Alex, Approximately: Chapter 25


“The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

—Katharine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story (1940)


I text.

I call.

I text.

I call.

He doesn’t respond.

Grace tries, too, but he doesn’t answer her, either. “I’m sure it’s some stupid misunderstanding,” she assures me. But I’m pretty positive she doesn’t believe that.

After Grace goes home, I continue to replay the entire porch conversation in my head, looking for clues, trying to remember exactly when I noticed something was wrong. I ask my dad, but he’s no help. I’m so anguished, I even ask Wanda, and when I can tell by the expression on her face that even she feels pity for my desperate state, I nearly start sobbing in front of her, and that’s when I know things have gone to hell in a handbasket.

“He claimed he got a text sometime during or after your dad was telling that story,” Wanda says.

I rub the sockets of my eyes with the heel of my palms; my head’s throbbing. On top of this, I think I’m getting sick. “But why wouldn’t he tell me about it?”

“I hate to ask this,” my dad says in a gentle voice, “but did you do anything that may have wounded his feelings? Lie to him in some way that he may have found out about?”

“No!” I say. “Like cheat on him or something?”

Dad raises both hands. “I didn’t mean to imply that. Does he know about your online friend?”

“Alex?” I shake my head. “I haven’t spoken to Alex online in weeks. And I never met him in person—or even found him. He blew me off because he found a girlfriend or something, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. We never even really flirted. He was a sweet guy. We were just friends, honest.”

“No sexting or dirty photos that could have been leaked online?” Wanda asks.

“God no,” I say, and my dad practically wilts, he’s so relieved. Way to have faith, jeez.

“Just checking,” Wanda says. She’s in total cop-interrogation mode. “And Porter was the hickey giver, right?”

“Yes,” I snap. I don’t mean to, but I can’t help it.

I don’t like where this conversation is going. Before long, she’s going to ask me to submit to STD testing. And meanwhile, my dad, who’s staring absently at his sci-fi movies, makes a choking noise, like he just realized something, but when I ask him what it is, he waves it away.

“It’s nothing,” he says, looking dazed and almost . . . amused. “Whatever’s going on, I’m sure you’ll figure it out, sweetie.”

That just makes me even more frustrated, and a little angry, to be honest. None of this is really helping, so what’s the point? I sneeze twice, and when Dad asks me if I’m coming down with a cold, I ignore him and go to my room. Then I plug in my phone and watch it as if the fate of the entire planet depends on one small, melodic chime emanating from its tiny speaker.

I wait until two a.m., and when that chime doesn’t come, I turn on my side and stare at the wall, heart shattering, until I drift into restless sleep.

 

By the time my shift at the Cave rolls around the next day, I’ve made myself so sick with worry, I can’t tell whether I want to see Porter or not. I’ve been trying so hard not to use Artful Dodger tactics lately, but I hesitate in the parking lot when I see his van, and take the long way around to the employee door. This must be how alcoholics feel when they fall off the wagon.

When I finally do see him, it’s in the cash-out room at the exact same moment that Grace strolls in to count her drawer. My body tenses so hard at the sight of him, I’m in physical pain. Grace has taken on the role of peacemaker as she greets us, lightly complaining about how they’ve scheduled our lunch breaks, but neither Porter nor I say anything. It’s awkward. Everyone knows it.

I can’t do this. I’ve had no sleep. My mind is the consistency of wet sand. I’m pretty sure I’m running a fever, I’ve got chills, my nose won’t stop running, and my eyeballs hurt. I’m not the only one; half the staff is out with some weird, mutant summer virus that Grace is calling “the lurgy.” But I ignore how I feel physically, because I need to know what’s going on with Porter. I have to!

“No,” I tell Porter, blocking his way out of the room. “This isn’t fair. I stayed up all night worrying. You need to tell me what’s going on right now.”

“Can we not do this right here?” Porter says, eyeing Grace.

“Where, then? I texted and called. How can I fix this if you won’t tell me what I did wrong?”

“I needed to think.” Now that I’m looking him directly in the eyes for the first time, I can see that he looks as bad as I feel. Dark circles band the undersides of his lower lashes, and his scruff looks unkempt. He looks exhausted. Good. “Maybe you need to do some thinking too.”

“Think about what?” I ask, completely perplexed.

He glances at Grace again. “Look,” he says in a lower voice, “I just . . . I’m really overwhelmed right now. I need a little space, okay?”

His words sting like a thousand hornets.

“Porter,” I whisper.

The door to cash-out swings open, and Mr. Cavadini strolls inside with his clipboard. He opens his mouth to greet us, but whatever he starts to say is drowned out by my sneezing. Not polite sneezing either; I have to lunge for the box of tissues by the empty cash drawers afterward, and turn around while I clean myself up. I’m a disgusting mess.

“You’ve got it too?” Cavadini says, sounding horrified. When I turn around, he backs away and shakes his head. “Absolutely not. Grace, disinfect everything in cash-out that she’s touched. Bailey, go home.”

“Wha? I’m fine!” I say through a tissue.

“You’re Typhoid Mary. Go home. Call in tomorrow and let me know how you are. We’ll put you back on the schedule when you’re not infectious.”

No matter how I try, he won’t let me argue. And when Porter and Grace are whisked away to the Hotbox, so are my chances of discovering why Porter needs “space.” Miserable and feverish, I retreat home with no answers and crawl back into bed.

I will say one thing: Cavadini was probably right to boot me out of the Cave. A couple of hours later, I wake up and my entire body aches. I cannot stay warm. I call Dad at work after I take my temperature, and it’s 101 F. He immediately rushes home and drives me to an urgent care facility, where I see a doctor who gives me something to reduce my fever, basically telling me what I already knew—You’ve got the lurgy!—and prescribes me a bunch of cold medicine.

The second day of my mutant illness, my dad changes the sheets on my bed, because I sweated through them all night like a beast. But at least my fever’s broken. Which is good, because now I’m hacking up my lungs. He goes to work in the morning, but takes a half day, coming home at noon to feed me a lunch of soup and crackers. He also tries to lure me downstairs, but I’m content to stay in my narrow flight path of bathroom to bedroom. I have a paid online streaming account and a DVD player in my room. That’s all I need to get me through this. I start watching a movie that reminds me of Alex, strangely enough, which makes me feel even worse than I already do.

Grace has checked in on me via text several times. The Cave is down to a skeleton crew, but she’s managed to escape getting sick so far. I don’t ask about Porter. She volunteers anyway: It’s his day off, so she doesn’t know if he’s sick too—but would I like her to text him and ask? No, I would not. He wants space? Have the plains of Serengeti, for all I care. I’m beyond wounded now. I’m angry. At least, I think I am. It’s hard to tell. I started taking cough syrup with codeine today, and it’s giving me a little bit of a buzz.

Another kind of buzz lights up my phone midafternoon. I hit pause on the movie I’m watching. It’s an alert from Lumière Film Fanatics. I have a new message? Maybe this syrup is making me hallucinate. But no. I click on the app, and there it is:

@alex: Hey. Mink, you there? Long time, no talk.

I stare at it for a minute, then type a reply

@mink: I’m still here. Laid up sick in bed. Oddly enough, I was just thinking about you, so it’s kind of freaking me out that you messaged me.

@alex: You were? Why? *is curious* (Sorry you’re sick.)

@mink: I’m watching Key Largo. (Thanks. Me too. It’s gross, trust me.)

@alex: Whoa. Bogie and Bacall Key Largo? I thought you said you couldn’t stomach that? What about all the being-held-at-gunpoint?

@mink: It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I’m almost finished. It’s so good. You were right.

@alex: Color me shocked. (I always am.) So . . . anything new happening? We haven’t talked in so long. Fill me in on what’s going on in the world of Mink. I’ve missed you.

I pause, unsure what to type. It would be weird to say I’ve missed you too, even though I have, because that feels like I’m betraying Porter. I’m so confused. Maybe he doesn’t even mean it that way. Maybe he never did. Lord knows I’m not good at reading people.

@mink: The world of Mink has imploded. Do you have all day?

@alex: Funny, but I do.

I’m not sure whether it’s the codeine streaming in my blood or the virus decimating my brain cells, but I settle back against my pillow and type the most straightforward message I’ve ever sent to Alex.

@mink: Actually, I’m sort of seeing someone—well, we kind of broke up. I think. I’m not sure. He won’t talk to me. But I’m not over him. I just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. And maybe you wouldn’t anyway, I don’t know. But I used to think that there was something between us—you and me—or that there could be. And then this guy sort of just happened. I didn’t expect it. So, anyway, I’m sounding like a complete idiot now, especially if you didn’t feel that way about me. But I’m trying to turn over a new leaf and be more honest lately, so I just wanted you to know. In case you were still holding out hope for anything. I just can’t. Not right now.

@alex: Wow. That’s a lot to take in at once.

@mink: I know. I’m sorry.

@alex: No, I’m glad you said it. Truly. You have no idea how relieved I am to get things out in the open, actually.

@mink: Really?

@alex: Cross my heart. So . . . what’s this guy like?

@mink: Honestly, he’s kind of an ass. Cocky. Super opinionated. Always picking fights.

@alex: ??? And you like him why, again?

@mink: I’m trying to remember . . . Okay, he’s also sweet and smart, and he makes me laugh. He’s a surfer, actually. Like, stupid talented. And he geeks out about weather, which is sort of cute.

@alex: I see. But he makes you laugh?

I suddenly feel horrible. Here I am, spilling my guts about Porter, but I don’t really know how Alex feels about it. About me. About this whole situation I just laid at his feet.

@mink: No one makes me laugh like you do.

@alex: That’s all I ever wanted.

I laugh a little, then begin to cry.

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