her mouth open. He's out of breath and sweating a little.
"I had detention," he says, sliding across the machine and closer to her. The color of her hair is enough to convince him that the world was actually designed to make him happy after all. He can't even come up with a word for it; it's dark but warm, and it's hers so it's perfect. This has definitely never happened to him before.
"Of course you did," she says.
"You don't get it," he says. "I'm fighting the forces of evil to be with you."
She smiles so big that the roof seems to blow off, and he grabs her shoulders sort of involuntarily. She laughs.
"That's the first thing I've heard you say in two days that actually sounds like you," she says.
They walk home from school holding hands. Calvin stops at every storm drain and puts his hands on her waist, kissing her until she laughs into his mouth. She talks about her classes and he tells her about his arrest. She touches his arm like she wants to take away the memory and he wishes that she could.
"You're not really going to leave, are you?" she asks when they reach his driveway.
"I don't know," he says. "Would you come with me?"
"Come with you and do what, Calvin?"
"I don't know. We don't have to go to Florida. We can go anywhere we want."
"No, we can't," she says, frowning, and he never liked that about her, the way she brings him back to earth, but he knows she's right.
If she'd just ask him to stay he would, but instead she accepts the lemon bars his mother optimistically made for the occasion and laughs with her about a neighbor who is already putting up her Christmas decorations. Calvin eats lemon bars and watches them together, wondering why he didn't try this sooner, and what if Susie hadn't walked by that day while he stood on the roof of the men's restroom and looked at the giraffes?
They go up to his room with a free pass, as if his mother thinks they'll be working on homework. Calvin locks the door, Susie throws her book bag on the floor, and they fall to the bed, kissing and pulling each other's shirts off without really thinking about it. She laughs so hard that he has to cover her mouth with his hand.
"I don't do this," she says when he's leaning over her, smiling and touching her hair, which he's pretty much obsessed with now. "Ever."
"Me either," he says. She rolls her eyes, probably thinking of Jessica, and when she does she sees Hobbes lingering up near his pillow. Calvin forgot to stow him away when he raced off to school.
"Oh!" she says, grinning and reaching for him like she's greeting an old friend. "You still have him?"
"It's just that I can't sleep without him, I mean, without – something in my arms, and I got used to it when I was a kid –"
"Aww," Susie says, hugging Hobbes to her chest, and Calvin almost snorts, imagining his pet tiger blushing and blubbering at the chance to be clutched against a girl's lacy bra. "I love you," Susie says, and he almost misses it. She goes red and hides half of her face behind Hobbes' head.
"I was talking to Hobbes," she says.
"You remember his name," Calvin says.
"Of course I do," Susie says, petting Hobbes' back. "I always wondered what happened to him."
"He was here," Calvin says. "All the time."
They set Hobbes aside and there's a lot of squirming and laughing – she keeps running her hands up and down Calvin's sides, and it tickles, and this seems to be the point – and somehow they end up on the floor. He wants to watch her laughing like this for the rest of the night, every muscle in her stomach moving with it, but then his mother knocks on the door and they hurry to put their shirts back on, holding their breath to keep from cracking up again.
Susie and Calvin's dad talk about Current Events at dinner. Calvin and his mom watch them fondly, playing with their food, and they even look at each other across the table at one point, smiling like they're forgiving each other everything, because this is the only way to do it, impulsively and instantly and without speaking.
After dinner they all gather into the living room to watch the news. Calvin falls asleep on Susie's shoulder. He's never been so tired in his life. When he wakes up she's holding his hand and his mother is offering ice cream.
He walks her home at ten o'clock, curling around her shoulders when the wind blows in cold. Winter is coming and the air smells like snow.
"I didn't do any homework," she says, tossing her book bag onto the porch like it's a dirty pair of boots.
"Welcome to my world," he says. She rolls her eyes and drapes her arms around his shoulders. She's standing on the porch and he's on the second step, so their faces are level.
"From now on we're going to do our homework together," she says. "Every night."
"Even Fridays?" he says, knowing this will never actually happen. Even beyond his own willfulness, he's got a sense of the future and what she's talking about is not in the cards. "Even Saturdays?"
"Okay," she says. "Not on Fridays. Not on Saturdays, unless I have some big project to work on. But on Fridays you can take me to the movies."
"Everybody will see," he says. "They'll know you're with me."
"You kissed me in the middle of the hall today. People might already suspect something."
"Oh, yeah. Sorry."
"Calvin! Don't be sorry. I'll be a celebrity in my honors classes. They'll all ask me if you really drink goat's blood for lunch."
"I don't want to go home," he says, pulling her flush against him. "Will you be mad if I show up at your window again?"
"We can't do that every night."
"Why not? Didn't I marry you once?"
"Yeah, I think Hobbes was the officiant. But actually you stormed off in the middle of the ceremony and told me you were becoming a mercenary and moving to Ecuador, and that I shouldn't write you."
Thirty minutes later he's shaking from the wind, which is blowing in with increasing chill and strength, and she kisses his red-tipped nose and tells him to get home. He lingers for five more minutes, his face pressed against her neck while she giggles in his ear, and then he heads home, looking back only twice.
When he gets back to his room, he launches himself onto Hobbes like old times, laughing and wishing he could still talk to him. He's not sure when Hobbes stopped talking back, but Calvin tells himself he should be glad that he did.
"You were right about everything," he tells Hobbes, who always liked Susie.
He dreams about the fire anyway. It's all around him like never before; even the sky is burning. Jessica is laughing somewhere, but every time he tries to fight through the flames to find her and catch her and stop her they flare up and beat him back into a narrowing circle that is filling with smoke. He can smell it, and then he's coughing, and the coughing wakes him up.
The light outside the window is wrong. It's still night time, but it's bright, too. He coughs again and pushes himself out of bed. When he sees Susie's house burning, flames flicking out of her bedroom window, he thinks he must be dreaming, and it's so cruel, worse than anything his subconscious has ever foisted on him, that for almost a full minute he doesn't even approach the thought that he might actually be awake. And then he touches his bedroom window, and something about the fact that it's cold under his hand, not warm like the bedsheets, makes him realize that this is real.
Then he's outside and running and it feels more surreal than any dream ever has. When he sees Susie standing beside her father in their front yard, wearing a ratty robe and slippers and crying into her hands, he's lifted off the ground with relief, so high that he's afraid all over again.
"Susie!" he shrieks, and she turns, a photo album clutched tightly in her arms. She passes it to her father and runs to meet Calvin, who hugs her so hard that she lets out an oof that almost makes the situation comical. She's okay. Her father is okay. Everything else can be replaced.
"What happened, what happened?" he asks, holding her tight while she sobs onto his shoulder. She seems to be intact. He touches her hair, and it's not even singed, not even very messy, just crackling with static in the dried-up air.
"What happened?" her father barks, and when Susie squeezes Calvin tighter it's like a preemptive apology for what her father is about to say. "Like you don't know, you little shit?"
"Daddy," Susie sobs, turning to him. "It wasn't –"
"Tell your little boyfriend that the police are on their way and he'd better head for the hills if he doesn't want to get locked up!" Mr. Derkins shouts. "I know his MO, I know what he's like!"
"It wasn't him!" Susie shouts. Calvin can hear the sirens already. He's dressed, his car keys in his pocket, like a firefighter, ready to go.
"Yeah?" Mr. Derkins says. "We'll see what a team of officers who aren't sixteen-year-old girls think when they get here."
Mr. Derkins never liked Calvin. Susie's mother used to give him the benefit of the doubt, but she's gone. Susie is clinging to him, two handfuls of his shirt pulled into her fists.
"It was Jessica," she whispers, looking up at Calvin. "Wasn't it? It was her, we'll tell them."
"They won't believe me," Calvin says. Susie looks older in her robe, ash on her face, and he tries to imagine her in medical school, the late night study groups, and him working the graveyard shift at a tow truck company while she falls in love with a future anesthesiologist. He's just something from her past that she wants to reconcile, and he's going to prison for real if he doesn't leave in the next five seconds.
Mr. Derkins is crying, saying his wife's name over and over again, as if she's still inside the home they made together, gone forever now. Calvin knows this is his fault. This is what he does, it's what he's always done, forever escalating. He smoothes Susie's hair down and lets the static-coated pieces stick to his palms as he lifts his hands away.
"Sorry," he says, stepping backward. "I shouldn't have – "
She was never one to beg, so she just stands there in her robe and watches him go, her father crumpled to the ground behind her as the roof goes up in flames. The sirens are just a street or two away, and Calvin prays his transmission will hold as he throws himself into the driver's seat of his dad's old car. His parents are running out into the yard as he pulls away, wearing their pajamas and wild-eyed with shock. They probably think he did it, too. It's okay. It doesn't matter anymore.
He's halfway to Florida before he realizes that he forgot Hobbes. So he won't be doing much sleeping, wherever he's going. He can smell the ash from the fire on his skin and he thinks he can feel it seeping in, too, sinking into places that can't be scrubbed clean. He imagines he's a contract killer with a secretly pure heart, and he's just left his partner and his girl behind, but it's for their own good, because the cops are onto him and the highway is the only place he belongs. When he gets wherever he's going, he'll even make up a new name. Fin Blackwater. No, too obvious. His eyes fill up and he thinks desperately of another: Archie Hammond. Too boring. Bertrand Davis. No, they're all wrong. The only name he can think of is Susie's, playing over and over his head, as if it's something that's ever going to mean anything to him again.
It turns out that Jessica was right. The shrimp smell really bad.
Calvin gets work almost immediately. Shrimp farm managers aren't picky. Basically they're just looking for someone who won't steal shrimp all day. After two weeks of working with them, Calvin can't imagine ever wanting to eat them again, so it's not a problem for him.
He lives in his car for awhile, then the car dies and he lives in a motel for a week, then he moves in with a guy named Yunel who needs help with his rent. Yunel is from Cuba and doesn't speak much English, but his housekeeping style matches Calvin's almost uncannily -- laziness verging on absurdity but stopping short of living in downright filth -- and they both really like to watch TV. Yunel works at the shrimp farm, too, and he's got a truck that occasionally works, and he misses his family so much that sometimes he cries, and Calvin can relate so they get along pretty well.
"Why are you here?" Yunel asks him one night when they're sitting on their apartment's tiny back porch after work, stinking of shrimp. Calvin has been teaching him English, and it's very weird to finally feel like an authority on something.
"What do you mean?" Calvin asks. His back is killing him, and he thinks of what Mr. Bederman said. His eighteenth birthday is in two days.
"In Florida," Yunel says. "Alone."
Calvin stretches his legs out in front of him and considers the question. He doesn't know what happened with Jessica and the fire, but he's pretty sure the cops aren't looking for him. He lost his nerve just before inventing a social security number, so he's working under his real name. He just hopes the cops didn't question Susie for too long, and he hopes she doesn't feel guilty if she broke down and told them where he was headed. But he thinks she probably didn't.
"There was a big fire," Calvin says. Yunel's eyes widen.
"Ci, con figurado."
"Figuradamente," Yunel corrects. He's teaching Calvin Spanish. Calvin is kind of surprised at how easy it is, considering all the trouble he had with it in school.
"Yeah," Calvin says. "That's what I meant. Anyway, there was a big fire and I ran. How come you've never asked me before?"
Yunel shrugs. They've been roommates for almost a year and a half, but neither of them usually feels like talking. It's comforting to have someone around and to not have to make chit chat.
"I thought," he says, frowning as he struggles to come with the right phrasing. "It would be something. Like that."
"Why?" Calvin hates the idea that it's obvious to everyone that he's walking around with this weight always bearing down on him. He's not a sad person, or anyway not a person who's determined to be sad. He's still waiting for life to shower him with meaning and happiness, and he hasn't given up the hope that it will. With his eighteenth birthday so close, he no longer feels so certain that he won't live past it. And lately he's thinking about going home.
"I don't know," Yunel says, his favorite English phrase. "Sometimes, when you're sleeping. You say things about fire."
Calvin laughs self-consciously. He's always nodding off on the couch while Yunel watches soccer games, and when he jerks awake Yunel is usually looking at him with concern. He'd always thought it was because Yunel pitied him for being unable to appreciate soccer.
Two months later Yunel tells him he's moving to Miami while they're walking to work.
"I have friends there," he says, because Calvin has never been a real friend. Calvin feels abandoned anyway, and after work he walks to the car dealership by the Red Lobster and uses all of the money he's saved to buy a 2002 Corolla.
"That's a real dependable make," the salesman says. He's sweaty; he seems nervous about the ease of the sale.
"Do I smell like shrimp?" Calvin asks as he takes the keys.
"A little bit," the salesman says.
So Calvin quits his job and spends three days showering vigorously. Yunel moves out in the meantime. When Calvin feels less shrimpy, he turns in his keys to the landlord, calls his parents' house and hangs up when his mother answers. It'll be a long drive. He'll have time to think about what he's going to say.
On the way there he listens mostly to talk radio; music is too jarring. As he drives through Tennessee he feels like he left home only a few days ago, but by the time he's cutting through Illinois he can hardly remember what his old bedroom looks like. He feels forty years old, and it's not just his back. He misses sleeping through the night. He thinks about Susie every day.
He tries to come up with a good scenario as he gets closer to the old neighborhood. He's a soldier who fought in World War II and was missing, presumed dead, but now here he is, showing up out of the blue and all in one piece. After living in a POW camp in Cuba for a year and a half. Where they treated him surprisingly well. No, that's trite. Russia -- or Cuba, whoever -- ended up bombing the U.S. during the Cold War and he somehow got separated from his family during the fallout. Like, he somehow sacrificed himself. While his family ran into a bomb shelter. Which was only big enough for three people, but he let Susie have his place. Yeah. But then he ended up surviving. So now he's back, but he's got to detox first so that he won't contaminate his loved ones. Or maybe he already did that.
He sighs. The usual stuff's not working.
When he pulls up to his parents' house the first thing he sees is Susie's. Or what used to be Susie's -- it's a completely different house now, though roughly the same size. He can still smell the construction residue in the air -- sawdust and insulation, fresh paint. It looks brand new, and there's a beach ball on the yard out front, a mysterious red van in the driveway. Well, of course they're gone. He sits for a long time looking at the spot where Susie's bedroom used to be. That side of the house is flat now, no ledge protruding under the second story window, which is much larger than Susie's had been. He can see what looks like part of a large aquarium inside the new room that lives in the place where he first kissed her.
He checks his face in the rearview mirror one last time. He shaved before he left Florida but his fuzzy blond beard has already started to grow back in. He knows his mother won't like it, because when he left home he would get only a few soft hairs over his top lip if he skipped shaving, which he did anyway, because back then he'd wanted to feel older.
Walking to the door is the hardest thing he's ever done. He should have written. Or called. How hard would that have been? What was he thinking? Where did the time go? He knocks, and thinks of the day he never went to Susie's door and never knocked and all the time he's wasted and how other kids seem as if they're allowed to waste time and not face the kinds of consequences he has. His mother opens the door.
"Oh my God," he says, even though that's not his line, but she looks so old. She slaps her hand over her mouth.
"Calvin," she says, like she just wants to practice the name for a moment, and he can hear the creakiness of it on her tongue, how she hasn't said it in awhile. She hugs him tightly and he congratulates himself on not crying. He feels like a grown up, like a man. Maybe disappearing for awhile is what it takes.
"I'm sorry," he says. She tenses around him and then lets him go.
"Don't say anything for a minute," she says. She leads him into the living room by the hand. "Your dad's at work."
"I thought he might be."
She makes him a ham sandwich in silence and he pours himself a glass of Gatorade. There's nowhere to begin when you haven't seen your mother in a year and a half. There's no entry point.
"Susie and her dad moved away?" he says after she's watched him eat the sandwich. She doesn't look as old as she did at first. Calvin glances at the clock. He's not sure he can deal with his dad yet.
"Yeah," she says, shaking herself out of the trance she seemed to be in. "They're up in St. Cloud now. Well, her dad is. Susie went to school on the east coast. University of -- Maryland, I think it was? Her father -- he apologized to us, you know. For the things he said that night."
Calvin shakes his head, but then he wants to hear more. He doesn't need to ask.
"They arrested that Jessica girl," his mother says. "We gave the police her name and they got a warrant, searched her house and found proof that she set the fire. I think she pleaded mental instability or something – they put her in an institution for treatment. I don't know where she is now. Calvin. You didn't have to go."
His mother's jaw doesn't seem as tight as it once did; he can hear it in her voice. For some reason it makes him sad, though the sound of her voice when her teeth were clenched used to be so horrible.
"I gotta go," he says, standing. His mother makes an astonished sound.
"To Maryland. I'll come back." He has the insane desire to go up to his room and get Hobbes, but how would he explain that?
He hugs his mother before he leaves, and she pets down the back of his hair, squeezing him tight. The house is so quiet, like it got burned down and rebuilt, too, only it looks exactly the same.
"When you were a little boy you used to threaten to run away to Madagascar," his mother says, starting to choke up and still holding onto him. "While you were gone – I always thought of you as being there. Living in the trees with the birds and the monkeys. Like Tarzan, I guess. Isn't that ridiculous? I liked the thought of it, I don't know why. Calvin, you've got to come back. Your father needs to see you."
"I will," he says, pulling away. "Mom. Did she. What happened after the fire?"
His mother knows he's asking about Susie, not Jessica. She touches the sides of his face, pressing her fingers in a bit to test the solidity of him.
"The last phone call I got from her was about three months ago," his mother says. "I think she started school just a few weeks ago."
"When she called –"
"She didn't ask about you, Calvin, no. But that was the reason she was calling. She was waiting for me to give her the news."
He drives to Maryland with a map spread out in the passenger seat beside him, doesn't stop for food and is almost out of gas by the time he gets the campus of the state university. He prays his mother remembered the right school, because if she didn't, he's afraid he's going to disappear. This is nuclear winter, and he's been living in it for eons. If he doesn't see the sun in the next hour he's not going to make it.
He doesn't really know where to start, so he buys a razor and a travel-sized canister of shaving cream from a convenience store on campus and shaves in the bathroom of the romance languages building. Other guys, normal young men who are working on their degrees in French and Italian, come in and eye him nervously, but he ignores them.
He asks a professor-ish looking person where the Biology department is, and is directed to the other side of campus, where he parks illegally and consults a map of the Biology complex. There's a whole building devoted to radiation oncology, and Calvin haunts it for the rest of the afternoon, searching the crowds of students for Susie.
The sun goes down, the students disperse, and he still hasn't found her. He wanders the campus, feeling hopeless. He should be at home with his parents, he should be enrolling in high school equivalency programs, he should be at least eating something, because his stomach is whining with hunger pains. He drifts toward the dining hall and peeks in its windows at the students who are inside, laughing and eating from trays. He's turned himself into Tarzan when he could have been one of them.
"Can I help you?" someone says sharply, and Calvin turns from the windows to find a pretty young woman with long blond hair eying him suspiciously.
"I'm looking for my sister," he blurts. "Susie Derkins. I'm supposed to – she's in the pre-med program and I can't remember the name of her dorm."
"Is she a freshman?" the girl asks, frowning.
"Yeah. Just started two weeks ago."
"Well, all the freshman pre-med girls are over in Hoover. It's about a mile that way, across from the fountain."
"Thanks!" Calvin is already running in the direction. It's been a long time since he ran anywhere, and it feels so good that he laughs, though the thought of facing Susie is terrifying. He imagines that they were spies, working together during the Cold War. Something went wrong, and they've been living apart in the post-apocalyptic world. She thinks he betrayed him to the Russians just before the bomb dropped, but he didn't actually, and he's got to explain.
Of course, first he's got to infiltrate the heavily-guarded safe house where she's been living under an assumed name. He walks into Hoover Hall pretending to be casual, and as he's whistling and admiring a bulletin board covered with pictures of the residents, he sees one of Susie. It's like being punched in the gut, just looking at her picture. She's standing outside of her dorm room with her roommate, both of them with fading, forced smiles. The roommate is a pudgy girl with red hair; a significant obstacle, Calvin imagines, but he's also been given a gift that will make his infiltration easier. The number of Susie's room is visible just over her left shoulder: 256. He commits to memory.
He can't seem to walk away from the picture, even though the conspicuous factor is increasing as he lingers. Susie looks much the same as she did at sixteen, but a little taller and more straight-backed. Prettier, and her hair is neater, as if she finally broke its spirit and it now obeys her fully. Her mouth is open slightly, as if she was going to say something but didn't have time before the picture was taken.
Calvin sneaks past the check-in desk while the girl who is manning it is laughing at something a boy who is leaning on the desk has said. He races up to the second floor, his heart hammering. He's got no weapons – if he's caught, he's done for, and his former partner will never know the truth.
When he gets to room 256 he looks up and down the empty hall. It's quiet. Too quiet. He knocks very softly, praying that Susie hasn't already met a future doctor who is out cavorting about the town with her.
She opens the door wearing her pajamas: the blue tank he remembers, and pink and white striped pants. He's still a little stuck in his Cold War-era spy story, so he actually puts a finger to his lips when she stands there staring at him in shock.
"Can I come in?" he whispers.
"How did you—?" she stutters. He can smell Kettle Corn in the room behind her, and she looks about a zillion times better in person than she did in that picture. Just her bare shoulders in the low light of her dorm room are enough to nearly kill him. He's weaponless, after all.
"Listen, I'm really sorry," he says when she still hasn't moved from the doorway.
"No, no!" she says, and he knows that voice, the way she used to get just before she took all her toys and went home in a huff. "You've used up your apology quota."
"Okay. Alright. But can I come in?"
"What is that sound? Is that your stomach? Are you in trouble? Are you running from the police?"
"Yes, and no. And no."
Susie groans and pulls him into the room. It's small and full of girl-things: colorful pillows on the two twin beds, hairbrushes on the side tables, and a bra Calvin thinks he recognizes hanging over the back of a chair. Susie snatches it up when she sees him looking at it and stuffs it under the pillow on the bed that must be hers. Her face is red when she looks up again.
"What do you want?" she snaps.
"You're mad at me," he says.
"Did you think I wouldn't be? Calvin, you didn't have to go! You never listened to anything I said – okay, fine, you know what, it doesn't matter. If you came back here to, to –"
"Can I have some of that popcorn?" he asks. There's a bowl of it sitting on Susie's desk, half-empty. She glances at it and frowns.
"It's going stale anyway," she says before thrusting it at him. He eats it in handfuls and it's gone in five seconds.
"Where have you been?" she asks, still frowning.
"Florida. At a shrimp farm. Like I told you."
"You were serious?"
"I didn't want to go. Not after. You know. But then the fire happened and I had to. I had to go, or I thought I did. I guess I was pretty stupid."
"Yeah, you were," she says, and this sort of breaks him. He hands her the empty bowl and sits on her bed. She seems to want to protest, but then just sits across from him on her roommate's bed.
"Where's your roommate?" he asks.
"In New Haven with her family for the weekend. But that doesn't mean you can stay."
"I didn't think –"
"You know what I told her about you? What I tell everyone? I've gotten really good at it, do you want to hear? It's a really great story, everyone always laughs. Okay, you be her. Or whoever. Ready? Ask me if I had a boyfriend in high school."
She looks so shaken that he's afraid not to do as she asks, though really he just wants to sleep in her bed for days. Even if she doesn't want to sleep in it with him, he would be halfway satisfied just with the smell of her sheets all around him.
"Did you have a boyfriend in high school?" he asks glumly, afraid of the answer. Is this the part where she tells him that she met someone else as soon as he was gone, that they did normal things like prom and movie dates and that they're engaged to be married? And the wedding is tomorrow?
"No, well, kind of." She puts on a fake smile and sits up straighter. "It's actually this kind of hilarious story. I grew up next door to this kid, and I was in love with him, I mean in love, for as long as I could remember. Like, we used to throw snowballs at each other and steal each other's toys, and he was so mean to me but we were always trying to get each other's attention, and then this one day he, like, held my hand on the way home from school when I was crying, and, oh my God, I loved him so much. But he was also this kind of weirdo, like, he was a really bad student, and when we were in high school he started dating this psycho girl and they got, like, arrested for burning down a concession stand together."
She stops for a minute, her fake-cheerful voice beginning to strain and her hands clasped tightly in her lap.
"This is the part where you laugh and ask me if I'm serious," she says flatly, but then she goes on when Calvin only sits and stares at her.
"Anyway, so he's dating this crazy girl, and I'm, like, all heartbroken of course, and so jealous, like, just the sight of her in the halls at school used to make me sweat with rage, I mean, it was ridiculous. So, but, listen, okay, he breaks up with the girl after the whole arrest thing, right? Probably just because his parents made him. And he's all, like, trying to be good, you know, because he's on probation or whatever, so he starts trying to date me. And I'm a total sucker for it – like, this one night he showed up at my window at two in the morning, and I just thought it was the most romantic thing, of course. And I'm imagining that we're going to go to prom together, me and the crazy neighbor boy, like we were destined to be together or something stupid like that, and then, you'll never believe this. His freaking crazy ex-girlfriend set fire to my house! No, I'm not kidding! They, like, locked her up in a mental institution and everything. And the guy, the crazy neighbor boy, he left town. Because he was afraid to get implicated in the investigation of the fire. But no, no, I don't think he had anything to do with it. And no, I don't know whatever happened to him. I never saw him again. So that's my high school boyfriend story."
The humor has drained out of her voice, and the light out of her eyes. Calvin doesn't know what to say. His voice will crack if he speaks, so he just sits there with his hands clamped between his knees.
"It's usually much funnier," Susie says. "I'm usually not telling it to you."
"Can I just stay here?" Calvin asks weakly. "Please?"
"No," she says. "No, you can't."
But then she just goes to her desk, opens a big Biology textbook and pretends to read it. Calvin doesn't know what to do, but he's not going to leave until she's screaming at him to go. He takes off his shoes and lies down in the bed. She doesn't object.
"Do you like college so far?" he asks.
"Don't talk to me," she says. "I'm working."
So Calvin shuts his eyes. He can hear the rattle of the room's heater, and the scratch of Susie's pencil as she makes notes on her reading. This is what he wants to do every night for the rest of his life. He's never been so certain about anything, and he's never had a real dream that lasted for more than an hour, but this is it, this is his life's work. This is what he's meant to do: keep her company while she studies and fall asleep knowing she's there.
When he wakes up the room is dark and she's sliding against him, smelling like toothpaste. He rolls into her arms and she shakes like she's going to start crying, but then she just wraps her leg around him and buries her face in his hair.
"You'll leave again," she says.
"No," he says, his voice muffled against her neck. He kisses her there just once, softly, and she sucks in her breath. "Listen." He hoists himself up onto his elbow and looks down at her; doing so takes every ounce of energy he has left. "I'm going to move here. I'll work for a landscaping company or something, I don't know. Something where you get to be outside. And I'll get a little apartment and you can move into it with me if you want. I'll even be clean. I promise. I'll do all the cleaning, since you're in school and that's way harder than whatever I'll be doing."
She's quiet for awhile, pulling absently at the short hairs on the back of his head. He kisses her forehead and begins to suspect that she's actually going to forgive him.
"Why didn't you write to me?" she asks. "Or your parents, at least? We didn't even know if you were alive."
"I don't know. I guess I was embarrassed. Of the way I ran off like that. And, just, of everything."
She watches him for awhile, thinking. He starts to shake, so tired he can barely even support himself on his elbow, and she pulls him back down to her.
"Why do I even love you?" she asks, as if he knows. "Just because you lived next door?"
"I loved you when you lived five million miles away," he says. It's a rough estimate, granted, Florida to Iowa, Florida to Maryland.
She kisses him, and then she's taking her clothes off, but it's not like Jessica did that first time, the next step in the direction they were headed. With Susie it's different. She's uncertain and quiet and trembling hard in his hands.
"Say something," she begs.
"Okay, okay." Maybe he's shaking worse than her. The heater has gone quiet. "When we were freshmen, one time I cut school and sat up in my room and watched the road, and I saw you walking home, and you – it was raining, and you tripped – and I should have run down, I should have jumped out the window, I should have gotten there somehow and helped you up. I wanted to. It wasn't long after – your mom. I still think about it. I should have at least knocked on your door."
"You saw that?" she says quietly. "I remember that day. I felt like God had flicked my back and knocked me over. Like someone was laughing at me."
"I should have gone over there. I should have, dammit. What – what would have happened if I had? You think you would have let me in?"
"This," she says, stroking his face, then all the way down his chest. "This would have happened. Let's pretend it's raining. Let's pretend it's that day. Okay, could we? If you'd have shown up at my door – you would have made me so happy. But I probably would have been mean to you, just in case. But who cares, let's say you did show up, and that, that –"
"You'd been crying and you were still soaking wet –" He kisses her and she clings to him, makes his skin burn until he's not afraid of fire anymore.
"Yeah," she breathes as they continue the scenario without words. "Exactly."
He sleeps through the night and dreams of his parents' house. It's not on fire, it's lit up by the sun, and he's six years old again, tearing through the halls with Hobbes clutched tightly in one hand. His mother is shouting and his father is reading the paper, and he bangs out the front door, knowing that Susie is in her backyard with her dolls, waiting to be entertained.
Susie wakes him up the same way she put him to sleep, warm and all around him, and he doesn't deserve her but she seems to want him anyway, even in the light of day. They lie in bed for a long time, not quite sleeping. Calvin tells her about the shrimp and Yunel. She assures him that he doesn't smell like shellfish anymore, and talks about school, and her roommate, whom she hates.
"She can't fall asleep without the TV on," Susie says. "And I swear, once, I was afraid to open my eyes, but I think she fell asleep to porn."
"One time Yunel brought home a live chicken."
"Oh my God! To eat?"
"No, as a pet. These trucks full of chickens used to drive by the pools where we worked and sometimes a chicken would escape. So he caught one of the escapees one day and named it Lupita and he really liked that chicken, but the landlord found out about it so he had to donate it to this weird guy we worked with who had an organic farm. But the guy was a vegetarian, apparently, so Yunel's chicken was safe. It was a big drama."
"I imagined such horrible things," Susie says, touching his face. She can't seem to stop doing that, and Calvin doesn't mind. "But that doesn't sound so bad."
Susie buys him breakfast at the dining hall, and it's buffet-style, so they're there for almost an hour, Calvin stuffing his face while Susie watches him, drinking coffee. She seems to be studying him for signs of sincerity.
"I'm going to find a job today," he says when they're on their way out. She shakes her head.
"Do it tomorrow," she says. "I want to show you around."
It's Sunday and the campus is quiet, a few students roaming about, and most of the buildings Susie leads him into are empty and loud with the echo of their footsteps. Calvin is fascinated by everything she shows him, though he isn't sure why. The Biology complex is new and the whole thing has a fresh, plasticky smell, like it's all untouched. He holds her hand all through the sciences, the humanities and the library.
"There are some cute houses around here," she says as they're walking together through the neighborhood that surrounds the campus. "This is my favorite," she says, stopping to nod to a little brick house with a big yard and several pine trees that look like they were around during the time of the dinosaurs. It looks a little bit like Susie's old house did, only smaller and tidier, as if every bright red brick was polished that morning.
"I'm gonna buy you this house," Calvin says, and it hits him as soon as the words are out, how good it feels to finally want to do something, even if it's hard. Especially because it's hard. Susie laughs.
"I mean it," he says. "We're eighteen now, right? Okay. I'll buy you this house when we're twenty-five. That'll give me almost seven years to save." He's excited and talking fast. As soon as he gets a job he's going to do the math. He's going to be strict, really and truly; he'll wear the same clothes for seven years if he has to.
"Fine," Susie says, and he can tell she doesn't believe him, but it's true. This is his thing he's going to be good at: they're going to have some kids and she's going to be a doctor and he's going to stay in this house they're standing in front of and play with the kids while she works. He thinks he'd be good at that, really, truly.
They walk to a sub shop to get some lunch, Calvin swinging their arms together like they're kids and Susie laughing at his enthusiasm. He wants to tell her about the plans that are racing through his mind, but it would sound dumb out loud. He doesn't know how to explain that he's suddenly discovered the purpose of his life and that it feels like flying does in dreams, effortless and thrilling, so he just asks her if she remembers the time when he cut his leg while they were chasing each other through the woods and how she bandaged it during the cease fire, and she says yes, yes she does.