The Art of Losing(2)

Mom and I shared an eye roll and then she dutifully asked, “Why?”

“Because then they’d know she likes them a latte!”

I groaned. His puns made even Obama’s “dad jokes” seem funny.

I think Mom had as much faith in the valentines as I did, but as usual, she pasted on a smile and busied herself with a crossword puzzle.

On Valentine’s Day, I watched from my locker as Audrey passed out her cards. And, to be fair, they were pretty adorable, despite the glitter that showered down on her shoes with each one she pulled out of her backpack. She slipped some in people’s lockers, and others she handed to the recipient directly.

People loved them, and not just her friends. I was stunned. If I’d done something like this, my classmates would have thought I was trying too hard or sucking up. But no one could accuse Audrey of being disingenuous. Her smile was too sincere, her delight in their reactions too contagious.

But I saw the nervousness on her face when she pulled out a slightly larger heart-shaped card that was more intricately decorated than the others. I watched as she slid it through the slats into a locker not far from mine. I’d never noticed who the locker belonged to, so I lingered for a little while before the first bell rang, hoping to catch a glimpse, wondering if all the other valentines were just to distract from the one person she really wanted to give one to.

My jaw went slack when Jason Raymond opened the locker and the heart-shaped card fell out and landed at his feet. He was a freshman who had been in my class the year before but was held back. When he smiled at the card, I couldn’t help noticing the stubble on his chin. He was practically a man. Audrey had only quit sleeping with her favorite stuffed animal a year ago.

It felt like my sisterly duty to protect her.

So when Audrey told us about her crush matter-of-factly at dinner that night—something that I would never have even considered doing—I wasn’t surprised. I was ready with about ten reasons why Jason was the wrong choice for her first date.

“He’s so dumb,” I interrupted her mid-sentence. “He got held back last year! You can’t go out with a guy who’s my age and still a freshman. That’s just embarrassing.”

Audrey’s face turned red. Her eyes were glassy with rage. “You don’t know him,” she said. “None of you do. You just don’t see what I see in him.”

“Like what, honey?” Mom said patiently, cutting me off with a sharp look.

“Last week, at lunch, I saw him give his sandwich to a kid whose lunch money was stolen. And the week before that, he volunteered to be my partner in class when everyone else had already picked groups and left me out.”

“Did he volunteer because no one else had picked him, either?” I asked. “Because he’s an idiot and no one wants to do his work for him?”

“Harley!” Mom scolded me.

I slouched against the back of my chair and offered a half-hearted apology.

“If you’re saying he’s dumb, then you’re calling me dumb.” Audrey’s voice wobbled. “Because we’re in the same classes.”

“Yeah, but you’ve only had to take the classes once,” I muttered. But I felt guilty before the words even left my mouth. Her grades were a sensitive subject, but no one was more frustrated than Audrey.

“So far,” she said quietly.

I felt even worse when Jason asked her out a few days later and Mom and Dad wouldn’t let her go. It was my fault, even though they said it was because of the D she’d gotten on her history test. I could still picture her smile as she told Mom about how Jason had asked her to the winter dance, and how it fell as Mom said no.

Audrey didn’t speak to me for almost a full week after that. I couldn’t blame her.

Chapter One

The atmosphere in the hospital waiting room felt as thick as the summer night outside. My parents’ silent questions and accusations competed for space in the air with tension and worry.

Why didn’t I drive Audrey home from the party we went to? Who was driving the car that she was in? Why didn’t I make sure she had a way home? How could I have let this happen?

Guilt warred with anger until an anxious, bitter stew simmered in my stomach. Audrey shouldn’t get to be the victim when I was the one who’d been betrayed.

I hadn’t even wanted to go to the party. If my best friend hadn’t been hosting, if my boyfriend hadn’t wanted to go, I wouldn’t have been there . . . and I wouldn’t have brought Audrey. And maybe what happened would have stayed an unspoken fear buried in my subconscious.

The vinyl chair squeaked beneath me as I shifted restlessly. Dad’s shoes scuffed the linoleum as he paced. Mom cleared her throat and sniffed. We were a symphony of anxiety.

Most parents are left waiting and wondering alone while their child is in surgery, but because Dad was an orthopedic surgeon at the hospital, every few minutes someone would come in and tell us how sorry they were. But no one could tell us what was going on. Or maybe no one wanted to be the bearer of bad news.

I wondered if they’d start bringing us Jell-O cups, but I wouldn’t have been able to eat one anyway. It would bring back the memories I’d been pushing away: of the party that night where I had left my sister, of the gelatinous shots my boyfriend had been taking, of the two of them together in my best friend’s bedroom.

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