The bell rings over the door and a few customers look up, smiling vaguely before returning to their browsing. Behind the counter, Not-Joe waves with a smile that slowly flattens.
“Hey,” he says, putting down the book he’s reading.
And now what do I do? Pretend that I was just here to buy a couple of books?
“Is Oliver around?” I ask, immediately giving up on pretense.
Not-Joe’s expression grows uncomfortable, and he looks toward the door. “You just missed him.”
“Okay, thanks.” I turn, walking down the manga aisle, trying to decide whether I call him, or just go to his house and tell him I’m an idiot and I don’t really want to break up, or even take a pause, and can we please just pretend that never happened?
I’m flipping absently through a book when I feel someone come up behind me.
“Okay,” Not-Joe says quietly. “What the fuck is going on?”
I put the book back on the shelf, turning to face him. “What do you mean?”
“With me and Oliver?” I ask. I mean . . . it’s not really Not-Joe’s business, but when has that ever stopped him from wanting to know? He nods. “I don’t know,” I tell him. “We had a little fight, and I wanted to try to talk to him.”
“The reason I ask,” he says, brows furrowed, “the reason I am confused,” he clarifies, “is that he just left with Hard Rock Allison.”
“They went to get dinner.”
I ZOMBIE-WALK HOME, eat some Rice Krispies out of the box, and put on my headphones, working like a maniac until three in the morning. It’s like I’ve hit a switch where I can’t even think about what Not-Joe told me, or I will completely unravel.
When I wake around seven, I stumble to my computer and stare at the screen, squeezing my eyes closed and then open, trying to clear them.
Nothing. Nothing comes to me. I need food. I need fresh air.
London is making coffee in the kitchen, and pours me a cup when I walk in, wordlessly handing it to me.
My phone buzzes in my hand and I look down to a message from London in the group text box with me, Harlow, and Mia: She’s up.
I glance up at London. “It’s . . . seven thirteen. Have you guys been waiting for me to get out of bed?”
I stare at my phone and then put it down on the coffee table, picking up my mug instead. I can’t deal with Harlow quite yet.
London walks around the counter and into the living room. “Are you going to come?”
“It means probably not.” I wince apologetically. “I have to work.”
She sits down next to me on the couch, and for the first time since I’ve known her, London’s eyes aren’t smiling. “You’ve been out of that room for a grand total of an hour and a half since Saturday night. It’s Thursday.”
I nod, taking a sip of coffee. “I’m getting caught up. It’s good.”
“Look,” she begins, “you don’t get to pretend you’re just fine and also not talk to anyone. If you’re sad, tell me to stay home with you so you can talk my ear off. If you won’t talk to us, just keep pretending that being a crazy, work-obsessed hermit is normal, but get your ass to the bar for one fucking evening.”
“Yes,” she says. “Your friend Oliver is going.”
I lean back against the couch and close my eyes. My heart is already racing two hundred beats per second.
TONIGHT IT TAKES me forever to get ready. Am I furious or guilty? I have no idea.
I do know that I have a closet full of new clothes I’ve bought for book signings and appearances and who knows what but I hate them all. One dress is too short, another is too long, another is too tight. Do I show off cleavage or keep it all hidden? Do I look grubby to show him I don’t give a crap who else he goes out with, or do I put in the effort to look amazing?
Finally I pull on a black V-neck sweater (some cleavage) and my favorite jeans with boots. My hair is longer than it’s ever been—halfway down my back—and instead of a ponytail or easy bun, I leave it long and straight. I keep it tucked behind my ears, but at least it gives me something to hide behind if I need it. I’ve never worn much makeup—never had need for foundation or powder—and tonight all I put on is lip gloss.
I hate kissing with it on; it’s the chastity belt for innocent drunk kisses with men I desperately love but who maybe went on a maybe-date with someone else last night.
The gang is situated in the regular booth toward the back when I arrive. I see Ansel, Mia, Finn, Not-Joe, London, and Oliver, whose back is to me and whose broad shoulders I assume are blocking Harlow from my view, because I can hear her laugh from clear across the bar.
My stomach crawls up my throat. I wave hello to Fred and stand at the side of the booth, waiting for Oliver to notice and let me in. It’s a bit like watching dominoes fall as everyone sees me in succession, smiling instinctively before the smiles crumple as they remember, and they turn to look at Oliver.
I swear my heart is going to beat its way out of my chest.