“That’s not true,” I said, shaking my head and fidgeting with my water glass.
Jojo breathed out a small laugh, and then began gathering her things. “Let’s go. You have work to do.”
Jojo dropped me off a block from the magazine, and I bent down, glaring at her through the open passenger side window. The exhaust was puffing from the back of her car, and my breath didn’t look much different.
“Really? Is this photography Survivor? It’s like nine degrees.”
Jojo waved at me. “There are some interesting things this way. I want to see how you see it.”
“See you in a bit,” she said with a shit-eating grin.
My camera was cold against my skin, and I struggled to change the settings with my stiff fingers while Jojo pulled away, heading for the back lot behind our building.
I turned around, seeing an old house, and leaned back to see the antennae. I took a practice shot and checked it, tuned the settings again, and took another. When the display filled with my shot, I smiled. Jojo was right. Automatic mode sucked ass. It was a world of difference knowing how the adjustments would affect the picture.
I walked down the road, away from the MountainEar, getting lost in taking shots and then watching how the quality changed with the different variations of ISO, shutter speed, and exposure time. I took close-ups of leaves with snow, roofs with snow, broken down cars covered in snow, windows panes with snow … There was a lot of snow in my shots, but I made it work.
“Did you get fired?” Tyler, or Taylor, said from across the street. “Zeke and I have a bet going how long you’ll last.” He was squinting one eye against the setting sun, and I turned around, noticing it was peeking behind the mountains. I pulled back my coat sleeve to look at my watch. I’d been outside in freezing temps for two and half hours and had barely noticed.
“Which one are you?” I asked, putting away my camera.
He chuckled. “Tyler. Are you an insurance adjuster or something?” he asked with a smile.
“They must be hurting for help,” he teased.
“Fuck off,” I said, turning to walk the three blocks back to my building. Tyler had been standing in front of his station. I hadn’t realized I’d walked that far, either.
“Hey,” he called. I could hear his boots sloshing against the wet street and crunching against the rock salt before he reached me. “I was kidding.”
“So was I,” I said, continuing down the sidewalk.
“So, um.” He shoved his hands in his tan cargo pants. “You and Paige…”
“There is no me and Paige.”
“No? Why? Someone said you and her might be … You like guys, right? I mean … you’d have to after the night we had. I just can’t figure you out.”
A grin slowly made its way across his face. “You, Ellie. I’m trying to figure you out.”
“I thought maybe this time it would be okay.”
His eyebrows pulled in. He was getting frustrated. “Do you, uh … still think about that night?”
“I still think about it.”
I took a breath, hoping I could exhale away how he made me feel. “We’ve talked about this,” I said, continuing my trek to the MountainEar.
“Ellie,” he said, chuckling nervously. “Could you stop and talk to me for just a second?”
I stopped, lifting my chin to meet his gaze. “So are you interested in me because I didn’t just fade away like the rest of your one-night stands, because of my father, or because I may or may not be into guys?”
“None of the above. Why are you being so difficult?”
“It was one night, Tyler. I was a different person then. I don’t want to be attracted to the sweaty fighter willing to take a drunk girl to bed anymore.”
He shoved his fists in his pockets and squinted one eye—that damned dimple in his cheek making another appearance. “You don’t want to be, but you are.”
He was so overconfident my insults didn’t faze him. He was too arrogant to believe me.
I kept walking. “You’re making this difficult. I’m trying to be clear. Just because I may not be at my strongest at the moment doesn’t mean I’m trying to send you mixed signals.”
“I’ve already taken you to bed. I was going to ask if you wanted to hang out.”
I stopped to scan his face, deciding if he was telling the truth or not. There was hope in his eyes, maybe a little bit of fear. Tyler was tall and bulky and wrestled with wildfires for a living, but he was scared of me, and with good reason. Behind all that muscle and badassery, Tyler was good, and that meant I was bad for him—even if I was better than I used to be.
He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “I’m off at ten tonight.”
“What about breakfast? You don’t have to be at work until nine, right?”
“Because I like to sleep in, genius.”
“Are you a bacon and eggs girl? Or pancakes?”
I frowned. They both sounded fantastic. A free breakfast was as good as a free dinner, and Sally had decided she wasn’t going to allow Maricela to add to the pantry until I spoke to my parents on the phone—which I didn’t plan to do … ever. I wasn’t turning my life around for them; I was doing it for Finley, and that meant I would soon be living on Ramen noodles unless Maricela took pity on me and brought over some of her famous tamales.
Free breakfast sounded perfect, but using someone for food, knowing he was interested in me, wasn’t being the good person I was trying to be. “No.”
“I’m sort of busy with myself. I’m sure you can find another girl to hang out with.”
My feet finally decided to complain about the cold three steps into my walk to the MountainEar. The door chimed when I pushed through the front door, fading while I stomped my boots on the mat.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were coming back,” Jojo said. Her bright smile faded. “Did you know Maddox is outside?”
I turned to see Tyler standing outside the door, his hands in his jacket pocket, waiting.
I pointed to the windows, demanding that he go back where he came from. He shook his head.
“How do you get rid of these guys? He’s like gum stuck to the bottom of my shoe.”
“I couldn’t tell you. I’m fairly certain Maddox has never waited outside in the cold for any girl. You should make him wait until he turns blue. You know … for the rest of us.” She held out her hand. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
I pulled the small card from the camera and handed it to her. Excitement lit her face as she inserted the card into the side of her monitor and sat, the wheels whining as she scooted her chair closer.
My fingers were red and frozen, and I wondered how they’d managed to work while outside for that long in sub-freezing temperatures. Quickly getting the right adjustments and shot became an obsession, making it easy to lose track of time. Even standing next to Jojo while she clicked through the hundreds of photos, I wanted to go back out and do it again.