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Chapter no 57

If He Had Been with Me

All day, The Mothers made a big deal about this being our last Christmas before we leave for college, and Finny and I had to not roll our eyes or laugh when they got sentimental. Sometimes our eyes would meet, and we gave each other silent warnings not to give in and snort or sigh in reply to them. We didn’t see how things could be so different next year, and they were ridiculous and maudlin in our eyes.

My parents gave me a laptop. Good for schoolwork, they said. Good for writing, I thought. I’ve started something new, something secret, and now I can carry that secret thing with me wherever I go, bouncing against my hip in my messenger bag.

Finny got a sound system for the little red car from his father. He was never that much into music, but he shrugged and kind of smiled.

***

We’re sitting on the couch watching TV with the lights off. Christmas is at Aunt Angelina’s this year. The pine tree by the window sometimes blinks randomly in one section or another, but never all at once or to any rhythm. Finny had tried to find the problem and fix it, but then Aunt Angelina decided she liked it. Because of the tree, the light in the room dances across the ceiling and makes the windows darken and flash again. Finny has the remote. He flips through the channels until he finds It’s a Wonderful Life. He sets the remote down on the coffee table, leans back against the cushions, and stretches his long legs out in front of him.

At Thanksgiving, when he got up in the evening to leave us for his new other family, our eyes met briefly but we did not say anything. Without him, I sat in the corner with a book and went upstairs early. Nothing about his evening came to me through The Mothers and he did not say anything about it in gym class. All I know is that he isn’t leaving us tonight.

The Mothers laugh in the kitchen and Jimmy Stewart falls in the swimming pool. We both smile, and the movie fades into a commercial break. I stand up.

“Do you want a Coke?” I say. “Sure,” he says.

I kick his foot. “You’re blocking traffic with those things,” I say, and he folds his legs back and stretches them out again after me like a toll booth.

Those legs took our school to state soccer finals this fall. I went to their last game with The Mothers and got to watch him running for an hour and a half. The muscles in his legs, the way he lifted his shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, the concentration in his eyes as he ran—it made my chest constrict. I felt as if I would never see him play again, and I somehow knew they wouldn’t win the game, that they wouldn’t make it to championships, and this would be Finny’s last game ever. Finny’s last game in high school, I amended in my mind, but my chest still hurt when the whistle blew and he trudged across the field in defeat.

In the kitchen, my mother is checking on the lamb, and Aunt Angelina is pouring a glass of wine.

“Twenty more minutes,” Mom says.

“I’m just here for Cokes,” I say. Aunt Angelina reaches on top of the fridge and gets them down for me. I take a warm can in each hand. Finny and I like to drink our sodas out of unrefrigerated cans; sometime around third grade, we got the idea that there was something wild and rebellious about drinking soda straight from the can, and for years we refused to drink it any other way. It’s habit now. Jamie thinks it’s odd, probably because I have never given him an explanation, not that the real one would help. He

still offers the opinion, whenever it comes up, that my relationship with Finny is weird.

“Throw it,” Finny says when I come back. He holds out his hands.

“Do you have a death wish or something?” I say. I cross the room and place the can in his hands.

“Nah. Even if you hit my head, you couldn’t throw it hard enough to do any real damage.” I sit down on my side of the couch and open my can. He’s probably right. I’m taking my first sip when he speaks, and he’s too quiet for me to hear.

“What was that?”

Finny clears his throat. “I’m going to miss gym class with you,” he says. “You mean you’re going to miss laughing at me in gym class?”

“No. I mean I’m going to miss hanging out with you.”

A lump forms in my throat. I shrug, smile, and try to speak around it. “We see each other all the time. We have dinner with The Mothers, like, twice a week.”

“I know,” Finny says. He looks down at his can. “But I dunno. We should hang out sometime when we don’t have to. Go see a movie or something.”

“Um,” I say. I’m looking away again now. I feel warm and fluttery inside. I cannot say anything. Perhaps it is possible for us to have come full circle, from as close as two people can be to awkward strangers to nearly friends to—

To what?

What could we, would we, be now? It’s possible to love two people at once, but could it be possible to stay loyal to one?

I look up at his face, his flushed cheeks and nervous blue eyes, and I want to say “Sure.” I want it too much.

“I’m not sure, Finny,” I say. Even allowing myself to say his name hurts. “I don’t know if Jamie would like it. It might be kinda weird.”

“But I thought Jamie and Sasha hung out all the time?” “Yeah, they do,” I say. “But they’re friends—”

I flinch, and I can’t speak anymore. I stare straight ahead and try to breathe without trembling.

“I see,” Finny says. I hear my mother’s cell phone ring in the kitchen. I take a deep breath and stand up.

“It’s probably almost time for dinner,” I say. Finny watches the TV and says nothing. I step around the coffee table and walk as quickly as I can out of the room.

In the bathroom, I sit on the edge of the tub and press the heels of my hands into my eyes until I see strange shapes in the darkness. My fingers tremble in my hair.

“Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t,” I whisper. “Finny! Autumn!” Aunt Angelina calls.

Finny and I meet in the hall and say nothing. We walk into the dining room together and stop at the threshold. An hour ago, Finny and I set the table for five. Aunt Angelina is taking off the china and silverware from one seat. She carries them into the kitchen. My mother sets the rack of lamb on the table and sits down with her hands in her lap.

“Mom?” I ask. “Where’d Dad go?”

“I don’t know, honey,” she says. “But he just called to say he won’t be coming back tonight.”

“Oh,” I say.

Aunt Angelina comes back into the room and puts her hand on my mother’s shoulder.

“Come on and sit down, kids,” she says. Her voice and face plead with us. Finny takes a step forward but I don’t. He turns and looks at me. Our eyes meet. He reaches out and lays his hand on my arm.

“Come on, Autumn,” he says. He squeezes gently and kind of smiles. “Okay,” I say.

Aunt Angelina and Finny talk for us while we eat. Afterward, The Mothers close themselves in the kitchen and Finny and I watch TV until midnight. We don’t say anything else to each other.

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