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Chapter no 81

If He Had Been with Me

Finny sits on the living room couch while he reads off my computer screen. I read a book for a while, and the only sound in the room is the click of the keyboard as he scrolls down to the next page. Every time I hear it, I look at his face, but his face says nothing, nothing at all.

Around eleven, I turn on the TV and watch an old movie. Finny doesn’t comment. Just before the movie is over, he gets up. I hear him drink a glass of water in the kitchen. He walks back to the couch without looking at me. The movie ends and another starts, and Finny is still reading.

But he’s frowning now.

I stay awake for another hour, but my eyelids are heavy and my head is aching again. I turn off the TV, and Finny does not move. I stand and stretch, and he does nothing. I walk past him, out of the room, and up the stairs.

In Finny’s room, I crawl under his covers and lay my head on his pillow. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I thought I would feel jittery and want to bite my nails, but all I want to do is sleep; the act of giving it to him has exhausted me.

I sleep deeply, and I dream.

***

When I wake, it is either so quickly or so slowly that I cannot remember waking; I am just suddenly alert.

Finny is standing by the bed, his silhouette dark in the weak light. His hands are limp at his sides. I cannot see his face, but I do not doubt that he is looking at me. He says my name, and somehow I know that he is saying it for a second time.

“What?” I say. I sit up. My hair falls forward and I push it off my face and rub my eyes.

“Why did you have to leave me like that?” he says. “I was tired,” I say. “You were reading.”

“No,” he says. There is a slight tremble in his voice. “After we turned thirteen. Why did you have to leave like that?” The question hangs in the air between us, the way it always has.

“I didn’t leave,” I finally say. My words lack conviction; even I can hear it. “We just grew apart.” Finny shakes his head.

“We did not just grow apart, Autumn,” he says. “I didn’t mean to,” I say. “I’m sorry.”

“I already know why you did it,” he says. “I just want to know why you had to be so cruel about it.” My breath comes quicker.

“Okay, I was stupid and selfish that fall,” I say. “And I’m sorry. But everything would have gone back to normal if you hadn’t kissed me out of nowhere without even asking. Do you have any idea how much you scared me that night?”

“I scared you?”

“I wasn’t ready,” I say. I wipe at my eyes with one hand. “And I didn’t know what to think.” Finny sits down on the bed, but he doesn’t face me. I wrap my arms around my waist tightly and wait, but he doesn’t say anything. I push the covers off my lap and crawl toward him. I lean forward and try to find his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I hate myself for hurting you.” “I’m sorry too.”

“For what?”

“I’m sorry for kissing you.”

“Don’t say that,” I say. “Don’t say you’re sorry for that.”

Finny surprises me then; he laughs out loud and shakes his head. “I never know what to do to make you happy, do I?”

“You make me happier than any other person ever has,” I say, but he still won’t look at me.

“Do I?” he says. I nod.

“Every day,” I whisper. My heart beats fast and my fingers close into trembling fists. We are both quiet for a few moments. I hear a lone bird singing outside; it must be close to dawn. I wish I could see him better. He still isn’t looking at me.

“What if I kissed you right now?” he says. I can’t answer him at first; everything inside me has gone still. I tell myself to take a breath.

“That would make me happy,” I say.

It doesn’t happen smoothly. First, Finny shifts his position so that he is facing me, and then I sit up straighter. We pause there, and I have to tell myself to raise my face for him. He reaches over slowly like he thinks any second I’ll tell him to stop, and he lays his hand on the back of my head. I feel my whole body relax with his touch, and maybe he feels it too because it happens very quickly after that. Finny pulls me toward him and our noses bump. I turn my face to the side, and he presses his mouth against mine.

It’s warm, kissing Finny, and sort of like my whole body is being stroked with a feather. He puts his hand on my hip and I want to do something with my hands too. I lay one on his shoulder, and the other on his knee. Finny’s fingers tighten in my hair.

“Ow,” I say, and I flinch away from his hand even though I don’t want to, even though I want to pretend it doesn’t hurt.

“Sorry,” he says. Our noses are still touching but he isn’t kissing me. He starts to take his hands away.

“No, don’t stop,” I say. I pull on his shoulder. “Lie down with me.” I lean back onto his pillows.

“Oh God,” Finny says, and he crawls over me.

We kiss quickly at first, as if we’re trying to make up for lost time, and then long and slow, as if we’re daring each other to see who can last longer.

My hands are on his back, trying to hold him closer; his are on either side of my face, holding me still.

I don’t know how long we kiss like that; the only thing I am aware of besides him are the sounds I hear myself making from time to time; little sighs and moans like I have never made kissing anyone else.

It’s never felt like this before. It feels so natural.

It feels so right.

Finny.

I finally understand what’s been missing for me all these years.

After a while, he draws his hand slowly, really slowly, down my shoulder and across the side of my ribs. He holds my breast, gently.

My Finny.

My eyes are wet again, and I feel one tear trail down the corner of my eye, and then another and another, and I realize that there may never be another moment more perfect than this for the rest of my life.

“Finny?” I say.

He stops kissing me slowly and then raises his head more quickly to look down at me. “Yeah?” he breathes.

“I want…” I say, and then realize that I don’t know how to say it and the words trail off.

“Do you want me to stop?” he says.

“No!” I say. The thought fills me with panic and I speak quickly. “I want the opposite of that.” There is a moment of silence. I hold my breath.

“You want me to keep going?” he says. “Yes,” I say.

Finny blinks at me and stumbles over his next words. “I—I don’t have

—” he says.

“I don’t care,” I say. And I don’t. All I care about is not losing this moment with him.

“Autumn,” he says. “No—”

“Please, Finny,” I say. I lean up and kiss his neck, right under his ear. He gasps sharply and his body shudders. “Please, Finny,” I whisper between kisses. “Please. Please. Please.”

Our mouths finally find each other again. After a moment, he pushes his hand under my T-shirt and up to my bra. I reach down and try to pull my shirt over my head without moving my lips from his until I have to. If we stop kissing, we will have to talk about what we’re doing. He helps me and kisses me as I arch my back to unhook my bra.

I reach down and try to undo the button on his jeans, but I can’t. He stops kissing me and pushes my hands away. I think I’m going to die until I realize he is undoing it himself.

There just isn’t a way for two people on a bed to take off their jeans without being awkward and embarrassing. But it can still be perfect and wonderful too.

Finny sits up and pulls his shirt over his head. I can see all of him now, and for the first time, I am frightened. He looks down at me.

“Oh, Autumn,” he says. I reach down and try to shimmy out of my underwear without looking silly, but I probably don’t succeed. When they’re past my hips, he pulls them down and off my ankles and tosses them on the floor. He’s looking at me again. I feel like I’ve been tossed up in the air, and if I don’t grab on to him in time, I will fall back down again. I hold out my arms to him.

“Can I tell you that I love you first?” Finny says. I begin to fall slowly, slowly down.

“Yes,” I say. Finny leans over me again. One of his hands parts my thighs, and the other rests by my head.

“I love you,” Finny says in my ear. I feel him touching me there, with his hand and his other. “Oh God, I love you.” He pushes into me just a little; it’s a warning. I bury my face into his shoulder. “Oh God,” he says. “Autumn.”

I bite my lip and don’t cry out. He moves slowly at first, and I know that it’s for me; I can feel him holding back. It hurts, but not like I thought it

would. It isn’t a general blank pain; it’s contained and exact, just like being ripped apart. I can almost hear it.

“It’s okay, Finny,” I say. “I’m okay.” He groans then for the first time and moves faster. I close my eyes and rest my cheek against his. I think about lying in this room with him, drawing on each other’s backs. I think about sitting next to him on the couch and watching TV. He moans and my arms tighten around him. I think of his hands over mine on the steering wheel. I think of us shining our flashlights in each other’s windows at night. It isn’t long before I feel him suddenly stiffen. He cries out once and shudders. Tears sting my eyes again. Finny lets out a long breath and begins

to shift away. I whimper only when I feel him moving out of me. “Autumn?” he says. He looks down at my face.

“I love you too,” I say. “I forgot to tell you.” The tears spill over now, and Finny begins to kiss my eyelids and my forehead again and again.

“It’s okay. Don’t cry,” he says. His words rush together and blend with his kisses. He kisses my cheeks and my tears. “Don’t cry,” he says. “It’s okay.”

“Will you hold me?” I ask. He rolls off me and holds out his arms. I wipe my eyes and lay my head on his shoulder. His arms fold around me and he presses me close.

“Like this?” he says.

“Yeah,” I say. We’re quiet as our breathing slows to normal. I watch the light get brighter in the room. There are more birds singing now, a whole chorus.

“I can’t believe that just happened,” Finny says. I almost laugh but somehow don’t. A strange feeling is beginning to fill me now.

“Did you mean it when you said you loved me?” I ask. “Of course I did,” he says.

“You weren’t just saying that because it’s what the guy’s supposed to say?” He doesn’t answer me after that, and my stomach drops. Finny lets go of me and sits up on one elbow. My breathing halts.

“Come on, Autumn,” he says. He makes a sound that isn’t quite a laugh. “I know that you know I’ve been in love with you for forever. You don’t have to pretend.”

“What?” I say. He rolls his eyes.

“It’s okay,” Finny says. “I’ve always known that you knew.” I sit up on my elbows too, pulling the sheet up to cover me, and look back at him. We frown at each other. I try to make myself understand what he’s saying.

“What do you mean by ‘forever’?” I say.

“You know. Forever. Since we were, like, what? Eleven?” he asks. “Fifth grade? The year you punched Donnie Banks?”

“Yeah, you remember what Donnie Banks said.” “He called me a freak.”

“He said, ‘Your girlfriend is a freak,’” Finny says. “And he knew that you didn’t want to be my girlfriend. And that I did.”

“You liked me like that back then?” I say.

Finny looks like he finally understands what I’m saying. He sits up all the way.

“But isn’t that why you stopped hanging out with me in middle school?” he says. “Because you got tired of me wanting to be more than just friends?”

“No,” I say. “I had no idea you wanted anything like that.” “But after I kissed you, you knew,” he says.

“No. I didn’t know why you’d kissed me and it freaked me out. I thought maybe you were experimenting on me.” Finny looks at me again. His mouth is slightly open, his eyes hinting at a frown.

“But this doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “If you didn’t know, then why did you leave me?”

Now it’s my turn to look away from him.

“It just felt so nice not to be the weird girl anymore. I liked being popular. We did kinda grow apart that year. I’m not saying it’s not my fault. I’m just saying I didn’t mean for it to happen.”

“You really didn’t know?” Finny asks.

“No,” I say. “I really, really didn’t.”

Finny flops back down on the bed. He stares at the ceiling.

“And all these years I was terrified that you could tell I still…you know.”

“Still what?” I ask. “Still wanted you.”

“Really?” I say. He doesn’t answer me. He just stares at the ceiling with an expression that looks as confused as I feel. “What about Sylvie?” My voice has a hint of accusation in it, but I can’t help it. Finny surprises me by laughing bitterly.

“The only reason I started hanging out with the cheerleaders after soccer practice was because I thought they were still your friends. I thought that maybe I’d have a chance with you then, that maybe I’d be cool enough for you to see me like that. Then when the first day of high school came, you didn’t even say hi to me at the bus stop. And I found out that not only were you not their friend anymore, but you hated them. And then you started going out with Jamie, and Alexis was asking me why I was leading Sylvie on and I didn’t even know what she was talking about—” His voice trails off and he is quiet again. I’m too shocked to say anything this time. He’s still staring at the ceiling. I’m starting to feel cold without his arms around my shoulders. “Don’t think that I never cared about Sylvie, because I did,” Finny finally says. “She’s not really like what you think. And she needed me to take care of her when you didn’t anymore. I loved her, but I loved her differently from the way I’ve always loved you.”

“Oh, Finny,” I say. My voice is quiet, and I can’t find the words to say anything else. After a moment, he turns his face toward me but he does not meet my eyes.

“You said—you said that you loved me too.” He’s blushing, and I feel like I might faint.

“Yeah,” I say. “I do.” My voice is barely above a whisper and I cannot hide its tremble.

“Since when?” His voice matches my own.

“I dunno,” I say. “Maybe since forever too, but I didn’t admit it until two years ago.” He raises his eyes to mine and I collapse back down on the bed. He wraps his arms around me again and I curl into him. Finny hugs me so tightly that it almost hurts, and then I feel his whole body relax. I close my eyes and sigh. It’s so strange; it’s such a revelation, this feeling of skin to skin all the way down my body. I reach one hand out and try to find his heart. He lays his other hand on top on mine and strokes my knuckles with his thumb.

“So,” Finny says, but doesn’t continue. “What?” I say.

“It’s you and me now, right?”

“Phineas Smith, are you asking me to be your girlfriend?” I can’t help giggling.

“Well, yeah.” He shifts underneath me. “Is that weird?”

“Only because it feels like we’re already so much more than that.” He relaxes again. “Yeah, I know. But it’ll have to do for now.”

“You still have to break up with Sylvie,” I say quietly. “I know,” he says. “I’m going to. Tomorrow.”

“You mean today,” I say. He looks over at his window.

“Oh. Right.” He squeezes me again. “We should get some sleep, I guess.”

“Yeah. I guess.” I close my eyes, and we are quiet. The room is still and silent, and outside, the sun has risen on a hot August day.

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