Chloe was the last person I anticipated seeing on that bench in the courtyard. Not that I ever expected anybody to willingly spend their time sitting there in this place. The only other person around was loitering on the sidewalk near the crosswalk, his backpack hanging loosely over a single shoulder. He must be waiting for someone to pick him up and take him home.
God speed to that poor fellow. Nobody should have to be at school on a Friday any longer than absolutely necessary. The irony of me remaining stuck here wasn't lost on me.
I approached the girl with a wave, causing her to cast a soft smile in my direction. I took a moment to appreciate this small gesture before claiming a spot next to her.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” I said, my voice equally as soft.
“I needed to get away from the cooking club."
I mirrored her position, folding my arms across my chest. "I had no idea you joined them."
"I didn't exactly. Rika more or less forced me into it again."
"Should've known she was involved somehow."
A car parked across the street honked its horn sending that person sprinting toward it. When the vehicle pulled off, it was only the two of us present in the courtyard. An overcast sky above us with a light breeze blowing in from the direction of the school, carrying the scent of rain from earlier in the day with it. It was bizarre weather for the season, but it was pleasant for sitting around doing nothing in particular, I supposed.
"Where is Rika by the way?"
"She'll be out in a few. She's helping Nora make some chocolate."
There were a lot of surprises thrown at me in that statement. Why was Nora involved with the cooking club now? And did Rika have any clue how to bake? She certainly hadn't when Chloe had requested a favor from us. I didn't think she knew how to make anything more than a can of soup. Even then I wasn't convinced she wouldn't set the food and her surroundings alight if she tried.
"Sounds rough," I said, not certain what else to say.
"It hasn't been so bad." Her glasses had begun to fog up, so she removed them and wiped them on her jacket's sleeve. "Rika has been trying really hard to help Nora. I've never seen her so adamant about something."
"And the reason you're out here instead of in there is..."
She chuckled. "Her passion is appreciated, but her constantly burning things makes it difficult to–"
"Don't you dare tell him any more than that!"
We turned our attention to the brunette with her hair in a ponytail making a mad dash in our direction. Her face was red from the effort. She must've been running for a while, and while I would usually warn her to slow down, I was eager to talk with her. It was a strange culmination, the twisting and turning in my stomach, along with the butterflies. It was a feeling I couldn't quite place. It was definitely different from my usual response to her. I wondered how she felt about it all as we made brief eye contact above Chloe's head.
"What?" she asked, panting. "Are you trying to slander my name?"
"Wouldn't take much," I grumbled.
"Oh, shut up! You aren't any better. Why don't you go look up another Youtube video?"
"Not a bad idea. Maybe you could search for one on how to use a fire extinguisher or how to replace the batteries in a smoke detector."
Chloe and me laughed at her expense when she stomped her foot and pouted. It was adorable, really. I had to force myself to stop staring at her. I didn't want to make it weird, especially after we had just fallen so easily into our comfortable routine. It was the first time we had done so in a while. The brief exchange had been easy, and I didn't have to worry about what to say next.
“I should go back to the club,” Chloe said. “I was helping Nora, and I'm not sure whether any of the other club members warmed up to her yet.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “You told me Rika was helping her.”
With a rare display of boldness from her, she poked a finger into Rika's gut, causing the other girl to squirm away. "Enthusiasm only gets you so far."
With that, she had gone back into our school. I was alone with Rika. She sat beside me, crossing her legs and throwing up her left arm over the backrest. It was quite a pose, but it was easy to tell she was no more collected than I was. Her bottom lip kept twitching and she kept glancing over at the doors of the building as if she were waiting for something to happen.
"It's been a while, huh?" I asked.
“Yeah, it has. Sorry, we didn't get to hang out at all during break." A quick readjustment and her other leg was now the one on top. "I wasn't sure how to..."
I tried to finish her thought for her. "How to approach the whole situation?"
"Right, I'm kind of still processing it all. I didn't mean to make it all awkward between us."
"You're fine. I read too much into it and jumped to the wrong conclusion. It just seemed like you might have liked me."
"I do! I…"
Her mouth clamped shut in horror, her eyes wide and unblinking. I wasn't sure what to think at this point. Had she inadvertently confessed to me? I looked at her, trying to figure out what she was thinking and what she would say next. I held still like a statue and was just as silent. There was no way I would create another misunderstanding between us. I needed to hear it directly from her.
Taking a calming breath, she restarted. "It's not that. I was interested in you because a friend of mine from Asheville told me what you did for the girls crushing on Ethan. You were so nice, and they were horrible! I just wanted to make sure that you had a better experience here, but I couldn't get you to open up around me unless I messed around with you. I took it too far with the flirting though."
She turned away as she spoke as if she were embarrassed to be honest with me. I was too overwhelmed to think much of it at first, but then I started to understand what she was saying. Rika was interested in me because of what her friend had told her. I hadn't thought much about it before, her unusual attentiveness toward me, but it made sense. It wasn't anything but pity she felt toward me, and our entire relationship had been built on this lie. And yet, I couldn't even feel any anger toward the situation. It was just another casualty of the entire Asheville High episode. A strange emptiness welled up inside of me. I looked at her, the agony and disappointment clear on my face. It was the same look I had given her when she first turned me down. I couldn't do this anymore, but I had to.
Because I promised myself I would confront everything head-on. I needed to move on.
"Please don't," Rika said, having turned back around. "Don't look at me like that. I may have been a horrible friend, but I really did want to help you out. I'll admit I felt a little sorry for you at first. But once I got to know you, I realized what a great guy you are. You're a better person than me in every way."
The wind picked up, whipping around me and causing my hair to fall over my eyes. I brushed it away, listening to the flock of birds that were busy chirping above, but I could hardly hear them over the roar of my own thoughts. How the hell was I supposed to respond to that? Thanks for getting to know me and deciding I was worth it. Heh. Like that would fix everything and make me feel better. I leaned back, picking at a small rip in my jeans.
"How long were you going to keep this a secret?" I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.
She hung her head, telling me everything I needed to know. If it were up to her, she would've taken this to the grave. "Please, I didn't mean to hurt you. You're one of my best friends. I don't want to lose you over this."
"Tell me what you were going to say earlier before you stopped yourself."
Her intermittent glances at the school stopped. "I told you most of it already."
"Then tell me the rest."
I sighed and stared at the tip of my shoes. "Then why should I trust anything you say?"
"Because I'll tell you on the fourteenth, next month. Just make sure you stop by the cooking club." She twirled a strand of hair that had come loose from her ponytail while blinking rapidly. "Just don't hate me."
I didn't hate her. I doubted I could hate her. Even if she had become my friend out of some sort of twisted obligation, Rika had been a good friend. One of the best that helped me break out of my comfort zone and make other amazing friends. She had been there when no one else had and helped me stand up to Sara, to confront my past. I let out another weary sigh.
"Taking me out for some food would be a good start for an apology."
She stared at me like I grew a second head before a watery smile graced her face. "Anywhere in particular you want to go?"
"Doesn't matter to me, but somewhere we can talk for a while. Oh, and the meal will be on you."
I rose from the bench, realizing this would be another one of those things that I would be taking day by day.