The first two days back at school, every time I passed Renee, she sent me a wink. Or a knowing look, or, once, even a whispered, “We’ll talk at practice!”
And as for Bear, every time I saw him, I got a quick squeeze and a smile and a couple times he even walked me to my class. It was funny for once to be the girl everyone was looking at, instead of the one sending all those jealous glances.
Tuesday practice rolled around, and the second Renee saw me enter the baseball stadium, she squealed and ran up to me.
“Oh, my God. What was it like? I need to know everything right now! This has been killing me, Emma Gray,” she rambled.
I laughed. “Well, hey to you, too, Renee. Yes, my weekend was good. How was yours?”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, who cares about my weekend? Come on, Emma. Tell me, tell me.”
“All right, all right,” I relented, following her to our spot on the wall.
“Well?” She was sitting cross legged, leaning forward, the anticipation written all over her face.
I picked at the paint peeling off the wall. “It was good. It was really good,” I said, that goofy smile spreading across my face.
“Well, obviously. I’ve seen you two everywhere! What did you wear?”
So I started from the beginning and relayed Saturday night back to her, not leaving anything out. She listened intently, oohing and ahhing at the appropriate times, occasionally asking a question. When I got to the part about wakeboarding, Renee made a face.
“Ew, Rachel Wynn? Major bitch.”
I shrugged. “I mean, they were nice to me.”
Renee waited a second. “But…?”
I sighed. “I don’t know. It’s just… they both talked a lot about Bear.”
Renee looked confused.
I exhaled loudly, letting my head fall back. “They’ve both… you know… hooked up with him before.”
Renee’s face fell. “Oh, Em, you had to know that one was coming. I mean, Bear and Kacie practically dated for a while.”
“And you’re still jealous?”
I shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “It’s not really that. It was just kind of… gross the way they talked about him. Like they were rating him and telling me what he likes.” I blushed hard.
“Oh, no, Em. I’m sorry.”
I shrugged again. “I mean, I know Bear’s not perfect, but it was just a little overwhelming.”
Renee gave me a quick hug. “Okay, anyways,” she said, brushing her bangs out of her face. “More details.”
I grinned. “I haven’t even gotten to the best part yet.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Oh? Do tell.”
“As I was leaving, he looks at me and he says, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’”
“What?” Renee asked, confused.
“Yeah, that’s what I said, too. He said, ‘Yep. Dinner and a movie.’”
Renee shrieked, her jaw all the way open. I felt the familiar blush come up as a couple of the baseball boys (Bear included) sent us weird glances. “Emma, Emma, Emma, no way!” Renee was jumping up and down excitedly.
I curtsied. “Oh, yes way.”
“Drew’s?” she asked, calming down a little.
I nodded. Drew’s, a local semi-formal restaurant, was infamous for being the first date spot. Every first date I’d ever had (save one, when Gavin Slater took me to a minor league baseball game) had been at Drew’s. It was a small town and there weren’t many options
“Well, shit, tell me about it! I can’t believe you kept this a secret.”
I smiled. “It was great. Really good. Bear’s funny and smart and he kept saying how beautiful I was and he didn’t make me feel awkward or anything.”
“What’d you wear?” Renee interrupted.
“My pink flowy skirt and a plain white shirt.” Renee nodded her approval. “So then we went to the movies and he whispered to me the whole time and he let me ask him questions, which always pisses Lawrie and Laney off. And afterwards he bought me ice cream and we were sitting there eating it and he looks and me and it was like I was the only thing in the whole world he could see and I started blushing because he’s so fucking hot.“ Renee snorted. “So then he takes me home because it was getting late and he opened the door to let me out and we’re standing in my driveway.” I paused to take a breath.
“And he says to me, ‘I’ve never wanted to kiss someone so bad in my life.’” Renee gasped. “But then he said that he shouldn’t and all, since it was a first date. So he gave me a hug – a really long hug – and he says, ‘I’ll see you, Emma Gray,’ and we said goodnight and that was it.”
Renee sighed. “I wish I was you.”
“Oh, come on. You have Andy,” I teased.
“Oh, yeah. Andy.” She glanced involuntarily at him, across the field.
I froze. “Renee? Are you and Andy okay?”
She brushed her bangs out of her face. “What? Yeah, we’re fine. It’s just this thing with you and Bear has made me remember what it was like with me and Andy in the beginning. Let me tell you, after two and a half years, they stop being romantic. And it sucks.” She shrugged. “Really, though, we’re fine. Don’t worry.”
The game on Thursday was the first game that actually mattered. Not that you would have been able to tell by the boys’ demeanor. They were relaxed, joking and teasing. The coaches ran the same pre-game ritual as they would’ve for a practice. Honestly, Renee and I were more nervous than they were.
The game was scheduled for five o’clock and it was (luckily) a home game. Baseball wasn’t huge at our school but it drew a big enough crowd to call itself a major sport.
Renee was bitching about some girl that was apparently flirting with Andy. “I mean, hello, he’s my boyfriend. He’s dating me, not that little… Like, honestly, I was standing right there!”
I wasn’t really listening.
“Shit, look. Elizabeth Frederick. Gross.”
I halfway pretended to look.
Renee’s mouth dropped as she gasped. “Em, oh, my God!” She grabbed my arm. “She’s with Peter Sharp! Oh, my God!”
“What?” I quickly scanned the crowd. “No way!”
Renee wiggled her eyebrows, proud to have finally caught my attention. “Scandalous.”
“Where are they?” I asked, leaning into her to see around the people.
“Up there.” She pointed. “By concessions.”
I followed her gaze past Ben McKnight, past Mr. Addy (Lane’s step-dad), past Mr. Beck (my history teacher), but my eyes never made it to Elizabeth Frederick.
“Marybeth!” I squealed, dropping my clipboard and running towards the stands. “Marybeth!” I yelled again, waving with both my hands. “Marybeth!”
Finally, the thin blonde next to my mother spun around, her green eyes searching. Dressed in a hoodie and jeans, my sister Marybeth could easily have passed for a high schooler even though she was 23. Eventually, her eyes found me and a huge grin slipped onto her gorgeous face.
We collided in a bear hug, both of us hopping a little in excitement.
“I didn’t know you were coming,” I said, pulling back.
Marybeth shrugged, her eyes all lit up. “It was a surprise for you and Lawrie. How are you? Gosh, how long has it been? A couple months?” (She lived about an hour and a half away.)
I nodded, still excited. “I’m great. How are you? I love your hair!” I reached out and slid a few strands through my fingers.
“Thanks!” She did a twirl for full effect. It was cut short, just off her shoulders. “I just got it done, like, two weeks ago,” she said as my mom caught up to us with a 6’ tall man with thick, dark hair cut close to his head.
“Hey, Garret!” I said, giving him a quick hug.
Garret Day was Marybeth’s husband. They had been high school sweethearts and had finally gotten married a month after they’d graduated college (though he’d been considered family for years). It was a running joke in our family that Marybeth had tied the knot about a year before our oldest sister, Annabelle.
“Well, don’t I get a hug, too?” my mom teased.
“Emma Gray!” Coach Wright called from the dugout.
“Oops. Game’s starting. Love you all,” I said, blowing kisses behind me.
The boys won the game 5-0. I was waiting outside the stadium with Marybeth and Renee when I heard a familiar voice calling out to me. An instant blush leaped to my face as I turned around to face Bear.
“Hey,” I said as I walked up to him, nervously brushing the bangs out of my eyes.
“Hey,” Bear replied, his smile wicked. He had on a sleeveless Under Armour shirt and a thin layer of sweat glistened on his arm muscles. I never had a chance. “So what are you doing tonight?” He asked, shifting his duffel bag to the other shoulder. “’Cause, see, I’m going to my aunt’s for the weekend after the game tomorrow, but I’d really like to see you sometime.”
How could I say no?
“Well, um, actually my sister’s in town, so how about we just hang out at my house?”
Bear made a face. “I was thinking just the two of us.”
My mind was desperately trying to form coherent thoughts, but my heart was going a mile a minute. “Oh. Um, okay. Hang on just a second.”
I spun around too fast and walked over to where my family had gathered.
“Hey, Marybeth, how long are you guys in town for?”
My sister glanced at her husband. “Um, we’re not sure. Probably through the weekend.”
I bit my lip. “Would you hate me if I went out tonight?”
Marybeth’s jaw dropped in mock disappointment.
“She’s got a hot date, Mary. Give her a break,” Lawrie teased.
I turned bright red.
Now Marybeth’s eyes were sparkling. “Oh, my gosh. With who?”
“Bear Williams,” Lawrie answered for me. “The tall one flirting by the gate.” He actually pointed at Bear (who was kind of all up on Jenna Wells and Kristen Blake).
I was mortified.
Marybeth nudged me playfully. “Oo, Em, he’s sexy.”
Garret flicked her.
Marybeth smiled, wrinkling her nose. “Go ahead. But I expect you to give up your Friday night, missy.”
“Deal,” I said, giving Garret a kiss on the cheek and sending a wave back to them.
“Be home by eleven, Emma Gray,” my mother yelled out to me.
Lawrie, Marybeth and I just laughed.
“So this had better be a pretty great night,” I joked, joining Bear, Jenna and Kristen.
“Oh, you bet.” Bear gave me a quick kiss on the forehead and just like that Emma Gray Wilder was holding hands with Bear Williams. “See you later,” he said to the girls, leading me to his truck. Jenna and Kristen just stared with dumbfounded expressions on their pretty faces.
Bear took me to a local Mexican restaurant where we sat in a booth, practically isolated late on a Thursday night. I could sense something different about Bear from the get-go. He was pretty quiet, letting me carry the conversation (i.e., letting me babble incessantly). By the time the waiter cleared our dishes, I had pretty much run out of things to say. I sat back and bit my lip as a silence crept over us.
Finally, Bear leaned forward, not making eye contact, spinning his straw around and around. “Look, Emma Gray.” He sighed heavily and dropped his straw.
Oh, shit, I thought. Already? My heart sped up to about 100 times its normal speed and I couldn’t swallow. I squeezed my hands really tight in my lap, dreading Bear’s next words.
“I,” he faltered as his eyes finally found mine. They held a seriousness I’d never seen there before. He cleared his throat. “I really like you.”
My breath caught in my throat.
“I don’t…” He looked away as he struggled to find words, his usually gravelly voice soft. “I don’t normally do this.” He gave me a weak smile. “But, you, you’re so… different from every other girl I’ve ever met. You throw me off, Emma.”
I took it as a compliment.
“Look, I guess what I’m saying is that I want more from you than I’ve ever wanted from a girl.” He voice was strange, breaking a little. “Emma Gray, I want to date you. I want us to be a real us.”
I think by that point I was on the verge of passing out. I forced myself to breathe in, breathe out.
Bear looked up again, his brown eyes locked firmly with mine. “Will you go out with me, Emma Gray? Will you be my girlfriend?”
I didn’t even hesitate. “Mmhmm,” I managed to mumble, nodding my head vigorously.
Finally, Bear’s face relaxed and broke out in a wide smile. He laughed in relief. “Really?”
Bear dropped me off at home late that night. Like a moth, I immediately headed for the only source of light in the whole house: Lawrie’s room. I knocked quietly on the door before letting myself in. Lane was propped against Lawrie’s bed, one hand tangled in his hair, the other holding a book. Lawrie was asleep.
“Hey,” I sighed, sliding down next to Lane. “What are you reading?”
Lane just stared at me, his eyes bloodshot and droopy. He was dyslexic, so school had always been that little bit harder for him. I offered an apologetic smile.
“So how’d it go?” he asked. I couldn’t stop the corners of my mouth from turning up. “Good, I’m guessing.”
I let my head fall on his shoulder, almost subconsciously avoiding his gaze. I knew Laney didn’t really approve of Bear. “He asked me out, Lane,” I whispered.
There was a slightly extended pause.
“You said yes?”
I let myself laugh a little. “Well, yeah, I did.”
Another hesitation. I got the feeling he was struggling to decide what to say. “Congratulations, Em,” he said finally, squeezing one arm around my shoulders. It sounded genuine to me.
I looked up at him. “Thanks, Laney.”
“You want me to read out loud?” I asked.
He exhaled loudly. “I was wondering when you were going to ask.”
The next morning Lawrie’s alarm didn’t go off, so the three of us woke to pokes and prods from Mom about 20 minutes late. (Lane and I had fallen asleep on the floor, Macbeth abandoned beside us.) We got ready on super speed. The house was in complete chaos with two extra people trying to leave at the same time as us.
“Why are they even up yet?” Lawrie grumbled as he pushed past Marybeth on the way to the kitchen.
“They’re picking up Annabelle and Madden from the airport,” Mom offered, serving him a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. (How old was he?)
Lawrie and I both sent her questioning looks. “What?” Lawrie mumbled through a mouthful. “Marybeth and Annabelle home for a surprise weekend?”
“I know,” Mom said. “I’m suspicious, too.”