Something in the Way(5)

By: Jessica Hawkins


He grasped me, his tanned hand covering more than half of my white forearm. “Hold still.”

Men of his age or size were never this close to me. I hadn’t moved; I was certain of it.

Finally, he got the two pieces to connect. “How’s that?”

I gave my wrist a shake to make sure the bracelet was secure. “Good, I think.”

“You walk home from school a lot?”

“What?”

He nodded at my backpack. “Didn’t you walk?”

“Today was the first time.”

He tilted his head back, looking down his nose at me. “Probably shouldn’t be walking home alone. Or at all, maybe.”

“It’s not far. I don’t have my license yet.”

He knocked the heel of his boot against the brick, looking anywhere but at me. “But you’re old enough?”

I almost asked how old he thought I was so I could tack “what about you?” on to the end, but what if he guessed too young? I suddenly regretted my t-shirt, high-necked and white cotton with a round, yellow happy face in the center. I’d bought it from a record store, so it wasn’t really childish, unless, I realized, a child was wearing it. On Tiffany, it would look cool, but I was flat-chested. Suddenly, a year seemed like a lifetime to wait for breasts.

“I’m old enough . . .” I said. He looked as though he expected me to continue. “I’m sixteen, but I have to get a certain number of behind-the-wheel hours with my parents.” Tiffany was a licensed driver and could take me, but she’d had two speeding tickets and a fender bender in the last year alone. My dad would never allow her to teach me. I shifted feet. “We started, but I haven’t had time lately.”

“You haven’t? Or your parents?”

I went to answer but stopped. Dad usually worked until past seven. Mom was probably showing houses or at some meeting. I had time now, but there were a hundred other things I should be doing, like reading from the list, studying for SATs, or volunteering. “We’ve all got stuff going on.”

“What keeps a sixteen-year-old so busy?”

“College prep,” I said in the same tone Tiff said duh. “Do you go to school?”

“At night.”

“Oh. Like community college?”

“Yeah.” He let his posture fall and laced his hands between his knees. “You sure you don’t want to get up here? That backpack’s as big as you.”

I looked around, as if someone might be watching. “I don’t think I can.”

He gestured for me to come closer. When I was at his feet, he took my backpack off and dropped it. It landed on the ground with a thud, disturbing the sand into a cloud. “Christ. What’s in there? Rocks?”

I unzipped it to put The Grapes of Wrath away and showed him the inside. “More books.”

“Figures. You need to lighten your load, like me.” From his back pocket he pulled a paperback small enough to fit in one of his big hands.

I read the title—The Metamorphosis. “What’s that about?”

The cover had what looked like a huge cockroach on it. He studied it, his eyebrows drawn. “To be honest, I’m not sure yet. It’s weird. I’ll get back to you.”

I wrinkled my nose. Nobody I knew ever called a book weird. My English teacher and classmates were always using words like abstract, poignant, or metaphorical. It was so unheard of that I started to laugh.

Without any warning, not even a grunt or word to prepare me, he lifted me by my waist and sat me on the wall like I weighed a hundred pounds.

Well, I about did, but that wasn’t the point. He was strong, all dirt and grime, long and lean, his face and arms bronzed by the sun. He could pick me up. He could throw me if he wanted to. He could probably put me over his shoulder and walk a thousand miles without running out of breath. My urge to slide closer to him was as strong as my urge to jump down, run inside, and hide in the house where men like him only existed in my glossy magazines.

The hard brick didn’t give much of a welcome. All at once, I was an absolute and nervous mess about sitting next to a man. I didn’t think of my dad as a man, and certainly the boys I went to school with weren’t. The sun beat down on us, and he smelled of heat and sweat. It wasn’t bad.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“What’s yours?”

He wiped his palms on his jeans. “Manning.”

“Lake.”

The cigarette was back in his hands. He rolled it, flipped it around, tapped it against his knee. Everything but smoked it. “Are you trying to quit?” I asked.

“Quit what?”

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