“Thanks,” I said, stepping to the side to let a big fat lady in a pink suit between us. Once she passed I'd lost sight of Stewart and everyone else, so I slipped out the door and into the warm, moist air. I found Rogerson parked down by the soccer fields. I knocked on the passenger side window and he looked at me, then waited a second before leaning over and unlocking the door. I got in, shut the door, then leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, but he pulled back, turning his head away from me. The radio was playinghis musicbut this time I didn't change the station.
“What's wrong?” I said. “Nothing.” Outside, it was raining again, big drops splattering across the windshield. “I'm sorry the banquet ran long,” I said. “I really couldn't do anything about it.”
“Whatever,” he said, running the tips of his fingers over the steering wheel. He still hadn't looked at me. “Where were you this afternoon?”
“Oh, God,” I said. “I ran into Rina and she was, like, having this enormous crisis. She blew it with Bill, finally. Got totally busted.” And I laughed, but the laugh sounded weird, like it was too heavy and just fell. “Oh,” he said, shifting in his seat. “I waited for you for a long time.” He was looking straight ahead, to the soccer fields. I could see the rain falling sideways in the bright lights there. “I'm sorry,” I said. “She was all upset, and the time just got away from me. Okay?”
“Whatever.” And he kind of smiled at me, like he was ready to let it go. Like it was all right, we were okay now. We just sat there for a minute, both of us looking at the rain as it fell harder on the windshield. “It's just that I wondered where you were,” he said, then ducked his head, picking at a seam on the steering wheel. “Since you said you'd be there and all.” The thing is that I thought we were okay. He had smiled at me, and I'd let out a big breath, assuming it was over. Now, as he brought it up again, I stopped thinking and got careless. “Oh, come on,” I said, reaching over playfully to knock him on the knee. “Don't be such a big baby.” When he hit me, I didn't see it coming. It was just a quick blur, a flash out of the corner of my eye, and then the side of my face just exploded, burning, as his hand slammed against me. The noise it made was a crack, like a gunshot. And it wasn't like in the movies, where the person just stands there and takes it. I reeled back, hitting my head against my seat. My ears were ringing, my face flushed, and already, instantly, I had tears in my eyes. I said, out loud, “Oh, my God.”
“Don't ever fucking talk to me that way,” he said in a very low, quiet voice. Then he started the engine, slammed it into reverse, and fishtailed down the dirt parking lot before hitting traffic. We crawled down the slope of the main lot to the road, a line of brake lights lit up in front of us. I had my hand on my cheek, holding it there. My face felt strange and tight and I was gripping the door handle with my other hand, as if that was all that was keeping me from flying loose from my seat and up into the air. I concentrated hard on the car in front of us, a blue Honda Accord with a bumper sticker that said I Love My Scottish Terrier! I read it again and again, saying the words in my head. Someone started beeping. Traffic was bad, all backed up. Roger-?son turned on the wipers as it started raining harder, the drops big and round, splashing as they hit the windshield. “What the fuck is taking so long?” he said under his breath, looking over the car in front of us. “Jesus.” I still had my hand on my face. I was trying not to cry but the tears came anyway, bumping over my fingers and down the back of my hand, and I tried to think of something safe. But all I could come up with was trivia. What are sometimes called Minor Planets? Asteroids. What is seaborgium? A new transuranium element. What does a sphygmomanometer measure? Blood pressure. All the cars were going off to the median, heading around something. One by one they pulled aside, bumping across the grass and gravel. As we got closer I could see it was my parents' car in the middle of the road. My father was behind the wheel, one hand rubbing his forehead, while my mother sat beside him. Stewart was in the backseat, the door opposite him open And then, as we crawled around them, I saw Boo. She was crouching in the road, her braid hanging over her shoulder. Then she stood up, hands cupped and extended in front of her. She was holding something.
The rain was coming down very hard now, in sheets, but Boo moved slowly, carrying whatever it was very gently. As we wound past her, I looked back and saw her bend down by the side of the road. She put her hands into the grass, releasing what she'd been carrying, what she had saved. It was a turtle, brought out by the unseasonable rain and into peril by blind instinct. Boo stood up, hands on her hips, watching as it made its way over the grass, to its intended destination, as the cars honked and the people cursed and Rogerson, disgusted, gunned the engine across the grass median and back onto the road, while my face still burned under my hand. “Crazy bitch,” he said. But as we turned right, onto the main road home, all I could think of as we sped away was how it must feel to be surrounded by those whizzing cars and find yourself suddenly lifted and carried, safe, to the comfort of that tall, cool grass.
We didn't talk about what happened. Instead, we went to McDonald's, just like it was any other night, where Rogerson had a Big Mac and bought me a milkshake without me even asking him to. Then he drove me home, his hand on my leg, playing my radio station like nothing had happened, nothing at all. It seemed so crazy to me, like maybe I had dreamed it, somehow, but each time I touched my fingers to my face the swelling and tenderness there reminded me it was real. Rogerson parked in front of my house, then surprised me by reaching over and kissing me very tenderly, cupping my chin in his hand. And as much as I hated to admit itit seemed impossible, just so wrongI felt that rush that always came when he touched me or kissed me, the one that made me feel unsteady and wonderful all at once.
“I love you,” he said, pulling back and looking very directly into my eyes. His were so green, like the ocean underwater: When he'd been angry, earlier, they seemed almost black. “Okay?” It was the first time he'd said it, and under other circumstances it would have been important. But now, all I could think about was the pain in my face. My temple was still throbbing, my eye swollen just enough that when I blinked it stung. And I missed Cass so much, suddenly, wanted to walk up the steps to my house and find her there, ready to smooth one finger over my eyebrow, her face close to mine. Close enough to see what had happened, without me even having to say it out loud. Rogerson was focused on me. It was as if he was asking me to make a pact with him, to get our stories straight. He brushed his finger across the back of my hand, gently. All the way home he'd kept touching me, so carefully, as if he had to keep me somehow connected to him or I'd just drift away. I could have just gotten out of the cat and walked up to my house, leaving him behind forever. Things would have been very different if I had done that. But the fact was that I loved Rogerson. It wasn't just that I loved him, even: it was that I loved what I was when I was with him. Not a little sister, the pretty girl's sidekick, the second runner-?up. All I'd ever wanted was to make my own path, far from Cass's. And even after what had happened, I wasn't ready to give that up just yet.