Unearthly Page 57

“Why not just get the lemon meringue?”

“Trust me,” he says, and I find that I do trust him.

“Okay.” I wave at the waiter to order the vanilla custard pie. Which is divine, and I ought to know.

“Wow, I am so full,” I say. “You’re going to have to roll me home.”

For a minute neither of us says anything, the words hanging in the air between us.

“Thank you for today,” I say finally, finding it hard to meet his eyes.

“A good birthday?”

“Yes. Thank you, also, for not blabbing to the restaurant so they would come over here and sing to me.”

“Wendy said you would hate that.”

I wonder how much of this day was orchestrated by Wendy.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asks.

“Huh?”

“I have tomorrow off, and if you want I could take you to Yellowstone, show you around.”

“I’ve never been to Yellowstone.”

“I know.”

He’s just the gift that keeps on giving. Yellowstone sounds loads better than sitting at home channel surfing, worrying about Jeffrey, and trying to lug a big Christian-sized duffel bag into the air.

“I’d love to see Old Faithful,” I admit.

“Okay.” He looks suspiciously pleased with himself. “We’ll start there.”

Chapter 15

Tucker Me Out

Our trip to Yellowstone is marred only by me accidentally speaking Korean to a tourist who’d lost track of her five-year-old son. I help her talk to the ranger, and they locate the kid. Happy story, right? Except for the part where Tucker stares at me like I’m a mutant until I lamely explain that I have a Korean friend back in California and I’m good with languages. I don’t expect to see him after that, assuming that my birthday gift from Wendy is all used up. But Saturday there’s a knock on my door and there he is again, and an hour later I find myself in a large inflated raft with a group of out-of-state tourists, feeling enormous and bloated in the bright orange life jacket we all have to wear. Tucker perches on the end of the boat and rows in the direction of the rapids, while the other guide sits at the front and shouts orders. I watch Tucker’s strong brown arms flex as he tugs the oars through the water. We hit the first set of rapids. The boat lurches, water sprays everywhere, and the people in the raft scream like we’re on a roller coaster. Tucker grins at me. I grin back.

That night he takes me to the party at Ava Peters’s house and stays by me through the entire thing, introducing me to people who don’t know me past my name. I’m amazed at how being with him changes everything for me, socially speaking. When I walked the halls of Jackson Hole High, the other students looked at me with careful disinterest, not entirely hostile, but definitely like I was an intruder on their turf. Even Christian’s attention in those final weeks hadn’t made much of a difference in getting people to talk to me instead of about me. Now with Tucker by my side the other students actually converse with me. Their smiles are suddenly real. It’s easy to see that they all, regardless of what clique they belong to or how much money their parents rake in, genuinely like Tucker. The boys yell, “Fry!” and bump fists with him or do their shoulder bump thing. The girls hug him and murmur their hellos and look me over with curious but friendly expressions.

While Tucker goes to the kitchen to get me a drink, Ava Peters grabs my arm.

“How long have you and Tucker been together?” she asks with a sly smile.

“We’re just friends,” I stammer.

“Oh.” She frowns slightly. “Sorry, I thought . . .”

“You thought what?” asks Tucker, suddenly standing beside me with a red plastic cup in each hand.

“I thought you two were an item,” says Ava.

“We’re just friends,” he says. He meets my eyes briefly, then hands me one of the cups.

“What is this?”

“Rum and Coke. I hope you like coconut rum.”

I’ve never had rum. Or tequila or vodka or whiskey or anything but the tiniest bit of wine at a fancy dinner now and then. My mom lived during Prohibition. But right now she’s a thousand miles away probably sound asleep in her hotel room in Mountain View, completely unaware that her daughter is at an unsupervised teen party about to guzzle down her first hard liquor.

What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her. Cheers.

I take a sip of the drink. I don’t detect even the slightest hint of coconut, or alcohol. It tastes exactly like regular old Coca-Cola.

“It’s good, thank you,” I say.

“Nice party, Ava,” Tucker says. “You really pulled out all the stops.”

“Thanks,” she says serenely. “I’m glad you made it. You too, Clara. Good to finally get to know you.”

“Yeah,” I say. “It’s good to be known.”

Tucker’s so different from Christian, I muse on the way home from the party. He’s popular in a completely different way, not because he’s rich (which he’s definitely not, in spite of his many jobs—he doesn’t even have a cell phone) or because he’s good-looking (which he definitely is, although his appeal is this kind of sexy-rugged whereas Christian’s is sexy-broody). Christian’s popular because, like Wendy always says, he’s kind of like a god. Beautiful and perfect and a little removed. Made to be worshipped. Tucker’s popular because he has this way of putting people at ease.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks because I haven’t said anything in a while.

“You’re different than I thought you were.”

He keeps his eyes on the road but the dimple appears in his lean cheek. “What did you think I was?”

“A rude hick.”

“Geez, blunt much?” he says, laughing.

“It’s not like you didn’t know. You wanted me to think that.”

He doesn’t reply. I wonder if I’ve said too much. I can never seem to hold my tongue around him.

“You’re different than I thought you were too,” he says.

“You thought I was this spoiled California chick.”

“I still think you’re a spoiled California chick.” I punch him hard on the shoulder. “Ow. See?”

“How am I different?” I ask, trying to mask my nervousness. It’s amazing how much I suddenly care about what he thinks of me. I look out the window, dangling my arm out as we drive through the trees toward my house. The summer night air is warm and silky on my face. The full moon overhead spills a dreamy silver light onto the forest. Crickets chirp. A cool, pine-scented breeze rustles the leaves. A perfect night.

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