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Weightless(5)
Kandi Steiner

He paused for a moment, like he wasn’t sure what to say to me, and it made my stomach twist into an awful knot. I swallowed, but kept my posture as calm as I could, hearing Willow’s words in my mind. All I wanted was for him to wrap me in his arms and tell me it was all a joke, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. So I needed to at least pretend to be okay. That town loved to gossip and I didn’t want poor, dumped Natalie Poxton to be their next subject of focus.

“Hey, Nat.” He paused again and lowered his voice a bit, moving a little closer. “You okay?”

His words made my stomach twist more, but Willow’s eyes narrowing behind him reminded me that I needed to seem in control. Even if I was far from it.

I shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

There were a few raised brows and whispers after that remark and Willow gave me a subtle thumbs up sign, but I felt awful. I never lied to Mason, and I knew he could see I was bluffing. But he didn’t call me on it. He just smiled, nodded, and turned back to Dustin. It was like his attention was tied to everyone else’s because as soon as he and Dustin started talking about baseball, everyone else went back to their conversations, too.

Stephanie grabbed my hand and hauled me to the bathroom with her and Willow. “Let’s drink!” She bounced a little, her smile bright as she tugged us through the crowd.

Stephanie was by far the prettiest girl in our class, though Willow closely rivaled her. Both of them were tall and lean, but Stephanie had perfect, long, auburn hair that twisted into beautiful curls effortlessly. Her smile revealed dimples that drove every boy insane. She was always nice to me, but we never hung out unless Willow was involved. In fact, Willow and Mason were the only two people I ever hung out with outside of our group outings.

After Mason dumped me, I was down to one.

Stephanie and Willow took shots out of their flasks in the handicap stall we all crammed into but I waved my hand when they offered them to me. I probably could have used the alcohol to calm my nerves, but I was more afraid of breaking down under the haze, so I opted for water when we got back to the bar, instead.

Sipping on my water allowed me to relax a little and the more everyone else drank, the better I felt. For some reason, buzzed eyes were easier for me to stand than sober ones.

We were leaned up against the back edge of the bar, still in the same group as Mason and Dustin but with enough space between us to hold separate conversations. Willow and Stephanie were chatting about their dorm room assignments at Appalachian State while I pretended to listen. As far as I was concerned, that college was essentially high school number two. Besides, Mason’s girlfriend had just walked in, and I was far more interested in torturing myself by watching them together. She had just strutted in and thrown herself into his arms as everyone around them smiled. He wrapped his arms all the way around her and pulled her tight into him, kissing her lips like he’d kissed mine a week before, and I couldn’t help but realize that he could never wrap his arms that far around me.

“What about you, Nat?” Stephanie asked, stealing another sip from her flask before pouring half of it in the soda she’d just ordered. “Where are you rooming? I’m surprised you and Willow aren’t together.”

I shrugged, tilting my plastic cup until an ice cube slid between my teeth. I crunched on it loudly with my eyes still on Mason. “I haven’t decided if I’m going to Appalachian State, yet.”

Stephanie blanched and Willow’s mouth pulled to the side. She already knew I was still debating my options, but to Stephanie and everyone else in this town, it was practically a sin not to go to Appalachian State. It was where everyone in Poxton Beach went. We “stuck together,” as Dale liked to put it, and most of us would end up right back in that town.

Again — high school number two.

But me? I hadn’t made a single move toward college, other than take the standardized testing.

“What do you mean? Like, not this semester?” Stephanie was twirling the small black straw in her drink furiously as she waited for my response.

Embarrassment shaded my cheeks, though I wasn’t sure if it was from her judgmental questions or from Mason’s eyes catching mine briefly before I flicked them back to Stephanie. I hated having to explain my decisions, especially when I wasn’t quite sure why I made them, either. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to go to a college just because everyone else was doing it. “As in maybe not at all. I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet.”

“But don’t you have to get a room? And enroll in classes?”

I shrugged again. “I’m not worried about it right now.” That wasn’t exactly true, but it wasn’t exactly a lie. I did worry about it — about the decision I had to make, about being behind the rest of my classmates when it came to knowing my future. But, it was also true that, at the moment, my only real worry was that Mason had his tongue halfway down another girl’s throat.

Willow followed my gaze and shook her head, stealing a shot from her flask before grabbing my arm. “Nuh-uh. Not happening, Nat. You are not going to sit here and torture yourself all night. Let’s go dance.”

But before she had the chance to pull me away, Mason’s girlfriend made her way toward us. She smiled at Stephanie first, eying her outfit.

“I love those boots! Where did you get them?”

Stephanie returned her smile, flattered and clearly unaware of my discomfort. “The boot boutique in town. They have the best colors and styles! I’ll have to take you sometime.”

“I’d love that,” she answered genuinely before turning her gaze to me. It soured immediately. “You’re Natalie, right?”

My throat was too dry to swallow, which meant I definitely couldn’t answer, so I just nodded.

Her smile was pinched at the corners. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you from Mason.”

My heart backflipped at her words before sinking to the floor. She heard about me from Mason? Was that a good or bad thing?

“I’m Shay,” she finally said, but she didn’t extend a hand for a shake. “Listen, I hope things won’t be weird between us. I mean, being that Mason dumped you to date me and everything. We’re young, right? These things happen.” She smiled wider now, happy with herself.

This time I swallowed, feeling sick. Her eyes were on me along with Stephanie’s, both of them waiting for a response. What was I supposed to say?

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