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Chapter no 2 – CLARA

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Seventeen Years Later

I look at my passenger seat and cringe. As usual, there are crumbs of an unknown source caked in the crevices of the leather. I grab my backpack and toss it in the back seat, along with an old fast-food bag and two empty water bottles. I attempt to swipe the crumbs away. I think it might be pieces of banana bread that Lexie was eating last week. Or it could be the crumbs from the bagel she was eating on our way to school this morning.

Several graded papers are crumpled on my floorboard. I reach for them, swerving toward the ditch before righting the wheel and deciding to leave the papers where they are. A presentable car isn’t worth dying for.

When I reach the stop sign, I pause and give this decision the contemplation it deserves. I can keep driving toward my house, where my whole family is preparing for one of our traditional birthday dinners. Or I can do a U-turn and head back toward the top of the hill, where I just passed Miller Adams standing on the side of the road.

He’s avoided me for all of the last year, but I can’t leave someone I even sort of know stranded in this heat no matter how awkward it might be between us. It’s almost one hundred degrees outside. I have the air conditioner on, but beads of sweat are sliding down my back, being soaked up by my bra.

Lexie wears her bra for an entire week before washing it. She says she just douses it in deodorant every morning. To me, wearing a bra twice before washing it is almost as bad as wearing the same pair of underwear two days in a row.

Too bad I don’t apply the same philosophy of cleanliness to my car that I apply to my bras.

I sniff the air, and my car smells of mildew. I debate spraying a bit of the deodorant I keep in my console, but if I decide to turn the car around and offer Miller a ride, my car will smell like freshly sprayed deodorant, and I’m not sure which is worse. A car that effortlessly smells like mildew or a car that purposefully smells like fresh deodorant to cover up the smell of mildew.

Not that I’m trying to impress Miller Adams. It’s hard for me to worry about the opinion of a guy who seems to go out of his way to avoid me. But I do, for some reason.

I never told Lexie this because it embarrasses me, but at the beginning of this year, Miller and I were assigned lockers next to each other. That lasted all of two hours before Charlie Banks started using Miller’s locker. I asked Charlie if his locker had been reassigned, and he told me Miller offered him twenty bucks to switch lockers.

Maybe it had nothing to do with me, but it felt personal. I’m not sure what I did to make him dislike me, and I try not to care about his feelings behind his avoidance of me. But I don’t like that he doesn’t like me, so I’ll be damned if I pass him up and offer validation to his feelings, because I’m nice, dammit! I’m not this terrible person he seems to think I am.

I make the U-turn. I need his impression of me to change, even if it’s merely for selfish reasons.

When I approach the top of the hill, Miller is standing next to a road sign, holding his cell phone. I don’t know where his car is, and he certainly isn’t on this road because he’s out for a casual run. He’s wearing a pair of faded blue jeans and a black T-shirt, each a death sentence of their own in this heat, but . . . paired together? Heatstroke is a strange way to want to go out, but to each his own.

He’s watching me as I loop my car around and park behind him. He’s about five feet away from the front of my car, so I can see the smirk on his face when he slides his cell phone into his back pocket and looks up at me.

I don’t know if Miller realizes what his attention (or lack thereof) can do to a person. When he looks at you, he does it in such a way that it makes you feel like the most interesting thing he’s ever seen. He puts his entire body into the look, somehow. He leans forward, his eyebrows draw together in curiosity, he nods his head, he listens, he laughs, he frowns. His expressions while he listens to people are captivating. Sometimes I watch him from afar as he holds conversations with people

—secretly envious they’re getting his rapt attention. I’ve always

wondered what a full-on conversation would be like with him. Miller and I have never even had a conversation one-on-one, but there have been times I’ve caught him glancing at me in the past, and even a simple one- second graze of his attention can send a shiver through me.

I’m starting to think maybe I shouldn’t have made the U-turn, but I did and I’m here, so I roll down my window and swallow my nerves. “It’s at least another thirteen days before the next Greyhound. Need a ride?”

Miller stares at me a moment, then looks behind him at the empty roadway, as if he’s waiting for a better option to come along. He wipes sweat from his forehead; then his focus lands on the sign he’s gripping.

The anticipation swirling around in my stomach is a clear signal that I care a lot about the opinion of Miller Adams, as much as I can try and convince myself that I don’t.

I hate that things are weird between us, even though nothing has happened that I’m aware of that would make them weird. But the way he avoids me makes it feel like we’ve had issues in the past, when really, we’ve had no interaction at all. It almost feels similar to breaking up with a guy and then not knowing how to navigate a friendship with him after the breakup.

As much as I wish I didn’t care to know anything about him, it’s hard not to want attention from him because he’s unique. And cute. Especially right now, with his Rangers cap turned backward and wisps of dark hair peeking out from beneath it. He’s long overdue for a haircut. He usually keeps it shorter, but I noticed when we started back to school that it got a lot longer over the summer. I like it like this. I like it short too.

Shit. I’ve been paying attention to his hair? I feel I’ve subconsciously betrayed myself.

He’s got a sucker in his mouth, which isn’t unusual. I find his addiction to suckers amusing, but it also gives off a cocky vibe. I don’t feel like insecure guys would walk around eating candy as much as he does, but he always shows up to school eating a sucker and usually has one in his mouth at the end of lunch.

He pulls the sucker out of his mouth and licks his lips, and I feel every bit of the sweaty sixteen-year-old that I am right now.

“Can you come here for a sec?” he asks.

I’m willing to give him a ride, but getting back out in this heat was not part of the plan.

“No. It’s hot.”

He waves me over. “It’ll only take a few minutes. Hurry, before I get caught.”

I really don’t want to get out of my car. I’m regretting turning around, even if I am finally getting the conversation with him I’ve always wanted.

It’s a toss-up, though. Conversation with Miller comes a close second to the cold blast from my car’s air conditioner, so I roll my eyes dramatically before exiting my vehicle. I need him to understand the huge sacrifice I’m making.

The fresh oil from the pavement sticks to the bottom of my flip- flops. This road has been under construction for several months, and I’m pretty sure my shoes are now ruined because of it.

I lift one of my feet and look at the bottom of my tarred shoe, groaning. “I’m sending you a bill for new shoes.”

He looks at my flip-flops questionably. “Those aren’t shoes.”

I glance at the sign he’s hanging on to. It’s the city limit sign, held erect by a makeshift wooden platform. The platform is held down by two huge sandbags. Because of the road construction, none of the signs on this highway are cemented into the ground.

Miller wipes beads of sweat off his forehead and then reaches down and lifts one of the sandbags, holding it out to me. “Carry this and follow me.”

I grunt when he drops the sandbag into my arms. “Follow you where?”

He nudges his head in the direction I came from. “About twenty feet.” He puts his sucker back in his mouth, picks up the other sandbag and tosses it effortlessly over his shoulder, then begins to drag the sign behind him. The wooden platform scratches against the pavement, and tiny pieces of wood splinter off.

“Are you stealing the city limit sign?” “Nope. Just moving it.”

He continues walking while I stand still, staring at him as he drags the sign. The muscles in his forearms are pulled tight, and it makes me wonder what the rest of his muscles look like under this much strain. Stop it, Clara! The sandbag is making my arms sore, and the lust is chipping away at my pride, so I reluctantly begin following him the twenty feet.

“I was only planning on offering you a ride,” I say to the back of his head. “I never intended to be an accomplice in whatever this is.”

Miller props the sign upright, drops his sandbag on the wooden slats, and then takes the other sandbag from my arms. He drops it in place and straightens the sign out so that it’s facing the right way. He pulls the sucker back out of his mouth and smiles. “Perfect. Thank you.” He wipes a hand on his jeans. “Can I catch a ride home? I swear it got ten degrees hotter on my walk here. I should have brought my truck.”

I point up at the sign. “Why did we just move this sign?”

He turns his ball cap around and pulls the bill of it down to block more of the sun. “I live about a mile that way,” he says, throwing a thumb over his shoulder. “My favorite pizza place won’t deliver outside the city limits, so I’ve been moving this sign a little every week. I’m trying to get it to the other side of our driveway before they finish construction and cement it back into the ground.”

“You’re moving the city limit? For pizza?”

Miller begins walking toward my car. “It’s just a mile.” “Isn’t tampering with roadway signs illegal?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

I start following him. “Why are you moving it a little at a time?

Why not just move it to the other side of your driveway right now?”

He opens the passenger door. “If I move it in small increments, it’s more likely to go unnoticed.”

Good point.

Once we’re inside my car, I remove my tarred flip-flops and turn up the air-conditioning. My papers crumple beneath Miller’s feet as he fastens his seat belt. He bends down and picks up the papers, then proceeds to flip through them and peruse my grades.

“All As,” he says, moving the pile of papers to the back seat. “Does it come natural, or do you study a lot?”

“Wow, you’re nosy. And it’s a little of both.” I start to pull the car onto the road when Miller opens the console and peeks inside. He’s like a curious puppy. “What are you doing?”

He pulls out my can of deodorant. “For emergencies?” He grins and then pops open the lid, sniffing it. “Smells good.” He drops it back into the console, then pulls out a pack of gum and takes a piece, then offers one to me. He’s offering me a piece of my own gum.

I shake my head, watching as he inspects my car with rude curiosity. He doesn’t eat the gum because he still has a sucker in his mouth, so he slides it into his pocket and then begins to flip through songs on my radio. “Are you always this intrusive?”

“I’m an only child.” He says it like it’s an excuse. “What are you listening to?”

“My playlist is on shuffle, but this particular song is by Greta Van Fleet.”

He turns up the volume just as the song ends, so nothing is playing. “Is she any good?”

“It’s not a she. It’s a rock band.”

The opening guitar riff from the next song blares through the speakers, and a huge smile spreads across his face. “I was expecting something a little more mellow!” he yells.

I look back at the road, wondering if this is who Miller Adams is all the time. Random, nosy, maybe even hyper. Our school isn’t massive, but he’s a senior, so I don’t have any classes with him. But I know him well enough to recognize his avoidance of me. I’ve just never been in this type of situation with him. Up close and personal. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this isn’t it.

He reaches for something tucked between the console and his seat, but before I realize what it is, he already has it open. I snatch it from him and toss it in the back seat.

“What was that?” he asks.

It’s a folder with all my college applications, but I don’t want to discuss it because it’s a huge point of contention between my parents and me. “It’s nothing.”

“Looked like a college application to a theater department. You’re already sending in college applications?”

“You are seriously the nosiest person I’ve ever met. And no. I’m just collecting them because I want to be prepared.” And hiding them in my car because my parents would flip if they knew how serious I am about acting. “Have you not applied anywhere yet?”

“Yeah. Film school.” Miller’s mouth curls up in a grin.

Now he’s just being facetious.

He begins tapping his hands on my dash in beat to the music. I’m trying to keep my eyes on the road, but I feel pulled to him. Partly because he’s enthralling, but also because I feel like he needs a babysitter.

He suddenly jolts upright, his spine straight, and it makes me tense up because I have no idea what just startled him. He pulls his phone out of his back pocket to answer a call I didn’t hear come through over the music. He hits the power button on my stereo and pulls the sucker out of his mouth. There’s barely anything left of it. Just a tiny little red nub.

“Hey, babe,” he says into the phone.

Babe? I try not to roll my eyes.

Must be Shelby Phillips, his girlfriend. They’ve been dating for about a year now. She used to go to our school but graduated last year and goes to college about forty-five minutes from here. I don’t have an issue with her, but I’ve also never interacted with her. She’s two years older than me, and although two years is nothing in adult years, two years is a lot in high school years. Knowing Miller is dating a college girl makes me sink into my seat a little. I don’t know why it makes me feel inferior, as if attending college automatically makes a person more intellectual and interesting than a junior in high school could ever be.

I keep my eyes on the road, even though I want to know every face he makes while on this phone call. I don’t know why.

“On the way to my house.” He pauses for her answer and then says, “I thought that was tomorrow night.” Another pause. Then, “You just passed my driveway.”

It takes me a second to realize he’s talking to me. I look at him, and he’s got his hand over his phone. “That was my driveway back there.”

I slam on the brakes. He catches the dash with his left hand and mutters “Shit” with a laugh.

I was so caught up in eavesdropping on his conversation I forgot what I was doing.

“Nah,” Miller says into the phone. “I went for a walk, and it got really hot, so I caught a ride home.”

I can hear Shelby on the other end of the line say, “Who gave you a ride?”

He looks at me for a beat and then says, “Some dude. I don’t know.

Call you later?”

Some dude? Somebody’s got trust issues.

Miller ends the call just as I’m pulling into his driveway. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen his house. I’ve known whereabouts he lived, but I’ve never actually laid eyes on the home due to rows of trees that line the driveway, hiding what lies beyond the white gravel.

It’s not what I expected.

It’s an older house, very small, wood framed and in severe need of a paint job. The front porch holds the quintessential swing and two rocking chairs, which are the only things about this place that hold appeal.

There’s an old blue truck in the driveway and another car—not as old but somehow in worse shape than the house—that sits to the right of

the house on cinder blocks, weeds grown up the sides of it, swallowing the frame.

I’m kind of taken aback by it. I don’t know why. I guess I just imagined he lived in some grandiose home with a backyard pond and a four-car garage. People at our school can be harsh and seem to judge a person’s popularity on the combination of looks and money, but maybe Miller’s personality makes up for his lack of money because he seems popular. I’ve never known anyone to talk negatively about him.

“Not what you were expecting?”

His words jar me. I put the car in park when I reach the end of the driveway and do my best at pretending nothing about his home shocks me. I change the subject entirely, looking at him with narrowed eyes.

“Some dude?” I ask, circling back to how he referred to me on his phone call.

“I’m not telling my girlfriend I caught a ride with you,” he says. “It’ll turn into a three-hour interrogation.”

“Sounds like a fun and healthy relationship.” “It is, when I’m not being interrogated.”

“If you hate being interrogated so much, maybe you shouldn’t be tampering with the city limit.”

He’s out of the car when I say that, but he leans down to look at me before he closes the door. “I won’t mention you were an accomplice if you promise not to mention I’m adjusting the city limit.”

“Buy me new flip-flops, and I’ll forget today even happened.”

He grins as if I amuse him, then says, “My wallet is inside. Follow

me.”

I was only kidding, and based on the condition of the home he lives

in, I’m not about to take cash from him. But it seems like we somehow developed this sarcastic rapport, so if I suddenly become sympathetic and refuse his money, I feel it might be insulting. I don’t mind insulting him in jest, but I don’t want to actually insult him. Besides, I can’t protest because he’s already walking toward his house.

I leave my flip-flops in the car, not wanting to track tar into his house, and follow him barefooted up the creaky steps, noticing the rotting wood on the second step. I skip over that step.

He notices.

When we walk into the living room, Miller discards his tarred shoes by the front door. I’m relieved to see the inside of the home fares better than the outside. It’s clean and organized, but the decor is ruthlessly trapped in the sixties. The furniture is older. An orange felt couch with

your standard homemade afghan draped over the back faces one wall. Two green, extremely uncomfortable-looking chairs face the other. They look midcentury, but not in a modern way. Quite the opposite, actually. I have a feeling this furniture hasn’t been changed out since it was purchased, long before Miller was even born.

The only thing that looks fairly new is a recliner facing the television, but its occupant looks older than the furniture. I can only see a portion of his profile and the top of his balding, wrinkled head, but what little hair he does have is a shiny silver. He’s snoring.

It’s hot inside. Almost hotter than it is outside. The air I’m gently sucking in is warm and smells of bacon grease. The living room window is raised, flanked by two oscillating fans pointed at the man. Miller’s grandfather, probably. He looks too old to be his father.

Miller passes through the living room and heads toward a hallway. It begins to weigh on me, the fact that I’m following him to take his money. It was only a joke. Now it feels like an extremely pathetic show of my character.

When we reach his bedroom, he pushes open the door, but I remain in the hallway. I feel a breeze sweep through his room and reach me. It lifts the hair from my shoulder, and even though the breeze is warm, I find relief in it.

My eyes scroll around Miller’s room. Again, it is not reminiscent of the condition of the outside of his home. There’s a bed, full-size, flush against the far wall. He sleeps there. Right there, in that bed, tossing about in those white sheets at night. I force myself to look away from the bed, up at a huge poster of the Beatles hanging where a headboard would normally be. I wonder if Miller is a fan of older music, or if the poster has been here since the sixties, much like the living room furniture. The house is so old I wouldn’t doubt it if this was his grandfather’s room as a teenager.

But what really catches my eye is the camera on his dresser. It’s not a cheap camera. And there are several different-size lenses next to it. It’s a setup that would make an amateur photographer envious. “You like photography?”

He follows my line of sight to the camera. “I do.” He pulls open the top drawer of his dresser. “But my passion is film. I want to be a director.” He glances at me. “I’d kill to go to UT, but I doubt I can get a scholarship. So community college it is.”

I thought he was making fun of me in the car, but now that I’m looking around his room, it’s sinking in that he really might have been

telling me the truth. There’s a stack of books next to his bed. One of them is by Sidney Lumet called Making Movies. I walk over and pick it up, flipping through it.

“You’re really nosy,” he mimics.

I roll my eyes and set the book down. “Does the community college even have a film department?”

He shakes his head. “No. But it could be a stepping-stone to somewhere that does.” He walks closer to me, holding a ten-dollar bill between his fingers. “Those shoes are five bucks at Walmart. Go crazy.”

I hesitate, no longer wanting to take the money from him. He sees my hesitation. It makes him sigh, frustrated; then he rolls his eyes and shoves the bill in the front left pocket of my jeans. “The house is shit, but I’m not broke. Take the money.”

I swallow hard.

He just stuck his fingers in my pocket. And I can still feel them, even though they’re no longer there.

I clear my throat and force a smile. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

He tilts his head. “Was it? Because you look hella guilty for taking my money.”

I’m usually a better actress than this. I’m disappointing myself.

I walk toward his doorway, even though I’d love a better look at his bedroom. “No guilt here. You ruined my shoes. You owed me.” I back out of his room and begin to walk down the hallway, not expecting him to follow me, but he does. When I reach the living room, I pause. The old man is no longer in the recliner. He’s in the kitchen, standing next to the refrigerator, twisting the lid off a water bottle. He eyes me with curiosity as he takes a sip.

Miller sidesteps around me. “You take your meds, Gramps?”

He calls him Gramps. It’s kind of adorable.

Gramps looks at Miller with a roll of his eyes. “I’ve taken ’em every damn day since your grandma skipped town. I’m not an invalid.”

Yet,” Miller quips. “And Grandma didn’t skip town. She died of a heart attack.”

“Either way, she left me.”

Miller looks at me over his shoulder and winks. I’m not sure what the wink is for. Maybe to ease the fact that Gramps seems a little like Mr. Nebbercracker, and Miller is assuring me that he’s harmless. I’m beginning to think this is where Miller gets his sarcasm from.

“You’re a nag,” Gramps mutters. “Twenty bucks says I outlive you

and your entire generation of Darwin Award recipients.”

Miller laughs. “Careful, Gramps. Your mean side is showing.” Gramps eyes me for a moment, then looks back at Miller. “Careful,

Miller. Your infidelity is showing.”

Miller laughs at that jab, but I’m kind of embarrassed by it. “Careful, Gramps. Your varicose veins are showing.”

Gramps tosses the water bottle lid and hits Miller square in the cheek with it. “I’m rescinding your inheritance in my will.”

“Go ahead. You always say the only thing you have worth any value is air.”

Gramps shrugs. “Air you won’t be inheriting now.”

I finally laugh. I wasn’t positive their banter was friendly before the lid toss.

Miller picks up the lid and fists it in his palm. He motions toward me. “This is Clara Grant. She’s a friend of mine from school.”

A friend? Okay. I give Gramps a small wave. “Nice to meet you.” Gramps tilts his head down a little, looking at me very seriously.

“Clara Grant?” I nod.

“When Miller was six years old, he shit his pants at the grocery store because the automatic flusher on public toilets terrified him.”

Miller groans and opens the front door, looking at me. “I should have known better than to bring you inside.” He motions for me to head outside, but I don’t.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to leave,” I say, laughing. “I kind of want to hear more stories from Gramps.”

“I’ve got plenty,” Gramps says. “In fact, you’ll probably love this one. I have a video from when he was fifteen and we were at the school

—”

Gramps!” Miller snaps, quickly cutting him off. “Take a nap. It’s been five minutes since your last one.” Miller grabs my wrist and pulls me out of the house, closing the door behind him.

“Wait. What happened when you were fifteen?” I’m hoping he finishes that story, because I need to know.

Miller shakes his head and actually seems a little embarrassed. “Nothing. He makes up shit.”

I grin. “No, I think you’re the one making up shit. I need that story.”

Miller puts a hand on my shoulder and urges me toward the porch steps. “You’re never getting it. Ever.”

“You aren’t aware of my persistence. And I like your grandpa. I might start visiting him,” I tease. “Once the city limit is moved, I’ll order a pepperoni-and-pineapple pizza and listen to your gramps tell embarrassing stories about you.”

Pineapple? On pizza?” Miller shakes his head in mock disappointment. “You aren’t welcome here anymore.”

I walk down the steps, skipping the rotted one again. When I’m safe on the grass, I turn around. “You can’t dictate who I get to be friends with. And pineapple on pizza is delicious. It’s the perfect combination of sweet and salty.” I pull out my phone. “Does your gramps have Instagram?”

Miller rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “See you at school, Clara.

Don’t ever come back to my house again.”

I’m laughing as I walk back to my car. When I open the car door and turn around, Miller is looking down at his phone. He never once looks back at me. When he disappears inside his house, an Instagram notification pings through on my phone.

Miller Adams started following you.

I smile.

Maybe it’s all been in my head.

Before I’m even out of the driveway, I’m dialing Aunt Jenny’s number.

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