Home > Opposite of Always(8)

Opposite of Always(8)
Justin A. Reynolds

I turn to Franny for insight. But he’s no help. “She’s been strange ever since you guys got back. Did something happen up there?”

The worst part is Jillian is everywhere I turn. We have four classes together plus study hall. She gives Franny and me a ride to and from school. Which means I get to fully absorb the depths of her silent treatment. It’s easily the loudest nonaudible sound I’ve ever heard.

I beg her to talk to me. But not a peep.

When she pulls curbside at my house, I thank her over and over again for the ride, and I make sure to stuff a healthy wad of gas money in her ashtray, only to later find those same crumpled bills stuffed in the front zippered pocket of my backpack.

Most of my texts to her go unanswered. And the ones that don’t are measly monosyllabic replies. The usual stop texting me, you asshole suspects:

Yes.

IDK.

Maybe.

Nope.

Finally, I show up to her house with her favorite triple chocolate chunk cookies and our mutual guilty pleasure flick, Adventures in Babysitting.

Jillian opens the door just wide enough to poke her head out. She looks anything but happy to see me.

“What are you doing here?”

“I just wanted to see you,” I say. When she doesn’t budge, I hold up the cookies. “I come in peace.”

“It’s not a good time, man,” she says, moving to close the door.

“Jack, is that you?” a voice from within the house says. “Jillian, let Jack inside.”

“Mom,” Jillian protests.

The door swings open, and there’s nothing but darkness inside the house, until Ms. Anderson steps into the frame, wearing a teal robe, her dark hair pulled up, the flicker of a burning candle in her hand. “I don’t think Jack’s afraid of the dark, are you, Jack?”

I shake my head, not quite following. The truth is, I’d go along with almost anything Ms. Anderson says because 1) her Italian accent is mesmerizing and 2) she’s one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met.

“Come in, come in,” Ms. Anderson says, using her lit candle to light another, handing it to me. I follow her and Jillian into the kitchen, our candles held in front of us like mini torches, polygonal shadows creeping along the walls.

“Your power went out,” I ask.

Jillian doesn’t answer. Even in the dimness, I can see she’s upset.

“Oh, the electric company thinks I didn’t pay the bill, but I did,” Ms. Anderson says. She sighs. Puts a hand to her head. “I’ve just had so many things on my brain. I mean, it’s possible I paid a little late, but not so late that . . .” Her voice drops off.

I nod, as if I understand. “It happens.”

“It’s nice, though,” Ms. Anderson says, almost absent-mindedly. “Not to have internet or TV or—”

“Hot water, a fridge, a stove,” Jillian interrupts.

“I was gonna say distractions, Jillian. And the power company said it was gonna be back on by six tonight.”

“Well, it’s almost eight. You sure you called?”

“What do you mean am I sure? I told you I called.”

“Right. Okay,” Jillian says.

Suddenly I feel as though I shouldn’t be here. It occurs to me that maybe Jillian hasn’t been mad at me at all. That she has bigger concerns. And I haven’t been paying attention.

Ms. Anderson frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean? I called and . . .”

“Okay, Mom.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Jillian,” Ms. Anderson says, her voice caving in on itself.

“Mom.”

“Even you.”

“Mom.”

“I’m just saying, I know I’m not perfect. But I’m trying. I’m trying my best, Jillian.”

And Jillian’s voice softens. “I know you are. Okay? I know.”

The two of them stare at each other across the candlelit kitchen, until Ms. Anderson breaks the silence. “I picked up the cutest soaps from your mom’s store the other day, Jack. How are your parents doing?”

But before I can answer, the darkness flickers, and all around us lights blink to life and machines hum sharply. “You see, my love,” Ms. Anderson says, pointing at the ceiling light, then running her fingers through Jillian’s hair. “I told you I’ll always take care of you.”

“So, uh, how’s your mom doing?” I ask, leaning against the kitchen counter, Ms. Anderson having long retreated upstairs.

Jillian hands me a large bowl, dumps freshly microwaved popcorn into it.

“Same. She has her days.”

“Yeah.” I give the bowl a shake, even the popcorn out. “How are you doing?”

Jillian looks at me like I’m a stranger, like she’s only just met me but she’s already not sure she likes me. “I don’t have a choice, Jack. I don’t get to have bad days.”

And I feel stupid, because I know this. Because I want to fix this for Jillian, except I barely know what this is, and even if I did know, I’m fairly certain I lack the required tools.

“I’m sorry, J.” I clear my throat. “So, your dad’s still, uh . . .”

She plunks ice cubes into our glasses. “I thought you came over to watch a movie.”

“I did, but . . . I mean . . . if—”

“So, let’s watch.” She disappears into the den.

We’re about halfway through the movie, sitting on either end of her family-room sofa, when I hit Pause.

“Not another bathroom break, King.”

She only uses my last name when she’s upset.

“You have to talk to me, J.”

She crosses her arms. “I am.”

“No, you’re talking through me and sometimes at me, but not to me. Whatever I did, please know that I’m eternally sorry.”

We sit silent for a beat, and then another, until Jillian sighs and crams half a cookie into her mouth. She chews and chews, and when she’s swallowed, she looks over at me.

“I guess I was Alfred,” she says, the last word snapping off in a mumble.

“You were Alfred? I don’t get it.”

She sighs. “Afraid, Jack,” she says, softly but clearly. “I was afraid, okay?”

“Afraid how?”

“Everything’s changing.”

“What things?”

“All the things.” She takes a deep breath. “First with my family. And now, it seems, with us. The other day on our drive home from Whittier, it was the first time it occurred to me I might not have you forever.”

I’m speechless. Because I thought those were things that only I ever considered. Jillian always seems so supremely confident in herself, in her feelings, it’s hard to imagine her struggling with any insecurities. But here she is, reminding me of how human she is, how human we all are.

“It’s stupid,” she says, “I know. I mean, you’re my best friend. Always will be. But I guess I had all these expectations about what our last couple of months of high school would be like. That we’d be even more inseparable, that we’d do all the senior stuff together, like prom and senior luncheon and all those other cheesy things we’re supposed to do but have always made fun of. And then we’d graduate and celebrate and leave all this crap behind, and we’d ride off into our college future together. We’d turn the page. Finally, you know, turn it for good. And then you—something about the way you were so excited about Kate, about spending time with her. You passed up burgers with your best friend for her.” She tries to laugh, but it’s strained. “I mean, you were going crazy at even just the possibility of talking to her. I can’t remember ever seeing you like that. Like ever.”

And I nearly say, If only you’d noticed the way I acted around you, how excited and happy I always am even to be in the same room with you. But I don’t interrupt.

“I guess it made me feel . . . less. Like I was less to you. And that sucked so bad because you’re so . . . more to me.”

I scoot across the couch, closing the sofa distance between us, nearly spilling the cookie tray in the process. “J, you’re my best friend because you’re the best person I know. Nothing will change that.”

Her eyes are moist, soft. This is a side to Jillian I’m not sure I’ve seen—it’s as if she’s nervous around me, uncertain.

“Really?” she says. “You promise?”

“Hope to die.”

We hold each other’s gaze and it’s easy to remember why I fell for Jillian in the first place (as if I could ever truly forget).

“Jack?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re the best person I know, too.”

We unpause the movie and we sit there, sharing a single sofa cushion, her head against my chest. I can feel the soft, warm tremor of her breathing. And I don’t pay attention to a single scene. I think about that day nearly four years ago, the day I bumped into Jillian in the hall, the day she offered me, a goofy, nerdy kid from Elytown, a chance for her heart—

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