Aiden isn’t watching the movie.
My skin grows warm as I realize he’s not even pretending to watch the movie.
“You know, you were the one who picked this.” I extend a finger toward my laptop. “What happened to all that ‘I can’t believe you’ve lived in New Jersey for nearly a year and you still haven’t seen Garden State’?”
I barely get the words out before Aiden’s hand fits to my jaw and he leans in to kiss me. It’s a good kiss, the kind that makes my skin tingle and the whole world fade away until we’re the only two people on the planet. His free hand slides around my waist, pulling me closer, and a light sigh escapes from me. I could get so lost in him if I let myself.
That thought abruptly brings reality back into focus, and I shimmy from Aiden’s arms until we’re awkwardly sitting beside each other again in the reading chair that’s meant for only one person. This chair, my bed, and my thrift-shop desk and dresser make up the entirety of the furniture in my room--unless you count the boxes I never bothered to unpack.
Easygoing almost to a fault, Aiden lets me go without protest, raising a single eyebrow. “Did you hear your mom or something?”
I shake my head and shift to the cushioned armrest so we’re no longer smooshed together. “She left barely an hour ago. That would be a new record for world’s shortest first date, even for her.” I want to check the window, though, and he knows it.
Aiden toys with a thread from the frayed knee of my jeans. There’s an ease to the way he’s touching me that screams boyfriend. I shiver involuntarily, which in turn makes me inch my leg away.
“Would it be so horrible if she knew about me?” he says. “I mean, we’ve technically already met.” He glances over at the hiking boots next to my dresser, the ones he sold me and Mom four months ago, before she and I hiked the Smoky Mountains over the summer. I’d wanted to go to Disneyland, but she gets superanxious in big crowds, so she surprised me with a road trip and a secluded weeklong hike instead, which, I’ll admit now, turned out kind of amazing. So did the cute REI sales associate who oh so casually slipped me his number while Mom was checking out mini stoves.
I gnaw my lip, trying to think of a way to say that, yes, it would be horrible if Mom knew about him, without actually having to say yes. I settle on “It’s not you.”
In response, Aiden slowly nods. “Right.”
“It’s not.” I reach for the hand he’s drawn back. “It’s not even her. It’s me.”
He gives me a humorless smile. “Ashamed of me, huh? No, I get it. Guys who volunteer at animal shelters are generally dicks.”
“No.” I let my mouth curve up. “But they do sometimes smell like cat pee.”
A genuine laugh erupts from Aiden. “Seriously? I try to be really careful about that.”
I lean forward to brush his cheek with a kiss, catching a hint of something crisp and foresty and definitely not at all like cat pee. When I start to stand, Aiden tugs me back.
“Then what?” His voice is as gentle as his touch. “’Cause I keep expecting you to just ghost me one of these days, and I’m fully ready to admit how much that would suck.” His hand slips over mine. “I like you, Katelyn. I’m fine if it’s more than you like me, but tell me I’m not wasting my time here.”
Every bit of the humor that initially attracted me to Aiden is gone. We’ve always kept things light and fun. Now he looks like my next words have all the power in the world to elate or crush him.
And I will crush him. Not intentionally, and probably not without crushing myself a bit in the process, but it’s going to happen. Not because Aiden is a bad guy--I think the fact that he’s in my bedroom despite all Mom’s rules speaks for itself. As does the fact that he made a cute Rapunzel joke instead of complaining when I told him he’d have to climb the drainpipe and sneak into my bedroom if he wanted to see me. I couldn’t risk letting him use the front entrance like a normal person (I wouldn’t put it past Mom to rig the door with some kind of undetectable sign to check if it’s been opened when she leaves me home alone).
I should probably explain about my mom.
She’s amazing and funny--but nearly every hour of the day she’s terrified out of her mind that something terrible is going to happen to me. I think it has to do with how she grew up. She’s never been exactly forthcoming about her past, but I do know that her mom dropped her on the doorstep of her unsuspecting father’s trailer when she was three, never to be seen again, and that the height of her dad’s parenting skills was remembering to feed her most of the time. He died shortly before I was born, so I never met him, but given my mom’s lack of parental supervision growing up, it seems like she swung really far the other way with me.
Until a few years ago, the only time I was allowed on the computer was for school--home school, that is. And I think it was more my mom’s fear of algebra than any of my pleading that finally made her relent and allow me to go to public school. Though, to be fair, it might also have been the hunger strike I enacted.
It took me a little longer to convince her to let me get a cell phone, which I finally accomplished by printing out news stories at school about kids who got kidnapped and saved themselves by calling for help. Were some of them stories I wrote myself using mock-up layouts I found online? Maybe. But sometimes my mom needs that extra push to rein in the superparanoid would-keep-me-in-a-bubble-forever mentality that defines her as a parent.
I’ve learned that the best way to get what I want is to either convince her I’m in more danger if she doesn’t listen to my suggestions (e.g., public school, a cell phone) or just keep a few harmless details from her (e.g., Aiden).
Most days, I think she knows I cut corners when it comes to her rules, but I like to think she’s the teeniest bit proud of me when I figure out how to get around one. I’m not stupid enough to flaunt Aiden in front of her, though, which is why I practically shove him off the chair when I hear the front door open downstairs.
She did break her record. It isn’t even nine o’clock yet.
“In my room!” I call, jumping up and pushing Aiden toward the window.
“Is this my answer?” There’s a teasing quality to his voice that I can appreciate only because he has the good sense to whisper.
“Know what happened to the last guy my mom found in my room?”
“He got invited to dinner?”
“He got a face full of pepper spray.” All because he was trying to decorate my room to invite me to a dance. Poor guy. And poor me, since Mom and I ended up moving right after--Mom says the two are unrelated, but I doubt it.
She calls it wanderlust, but I’m not sure that’s what it is. She’ll be fine one day, and the next I’ll come home from school to find that she’s quit her job and already has half our belongings in boxes--hence the unpacked ones stacked in my room. We’re closing in on a year in our current duplex, and I’m hoping to make it through graduation here, if nothing else. But that means getting Mom to make some ties in Bridgeton so she won’t want to leave the next time she gets an itch.
My greatest triumph of the past year was getting her to agree to start dating, something she hasn’t done since my dad died, despite the frequent offers she gets. She had me when she was only nineteen, so she’s still young and looks amazing--also thanks to the fact that we run together every morning. She has stunning green eyes and thick auburn hair that reaches halfway down her back. My eyes and hair are the same color as hers but not nearly as striking. The main difference between us is that my skin is more olive than her fair, sunburn-prone complexion, a gift from a man I barely remember.
Based on the way she still tears up on the rare occasions I get her to talk about my dad, I’m not expecting her to fall madly in love with one of the guys she dates, but a little flirting and fun would be good for her. And any reason to stay in one place long enough for it to feel like home is good enough for me.
If she found Aiden in my room, she’d have a moving truck in our driveway before he even made it out the window.
I push him again. “You have to go.”
“Meet me tomorrow.”
“I--” I start to object, since I have no idea how I’ll slip away from Mom, but he looks perfectly content--eager, even--to get caught. “Fine.”
I almost grit my teeth, but I remember that he’s still waiting for my answer about whether he’s wasting his time with me. I know what I want the answer to be, but hearing Mom’s footsteps on the stairs, I give Aiden one last shove. “I promise.” He climbs out the window, only to dart back in the second I start to turn away--to kiss me one more time.
“Go!” I hiss, trying not to smile. I don’t breathe again until he clears the frame so I can close the window and yank the curtain shut.
By the time Mom enters my room, I’m sitting at my desk, laptop open and an acceptably academic website on the screen, with my history book beside me.
“Oh, hey, one sec,” I say, turning my head but keeping my eyes glued to the page, because if I’m gonna play the dedicated student, I’m gonna sell it. At last, I sigh triumphantly, as though finishing the section I was reading, and twist in my seat to face her, propping my chin in my hands on the backrest and grinning. “So is my new dad waiting downstairs?”
Mom shudders in response. “I pray to God that man never procreates.” Then she frowns at me. “Honey, are you feeling okay? Your skin’s all flushed.” When she reaches to brush my hair away for a closer look, I pull back and try not to look too guilty as my face blazes with anxiety and embarrassment. I put a few feet between us by casually moving to sit in the middle of my bed.
“I’m fine. Don’t change the subject. Aren’t you being a bit dramatic? You spent less than two hours with the guy. What was wrong with this one?”
“Besides the fact that he kept staring down our waitress’s blouse every time she refilled our drinks?”
“Ew, really?” My shoulders relax, now that she’s no longer scrutinizing my appearance.
“And then he didn’t even tip her.”
I scrunch up my face to an almost painful degree. There is a special circle in hell for nontippers. Another huge concession on Mom’s part this year was letting me get an after-school waitressing job, so I know from experience. Mom’s date could have started picking his nose at the table, and I’d still say his cheapness was his biggest character flaw.
She leans one hand on my bed so she can take off her heels. “Can we just agree now that trying to date after thirty-five is evil and I can give it up?”
“If something is hard, quit right away. Got it.”
Mom flops back and starts the contortionist act required to free herself from her Spanx. “What if I just got like a dozen cats instead?”
“And I could start eating frosting right out of the can. You know I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Then I will drop out of school and start auditioning for reality TV shows. Mom, I will go on The Bachelor. I’ll do it.”
Freed from her Spanx, Mom folds them neatly in her lap. “It’s just so demoralizing.”
I’m not sure if she’s talking about her dating failures or The Bachelor. Probably both. “We just need to widen the net a little.” I’m more confident than ever in the surprise I’ve been working on.
“Okay, so don’t get mad,” I say, leaping up. “Even though I’m the one with the birthday next week, I got you a present. I know you don’t want me posting anything about myself online, because you watch way too much Dateline.” I tug her to sit in my desk chair. “And I didn’t,” I add quickly when she pales. “But you are an adult, and I thought you might . . . have . . . better . . . success . . .” I slow my words as I lean over her, fingers flying across the keys to pull up the site I’m looking for. “I knew it! Look, a half dozen messages already.” I point at the tiny counter on the screen and wait for the panicky, wide-eyed look to leave her face.
Her voice drops low as she reaches for the laptop. “Katelyn, what did you do?”
“It’s a completely nonscuzzy dating site for ‘mature adults looking for lasting relationships,’ ” I say, reciting the website’s slogan. “I created a profile for you, and there are plenty of guys interested, even with your nearly seventeen-year-old kid and all. Look, I even included a photo of us from the day we moved in.”
“When?” She shoots a hand out to wrap almost painfully around my wrist.
“I did it after you left for your date. I thought you’d . . . I’m sorry. I’ll take it down.” She’s overreacting. Again. It’s not like I passed out copies of her social security card. I was just trying to help her go on a date that didn’t end with us splitting a carton of cookie-dough ice cream and watching a Jason Statham movie.
It takes me less than a minute to delete her profile, but the second I’m done, Mom slams the laptop shut and pulls her phone from her purse, calling a number without hesitation.
“It’s me,” she says, in a voice so calm it makes the hair on my arms stand up. “There may be a problem. I need to know--” Her hand clenches tighter around the phone. “How long?”