28

A few days passed before I turned my phone on again and read the messages Wheeze had left.

<wheeze> Are you okay?

<wheeze> I think I misunderstood something. I won’t visit unless you want.

<wheeze> I think of you as someone who’s so fierce and brave that I forget you have feelings and I think I hurt them somehow. I don’t know if you had anything to do with what happened with Simon Meyer, but if I triggered bad memories, I’m sorry.

I had to take a deep breath. Then before I could have second thoughts I started typing.

<zen> It’s not that.

<zen> Okay, first, I like you a lot. Insert mushy stuff here. Just so you know. I always liked you, but I didn’t know how much until you were in that shed and I had to find you and I wasn’t sure if I could do it in time.

<wheeze> I was SO happy to hear your voice that night. Insert sheer terror here. But I always knew I liked you. From the start.

<zen> I don’t always get people. Even myself. I mean, I got diagnosed as having “oppositional defiant disorder” when I was eleven.

<wheeze> That’s a thing? There should be a Nobel Prize for oppositional defiance.

<zen> It was mean to ignore your messages. It’s just so weird being here. I never told you why I left this place. I never even told Monica the gory details. But brace yourself, here it comes.

<zen> When I was thirteen, I suddenly had boobs that were like bizarrely big and everybody laughed at me and the boys stared and giggled and it was awful, but I was used to it because everyone always thought I was weird. Then this new kid moved to town and he was different. He was smart and read poetry and when he said he liked me, I thought it was true. Until we were messing around in a dark empty classroom once and then suddenly it wasn’t dark or empty and these boys were all laughing and cheering. It was just a test they gave the new kid. A hazing ritual. Like kissing a toad.

<wheeze> .

<wheeze> no words

<zen> Kids are mean. I knew that, but I just couldn’t go back there. I went to Monica’s instead and had a total meltdown.

<wheeze> this makes me so mad I could seriously become non-non-violent.

<zen> I’m sorry I’m being so messed up about things.

<wheeze> What’s messed up is that stuff like that happens. Not you.

<zen> He actually tried to apologize to me later. I ran into him in a bookstore last year and he said “I’m sorry you were so upset.” WTF??!!

<wheeze> And yet you let him live?

<zen> I was feeling generous. Also, I was afraid I’d get carried away and destroy the bookstore.

<wheeze> I would consider that acceptable collateral damage.

<zen> I’ve been thinking – would it be okay if I visited you instead?

<wheeze> That would be incredibly great.

<zen> Don’t you have to ask Jane Shandy?

<wheeze> I’ll just hide her shotgun. (Not really. She says it’s fine.)

<zen> And can Nikko and Bree come? Because Bree’s spring break is coming up and she has a car.

<wheeze> Bring all your friends.

<zen> That *is* all my friends. Counting you.

<zen> Well actually, not all. I’ll introduce you to the rest when we get there.

~ ~ ~

I was nervous about this visit. We hadn’t seen each other since I left him in the armchair beside the wood stove, his sprained ankle propped up on a stool. But we had gotten close over the past few months. Really close. Like, he-knows-all-of-my-secrets close. Even closer than that.

As we crested a hill and saw Jane’s farm below us, Bree pulled over so we could roll down the windows, smell the fresh spring air, and listen to the country sounds of birds and chirping bugs and wind rustling across the fields. “It’s so pretty out here,” she murmured. “I’m glad we came, even if I’m behind on all of my classes. Especially computer science. I’m so totally lost in that course.”

“Zen can help with your homework,” Nikko said. “If you trade some nuts or pickled vegetables.”

“No picked vegetables. I’ll help for free,” I said. “Wheeze loves it out here. He says it feels like home.” Considering he’d been moving from place to place since he was fifteen, riding the rails, staying with friends, or squatting in foreclosed houses, I knew it wasn’t just an empty phrase.

“You like him, don’t you?” Nikko said, glancing at me in the backseat. Apparently the answer showed in my face because he grinned and gave me a gentle bop on the side of the head. “She likes him a lot,” he told Bree.

“Well, duh,” she said. “You couldn’t tell?”

My heart was thumping as we started down the hill. Somebody was standing on the porch.

“Yay, no shotgun this time,” Bree said.

I felt a little dizzy because I had stopped breathing. The person on the porch stepped into the sunlight and waved. He looked taller and broader, like a goat farmer. Like a small-engine repairman. Like my best friend. I waved back and started to breathe again.

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