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Twice Shy: Chapter 20


WHEN MORNING DAWNS, WE’VE got our plane tickets, set to take off at eleven forty-five a.m. We’re bleary-eyed and groggy but there’s a thrum of exhilaration in the air and we’re already packed, in the car, on our way to Around the Mountain Resort & Spa. I’m going to quit a job I don’t have anymore in legendary style, and then Wesley’s going to find proof of the Loch Ness Monster but never tell a soul about it. We are a pair.

“Car music?” he suggests, fiddling with the dial.

“I’m too amped up for music.” Which sounds absurd, but I think the extra stimulation would feed my anxiety and then I wouldn’t be able to go through with my half of the pact.

We play I Spy instead, which consists of the same three colors (red stop signs, green trees, and yellow drive carefully signs indicating twists and turns). There aren’t too many cars on the road until we reach Pigeon Forge at a quarter to nine.

“Wild Bear Tavern,” he observes, lifting an index finger off the steering wheel. “They have takeout. Really good German toast.”

“I’m too amped up to eat.”

I’m wearing a red power suit with shoulder pads, hair in a messy topknot. I look like a high school secretary from an eighties teen comedy, which is to say, I look extremely excellent and like a person who makes firm decisions.

Wesley pulls through the McDonald’s drive-thru anyway, ordering us both pancakes from the breakfast menu. My stomach’s sloshing something fierce, but he made the right call—I feel better once I’ve eaten.

“You ready for this?” he asks, nudging me to polish off my orange juice because he thinks I could use more Vitamin C.

I half-laugh. “Ahh . . . no.” Then I shake my head, smiling wanly. “Kidding. Ready as I’ll ever be! Let’s go.”

I still don’t know what I’m going to say when I get inside Around the Mountain. I’ve decided to wing it.

“This is nuts,” I can’t stop saying.

Wesley doesn’t argue.

“They’ve probably forgotten who I am.” I’m sort of but not really joking. “I’ll tell them off and then somebody will go, ‘Who was that?’” I’m chewing my nails, leaning forward as far as the seat belt will allow. I crank the air conditioner to full blast. “Jeez, it’s hot in here. Do you think it’s hot in here?”

“It’s just you,” he jokes.

My knee bounces at warp speed. “This is nuts.”

“Oh, definitely. But here we are.”

I jerk around, panicking. The giant statue of the bear strumming a banjo rears up overhead. The lodge is directly behind us. We are in the parking lot. The parking lot.

Where Wesley puts the truck in park.

“What?” I cry. “How are we here already?”

“You’ve got this, Parrish.” He tries to fist-bump me. I would laugh if I didn’t think I’d throw up immediately afterward. “Do you need me to come in with you?”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. Keep the engine running in case we need a quick getaway.”

For his sake as much as my own, I plaster on a confident smile and slide out of the car with watery joints. I’m going to hate doing this, maybe more than I’ve hated doing anything I’ve ever not wanted to do, but I can’t wait to be the version of myself who is on the other side of having done it. The Maybell who stands up for herself. Who cares if I’m about two months too late and this mission probably looks batty from the outside? It’s never too late to make waves.

I am, right this very moment, becoming the kind of Maybell who walks calmly across the parking lot, and the kind of Maybell who pushes through the front doors. The kind of Maybell who stands in the lobby of the building where she spent her entire adult life.

Nothing has changed. The rocking chair that seats eight fully grown humans is currently occupied, camera light flashing, and the lobby smells strongly of chlorine that launches a dozen memories. I can hear splashing and yelling from the indoor water park. What was I expecting? Of course it looks the same. It hasn’t been that long since I was here, even if it feels like a year has passed.

I square my shoulders. On behalf of the miserable Maybell who spent Christmas day handling stiff sheets from the honeymoon suites and having ten minutes shorted from her already pathetic lunch break, I am going to walk up to Paul.

I am going to say, You were a bad boss. You spent all day on Russian dating websites instead of doing your job. You promoted me to event coordinator and then wouldn’t let me coordinate events, and for that, you suck profusely. I want you to know that I quit because of you.

After that, I imagine Christine will happen by, scowling like always. I’ll tell her to go to hell and it will be everything. I’ll astral-project into orbit, lighter than air. A feather on the breeze, whipped cream on a cupcake. A living sunbeam.

That’s the high note I’ll leave on. And I won’t, no matter how tempting, glance back at their stricken faces. It’s like heroes in an action movie ignoring explosions going off behind them.

And that will be that. A proper quitting story.

“I’m so happy to see you! Oh my god!” I blink rapidly as someone crushes me in a hug. “You’re back!”

Gemma.

“You look so cute,” she squeals. “Are those shoulder pads?” She pokes my shoulders. I’m so thrown by her presence, which has blown up my vision of how this would go, that I simply stand there and gawk. The only thing about Gemma that’s changed is the new card attached to her lanyard that reads: event coordinator. “What have you been up to? Tell me everything.”

I meet her wide, expressive eyes, holding my breath. And then I realize.

I’m not here to quit after all.

“I am here to tell you,” I say, voice quavering. My hands curl, nails biting into the plump flesh of my palms; the sensation is an anchor, keeping my feet flat on the carpet so that I can’t vacate my body. Then, with a steadiness I do not feel, I start over. “I am here to tell you that you hurt me. And that it wasn’t okay.”

Gemma’s eyebrows jump up her forehead. “What? How did I hurt you?”

“You were supposed to be my friend. But you tricked me, playing with my feelings, and after the truth came out, my hurt feelings still came second to yours. I am a person, Gemma. You treat other people badly. So I think somebody ought to tell you.”

Her smile slips, lips parting in surprise. I watch her vibrant inner light go out.

“I trusted you,” I go on, trying not to cry. It can’t be helped. I’m not sad about what she did anymore, but baring my emotions like this has me on the edge of myself, and I am so intensely exposed that the tears arrive without permission. “You lied. You embarrassed me. Used me. Took advantage of me. I don’t know how it ever got from you confessing you’d tricked me to us just pretending it never happened and you acting like everything was okay. Everything hasn’t been okay for me.”

“I’m—” She’s sputtering. “I’ve already apologized—”

If I let her interrupt, she’ll take control of this conversation and I’ll never get it back. Somehow, I’ll end up comforting her. “You wanted me to forgive you because you didn’t want to have to feel guilty anymore,” I say in a rush. It drops like an anvil, and she snatches her hands back from where she’s been wringing them in front of her, waiting to be held. Coddled. “Wanting to be forgiven isn’t the same as being remorseful.

“I know you could be incredibly nice,” I go on. “You bought me a birthday cake. We went to the movies together. We went shopping. And that was fun! But I think the reason you went out of your way to be extra, extra nice was so that you could then get away with occasional cruelty. I never called you on it. I should have confronted you, but I didn’t, because even as the protagonist in my own life, my feelings came second to yours.”

Her face is changing color, but the impossible has happened: Gemma Peterson is speechless.

“I let you think that your apologies were enough, even though they were empty, and I could tell you didn’t appreciate the full extent of what you’d done, how awful you made me feel. I should have stood up for myself. The quick forgive-and-forget wasn’t fair to me.” My chest is unbearably tight. I do not feel lighter than air or that all has been made right with the world. Just the opposite: I’m tasting my breakfast all over again. The room spins.

But this has weighed heavily upon my heart, and I persevere. “So here I am,” I finish quietly, “better late than never, to tell you that your forgiveness is not the point. You need to learn how to be a better friend. If you keep treating people like their emotions don’t matter as much as yours, like they’re just background roles in your life, you will end up all alone.”

A pregnant pause follows, in which I expect Gemma to land on habits and gush apologies like she used to. Meaningless ones, because she wasn’t sorry at all—she only wanted sympathy.

She does not apologize. Instead, she is angry.

“Well, I am sorry you feel that way—” she spits, complexion going red and blotchy.

I give her shoulder a mild squeeze. “You don’t have to say anything. Just sit with it, okay?”

When I walk away, I look back once. She’s already walking away, too, in the opposite direction. She is going to go find the nearest person and complain about me, and garner their sympathy. There will be crocodile tears. I’ll be the villain in her story for a while, but then hopefully, as time passes, what I’ve said will sink in. Maybe not consciously. But maybe she’ll start to do better by others. That is going to have to be enough for me.

Out in the parking lot, I find Wesley pinning my hotel brochures under somebody’s windshield wipers. Little pink rectangles wave in the breeze on every car in the first two rows. He revolves to take me in, squinting against the sunlight. “Well?”

I sigh.

“Didn’t talk to my old boss. Didn’t give the middle finger to Christine.” I hang my head, still nauseated. My skin is overheated yet clammy, my arms and legs weak. Not at all how I thought victory would feel. “So. Didn’t exactly go down in spectacular flames like I set out to.”

Wesley tips my chin up with one finger. One corner of his mouth lifts. “Of course you didn’t.”

“You didn’t believe in me?” I return, half in jest.

“Just the opposite. My Maybell is not a vengeful person. Her head is in the clouds because she can see the beauty in the world from up there. Going down in flames doesn’t suit.”

I don’t know how to respond to that, choosing to lean my cheek into his palm. At thirty years old, I am finally accepting that I am simply nobody else but myself. I will always only be me. A little bit naïve, a lot idealistic. In the regard of many, understated to the point of forgettable, and easy prey, because my heart is so large a target. But those who deserve to be in my circle will like me just as I am, and will treat me the way I deserve to be treated.

“On to the next,” I announce, linking my arm in his. “It’s your turn now.”

At that, Wesley’s tender expression falters. “I feel like your part of the deal was easier.”

“Yeah, but yours is gonna be way more fun.”


IT’S A FIFTY-MINUTE DRIVE to the airport in Knoxville, in which we dream about what we hope Scotland will be like. We hope the weather will be sunny and the Loch Ness Monsters in the mood to be glimpsed by humans. We hope we won’t get stuck behind people who like to recline their seats on the plane. I am doing most of the hoping. Wesley is mostly nodding along to all my chattering and growing progressively more pale. When we park the truck and get our luggage out of the back, his face is alabaster.

“Hey.” I rub up and down his arm. “Okay?”

My brain zings in a billion directions. He’s mad at you, it suggests. You did something wrong. Did I? I scan for anything I talked about on the drive over that might’ve offended him.

A darker thought creeps in: maybe he’s thinking about last night and regrets it.

I study his figure, which hunches over slightly, and feel my forehead crease with worry. He was in such a great mood last night, or at least I thought so. Now I’m second-guessing. It’s possible that I was so preoccupied with how fantastic I felt that I projected my good mood onto him and didn’t notice he didn’t feel the same . . . except, that can’t be right. He was happy. He expressly told me so.

After spending the night with someone, you don’t see them exactly the same way come morning. Sleepovers are a level unlocked in intimacy. I’ve been thinking we’re closer now, but what if he’s reconsidering me? Us? Going on a trip with someone you’re reconsidering being in a relationship with would certainly render a person pale and quiet.

I overcompensate for his quietness by being extra chatty. “Little disappointed that the connecting flight in Chicago only leaves us an hour of wiggle room. We could’ve gone sightseeing. What are some good sights in Chicago? I think they’ve got an important baseball field there, if you like baseball. Probably some museums. Deep-dish pizza. Maybe we’ll find somewhere in the airport that serves deep-dish.” We wend our way through clusters of people in the busy airport.

“This place is packed,” he grates, pressing himself into the side of the escalator we’re ascending as far as he can manage. A man bumps him with his bag anyway.

“Sorry,” the man says.

Wesley grants him a wincing smile and then faces straight ahead like he’s on his way to a guillotine.

“Do you want to get some snacks for the plane? I think there’s a Cinnabon past the gates.”

He responds with a curt shake of the head. A string of people pass us on the other side of the escalator and he guards me with his arm.

“What about reading material?”

He shakes his head again.

“Wesley.” We step off the escalator, heading for security. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I think the pancakes are giving me an upset stomach.”

“Oh, no.” I smooth a hand down his back. “I can go buy you some Rolaids.”

“No, I’ll be all right.”

“You sure?”

He nods jerkily.

“But are you totally sure? You look a little green.”

He pats me on the top of the head, a little messily. “Shhh. Don’t worry yourself.”

I am an idiot. I smack my forehead. “It’s the people, not the pancakes. You’re bothered by all the people!”

If Wesley slopes his shoulders any farther inward, he’ll topple over. “Shhh!” he repeats, glancing erratically around. “The people will hear you.” We’re at the security checkpoint now, tugging off our shoes.

“I won’t let anyone talk to you,” I vow. “Not that anybody would. I think most people just want to go about their business.”

A woman in line smiles at us. “Good morning. Or afternoon, I guess. Just about!” She checks her watch. “I’m on my way to Miami. What about you folks? You flying together?”

Wesley’s face becomes a mask. I’ve forgotten this Wesley: the one who clams up around strangers, whose default setting in these situations is to glare. I see this behavior now for the defense mechanism that it is, wanting others to perceive him as rude so that they won’t come any closer. He shows everybody else a lie, which is a real shame. They don’t know what they’re missing out on.

“We’re flying to Scotland!” I exclaim.

“Oh, that’s fun! What’s the occasion?”

Wesley bristles. Don’t worry, I’m not giving away anything private of yours, I think, willing him to hear it. “Just want to see if it’s really as green as it looks in the pictures,” I reply breezily. He relaxes somewhat, but not all the way.

The woman and I go back and forth a few times until it’s her turn to deal with TSA.

“Okay, well, I’m sure the people in Chicago won’t be as friendly as the people in Knoxville,” I mutter in Wesley’s ear.

He forgets to remove his belt when passing through the metal detector and fumbles nervously with the buckle while trying to get it off.

“You all right, buddy?” a TSA agent jokes. The comment is lighthearted, but I notice the shell of Wesley’s ear turning pink and it makes my heart hurt.

“Soon enough, we’ll be in Loch Ness and we can avoid everybody,” I promise him once we’re both in the clear. “Just you and me and the monsters.”

We make our way to the plane, only one bag for carry-on. We’ve got his sketch pad inside, and for me, a ton of Mad Libs. I hate to keep asking if he’s okay, since I think it just makes things worse, but I can’t help saying, “You still want to do this?”

“I’m fine.” He laces his hand in mine.

Once we’re inside the plane, however, he freezes up. Right there in the middle of the aisle.

“What’s wrong?” I peer around his shoulder from behind.

He doesn’t respond, staring at the tiny seats. “There’s not enough room.”

Right. He’s not a small person, and legroom is going to be a distant memory soon enough. “You can use up my space for legroom,” I assure him. “I don’t mind. Take my armrest, too.”

We sit down. He closes his eyes, breathing deeply in and out.

I don’t know what to do, how to make him feel better. All I can think is to hug his arm and rest my head on his shoulder. Other people are packing in, fitting their bags into the luggage compartment. Elbows and jackets brushing. Loud voices of parents instructing their kids. I dig in my bag for chewing gum.

“Atmospheric pressure,” I say, offering Wesley a stick. I think he’ll smile, like we did yesterday when he offered me gum for our pretend trip into the clouds. But he looks miserable.

“I’m going to throw up.”

I stare, fighting panic. Wesley is miserable and I need to make him feel better but I don’t know how. “I think they have bags for that.” I rummage around for one, but he rises unsteadily to his feet.

“Bathroom.”

“Okay.”

I watch him go, then turn back around in my seat. I’ll have to distract him during takeoff. Tic-tac-toe, maybe. I page through his sketchbook for a blank sheet and stumble upon a cartoon of two people in an old-fashioned elevator. The man is standing over the woman, body curving almost protectively, but he is smaller than I know him to be in real life. His profile is angled, hiding most of his front. The focal point is clearly the woman, gazing up at him, the only one privy to his beautiful face. He’s drawn a thought bubble over his head connected by three white puffs, and inside it, an explosion of hearts.

I’m so absorbed in the illustrated Wesley and Maybell that I don’t immediately tune in to the This is your captain speaking. I don’t start really paying attention until it becomes clear that we’re about to take off. Right now.

I’ve buckled myself in but unbuckle to get up. The flight attendant points at the lit seat belts on sign, and I say, “I’ve got to go get my—” I’ve never thought about him in these terms before, but: “Boyfriend. He’s in the bathroom.”

The flight attendant frowns and bustles past. Opens the door. “He’s not in here.”

“Then where—?” I break into a cold sweat, but she’s hailed by someone who needs help, so I’m on my own. “Wesley?”

The plane isn’t that big. If he were here, he’d be able to hear me. If he heard me, he would respond. Which means Wesley is not here.

I need to get up. I need to find him.

But lucidity has fled, my legs have locked up, and I’m lost. How can I go find my Wesley when my legs won’t work and I can’t think straight? Where did I go wrong? I have to fix this. I have to move.

Except I can’t, because the plane already is.


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