Chapter no 26

If He Had Been with Me

The boys are building a scary ramp out of snow. We are at Noah’s, whose backyard has the kind of hill people would drive miles to sled on if it were public property. The plan is to spend the afternoon sledding and then go to the mall. I won’t be making the second event. Aunt Angelina has decided that it’s time to introduce her new boyfriend to us; my mother is having them over for dinner and my father is even going to be home. I just told everybody I had a family thing I couldn’t get out of. I try to leave Finny out of our conversations as much as possible. It’s too weird for them to be reminded that the boy who is supposed to be one of our enemies at school is family to me at home.

The girls sled on our side while the boys argue among themselves about how to make the ramp more dangerous. The boys test the ramp then add more snow. They test it again and then add more snow. Finally, Jamie flies three feet in the air and crashes down again, and the ramp is dubbed a success.

The boys laugh when they tumble out of the sled headfirst. They laugh when they crash into each other. They laugh when they narrowly miss hitting a tree. They laugh at us for not trying out the ramp.

“Come on,” Jamie says. He scoots back in the sled to make room for me but I shake my head. He rolls his eyes and flies down again, nearly breaking his neck as he flips off the sled and onto the ground.

“That was awesome,” Alex shouts. The girls shudder.

As the afternoon passes, I persuade Jamie to go down with me a few times on what he calls “the girlie side of the hill.” He sits behind me and

wraps his arms around my waist and I lean back into his chest as the sled races down the hill. I like how the thrill of fear makes me instinctively grab at him. Jamie laughs at me for squealing and kisses my cheek at the bottom of the hill. His lips feel warm against my skin.

“Come down the ramp with me, please,” he says, drawing the last word out like a small child.

“No,” I say, just as childishly. He sighs and rolls his eyes again.

Sasha is the one to betray us. Alex calls for her just once and she says, “Oh fine,” and goes over to them. I stand at the bottom of the hill and watch as they balance awkwardly on the sled together. My eyes flicker to Jamie once. He is at the top, looking at them too.

Sasha screams and Alex laughs as they hit the ramp. With two of them they aren’t thrown as far in the air but the sled flips sideways when they hit the ground, and they skid across the snow face first. The boys cheer and laugh, and Alex helps Sasha up and brushes the snow from her hair.

“That was fun!” she says. Alex beams at the rest of us.

“Yeah, my girlfriend is the cool one,” he says. Brooke huffs and rolls her eyes to Noah. Angie shrugs. Jamie and I look at each other. His eyes are pleading. I stomp up the hill toward him.

“You have to be in front,” I say. Jamie smiles and holds the sled in place with his foot. I sit down and he jumps down in front of me. He reaches for my arms and locks them around his waist, and for a moment I feel less nervous.

“Hold on to me,” he says.

Jamie shifts his weight, inches the sled forward, and we’re smoothly flying. I bury my face in Jamie’s jacket. Suddenly we are jolted. My eyes squeeze tighter when I lose my grip on Jamie and I feel my body thrown into the air. The air is like ice in my throat as I gasp. Something hard and warm strikes my face just before I hit the ground. My surprise overcomes the pain for a moment, and then I realize that I am sitting up in the snow with my hands clamped over my eye. And it hurts.

“Autumn, oh fuck,” Jamie says. I hear the crunch of snow as the others run down the hill toward us. I take in a shuddering breath through my locked teeth. I find tears over physical pain so embarrassing.

“I’m fine,” I say without unlocking my jaw. It’s a reflex, but I know I’m not dying so it must be true enough. Mittens grab at me, trying to pull my hands away from my face. Instinctively I shy away from them, trying to protect my pain. “Don’t,” I say. I open my other eye to glare at the offender. Jamie and Sasha are kneeling in front of me, their faces close to mine. The others are standing behind them.

“You have to let us see,” Sasha says. My annoyance at her suddenly shifts to Jamie for making me go down the stupid ramp with him. I have a moment of fury. I hate it when he convinces me to do things I don’t want to, and then I remember that I’ll be embarrassed later if I behave emotionally. I slowly move my hand from my face. It’s an effort to fight the instinct to hide my injury. Everyone takes in a sharp breath and stares at me.

“It’s not that bad,” I say. No one answers me.

“Uh,” Jamie says. Sasha packs a fist full of snow together and tries to press it into my eye. I flinch away again.

“Oh man, Autumn,” Alex says. “You’re gonna have a black eye from Jamie’s head.”

“We have ice inside,” Noah says as I try to struggle away from Sasha’s ministrations. “Stop trying to smash snow into her face.”

“We have got to put something on it,” Jamie says. “It already looks awful.”

“I’m fine,” I say. I stand up and they grab my arms on either side. I let Jamie and Sasha lead me up the hill—our friends trailing behind us like a parade—and inside, where they sit me at the kitchen table. Brooke seems to consider Noah’s kitchen her territory; she sends him to get a washcloth while she fills a plastic bag with ice. The cloth is wrapped around the bag, and I am allowed to hide the hurt from them again as I press it to my face.

Jamie makes me get up so that he can sit in the chair and pull me into his lap.

“I’m fine,” I say again.

“Okay, okay, we believe you,” he says, and I’m relieved. He kisses me and cuddles me and I enjoy that. It’s starting to get dark out the window. The other boys go to bring the sleds inside and we talk about how horrible my bruise will be tomorrow, how long it will last, if it’s worth trying to cover it with makeup. I’m able to joke now, and they stop treating me as if I had just been handicapped. By the time Jamie and I leave to drop me off at home before everyone goes to the mall, my black eye has become a humorous story instead of cause for concern. Jamie wants me to tell everyone at school that he gave it to me to see their reactions. He thinks it will be funny.

“But you did give it to me,” I say. He pulls into the gravel driveway outside my house.

“I know. That’s the best part,” he says and grins. I scowl and start to roll my eyes, but the movement makes me wince. I remove my icepack to lean over and kiss him good-bye. He kisses me gently, just as he did in the kitchen in front of the others. “Sorry I hurt you, pretty girl,” Jamie says. He tweaks my nose. I smile and climb out of the car. I wave as he drives off. It’s dark now, and I can only see his headlights by the time he reaches the road.

The house glows warmly as I trudge across the snow toward the back door. There are voices inside, and I’m glad to have the visible bruises to explain my tardiness. I take the icepack from my face as I open the door.

“Oh there she—” My mother’s voice cries, and then I am again surrounded by faces, just as I had been in the other kitchen. Aunt Angelina, Finny, and my mother are the closest. My father and a stranger are behind them, looking over their shoulders. Mom takes my chin in her hand and tilts it upward. “Autumn,” her voice trills, “what happened?”

“We were sledding. Jamie hit me—” I say.

“What?” Finny says. He doesn’t shout it. He doesn’t need to. His narrowed eyes are enough to make me stumble over my words.

“—with his head when we hit a bump and fell out.”

“Are you okay?” Mom asks. “I’m fine,” I say.

“But how do you know for sure?” she says. Finny suddenly pushes his way closer to me.

“Are you dizzy?” he asks. “Blurred vision? Seeing spots?” I shake my head to all. “Can you follow my finger?” He drags his index finger back and forth in front of my face. I tear my eyes from his to obey his request. He nods.

“Okay,” he says, “and you’re not confused? You know who everybody is?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Well, except for him.” I motion to the stranger over his shoulder. Aunt Angelina laughs.

“This is Kevin, my boyfriend,” she says. “Kevin, this is my apparently abused goddaughter.”

“Hi,” I say. “Nice to meet you. Now seriously, can you guys stop freaking out? It happened over an hour ago. I’m clearly not going to die of a concussion or something.” Finny turns on his heel and marches out of the room. I wonder if I’ve offended him.

“Let’s get you an ice pack,” my father says. I hold up my plastic bag for him to see.

“Got one,” I say. “See? Everything is fine. I’m fine.” After another few minutes of questions and speculation, the crowd backs off and moves back to the casual positions I assume they had been in before. My mother examines my eye, sighs, and then orders me to sit down and have some guacamole with everyone while she finishes dinner. The grown-ups begin their conversation again. My mouth is full when Finny walks back into the room, so at first I cannot say anything when I see what he is carrying. He opens the freezer door. I swallow.

“Finny, is that my sock?” It’s yellow with dancing monkeys on it—it couldn’t be anyone else’s, but I still have to ask.

“Yeah,” he says. His face is hidden from me behind the freezer door. I hear the sound of ice cubes rattling against each other as he scoops them


“I already have ice,” I say.

“I know,” Finny says. “I saw. I’m making you a better one.”

“So, Finny,” Kevin says before I can protest. He’s leaning against the counter across the room looking at him. “How’d you know all the questions you asked Autumn?” I am guessing that he is glad to have something to talk to Finny about; he sounds pleased with himself.

“Soccer,” he says. He closes the freezer door and crosses the room to open the drawer next to Kevin. “Whenever a guy hits his head, Coach has to check for signs of a concussion.”

“Oh,” Kevin says. “I never knew soccer was a violent sport. I was a football man myself. Soccer looks tame to me.” I know that he’s hit on a sore spot for Finny, but it does not show on his face. He lets the faux pas pass and stretches my sock over the ice pack.

“It’s where I learned this too,” he says. He leans across the table and hands me the cold bundle. “That should be more comfortable,” he says to me. I gingerly hold it up to my face. He’s right—the rounded tip is far more ergonomic and holds the cold only against the places I need it. The soft sock is nice too.

“Thanks,” I say.

“You only want to leave that on for twenty minutes at a time,” he says. “Then give your skin a break for half an hour. You don’t want to damage the tissue.”

Aunt Angelina laughs.

“You sound like a doctor, Finn,” she says. “Maybe you have found your calling.”

I’m surprised when Finny shrugs. The last time Finny and I talked about careers, we were twelve and he wanted to be a professional soccer player. He’s good, but I suppose he must be considering something else by now. I’m still holding on to my black turtleneck and coffee shop vision from fourth grade. Of course, Jamie doesn’t want to move to New York, and he wants me to figure out a day job besides writing.


Dinner goes well enough. I don’t like Kevin as much as Craig, me and Finny’s favorite boyfriend from childhood, but he doesn’t give me a particular reason to dislike him either. I wonder what Finny thinks, but it’s impossible to tell—he’s always polite.

For the most part, the four adults talk and Finny and I listen. Kevin has messed up our normal seating arrangement, so Finny and I are sitting side by side. It’s been so long since we have eaten next to each other that we have forgotten I have to sit on his left; I’m left-handed and our elbows constantly knock into each other. It’s embarrassing and I try to ignore it, but I like feeling him so close.

After dinner, my father brings out the port, and Finny and I are excused to go watch TV. They are laughing behind us as we leave the dining room. Everyone else seems certain to like Kevin.

Finny and I settle on a sitcom and watch it in silence. Before, we would have been deciding why we hated Kevin. We disliked the boyfriends as a general rule; Craig was the only exception.

After an hour, I go into the kitchen to refill my sock with ice. As I’m filling it, I have a nagging feeling that there was something in my sock drawer that I wouldn’t want Finny to see. It’s odd knowing that he still feels comfortable enough to go into my room and take something of mine, but then I think I would do the same for him if he were hurt.

Finny looks over at me when I come back into the room.

“So, did it hurt?” he asks. I sit down next to him with four feet of space between us. I ignore the urge to sit closer. This is how Finny and I always sit now.

“Yeah,” I say. “A lot.”

“Let me guess. You didn’t cry, and you didn’t tell anyone how much it hurt?”

I shake my head. “Crying is embarrassing,” I say.

Finn smiles. “But if that greeting card commercial with the old lady comes on, you’ll tear up,” he says. I shrug and cover my face with the ice pack.

“That commercial is so sad,” I say.

“It has a happy ending,” he says. I shrug again. We fall silent. It’s Finny who speaks first again, when I take the ice off my eye twenty minutes later to not damage the tissue.

“I don’t think it’s as bad as before,” he says.

“Really?” I say. I touch my face tenderly. The swelling is down, but I don’t know how it looks.

“Yeah,” he says. “The ice is closing the capillaries, but the bruising will be worse tomorrow.”

“Maybe you should be a doctor,” I say.

Finny shrugs like he did before. “I’ve been thinking about it actually,” he says.

“Wow,” I say. “Just tonight or…” My voice trails off as I think about it. It makes sense now. Stoic, calm Finny who hates for anyone to suffer, even worms on the sidewalk.

“I’ve been thinking about it for a couple of months,” he says, “but I don’t know. I mean, not everyone discovers what they want to be during Job Week in fourth grade.” He smiles an affectionate smile and I have to look away.

“Well, I’ll have to figure out something more practical than that,” I say. “Why?” he asks. “You’re good.”

“You haven’t read anything I’ve written,” I say. I look back up at him again. He’s acting odd. I can’t remember the last time he teased me or smiled at me like that.

“I read the story you wrote in sixth grade,” he says. “That was good.” “That was sixth grade.”

Finny shrugs to show me how little that detail matters.

“You should be a writer,” he says. “You’ll find a way to make it.”

“It would be a lot to ask Jamie to support me so I could write,” I say. “I mean we’ll have kids and a house and stuff.” Finny frowns. The television has all but been forgotten. I don’t even know what is on the screen anymore.

“You think you’re going to marry him?” he says. I don’t like the way he’s looking at me now, his eyes narrowed like in the kitchen. I turn my face down again and look at the couch.

“We want to,” I say. “I mean, we know we’re young, but we can’t imagine ever breaking up.” There is a silence after I speak that startles me as much as if he had shouted something in return. I look back up at him. He’s staring at me. He must think I’m crazy for saying I’m going to marry my high school boyfriend. I feel a flush of heat spread across my cheeks.

“You really love him like that?” he says. I nod. “Huh.” He looks back at the TV but keeps talking. “So what will you do? I mean, if you’re not writing?”

“I thought about teaching,” I say. My voice picks up hopefully on the last word. I realize I want his approval. He frowns again but does not look at me.

“That doesn’t sound like you,” he says.

“Why not?” I say too quickly. “I could teach English like Mr.

Laughegan.” Finny is shaking his head.

“Teaching is too—” His frown deepens. “Teaching is too normal for you, Autumn,” he says. I shrug and look back at the TV too. When he speaks again, it is so quiet I’m not sure at first if he meant for me to hear it.

“Doesn’t sound like you at all,” he mumbles. “Teaching, a house, kids.

What happened to the turtlenecks and coffee?”

“That was a dream,” I say. “I have to accept reality.”

Accept when things are as good as they’re ever going to get, I mentally add but do not say. It doesn’t matter though. We watch the television without changing the channel or speaking. When he and his mother leave with Kevin an hour later, Finny only says a quick bye over his shoulder. I don’t look up to watch him go.


Later in my room, I remember what I wouldn’t want Finny to see in my sock drawer—the old framed photo of us that I hid in the top drawer last year before Jamie came over for the first time. I buried it at the bottom of the drawer and I’ve hardly seen it since that day. Now it’s sitting on top of the dresser, centered as if on display. I look at it hesitantly. My eyes linger over our easy smiles, our arms slung over each other’s shoulders.

I take the photo and bury it again. I close the drawer with both hands. I can’t afford to have him as a friend.

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