chapter seventeen

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There was something off about Leila and Eric the next morning. It wasn't anything particularly noticeable to an onlooking eye, but I knew them both well to realize they were never this aloof.

Eric shoveled in ungodly amounts of French toast, and Leila held her cup of tea like Kermit the Frog, taking meager sips. Based on my assumptions, they had some sort of argument last night and Leila was still insisting that she was right, like a true woman.

I glanced at Ben, and he stared at his brother, who continued to burn holes into his plate, before Leila remarked that he would look like my dad—who was a little plump—by the end of this trip if he kept this up. My dad then furrowed his eyebrows, entirely unamused, but my mom looked like she was about to pat Leila on the back for that.

I cleared my throat. "Alright, do we have any plans for the day? Or can I have a free pass to go sit by the pool all day?"

"No plans today," my dad began, swallowing a chunk of a blueberry muffin, "but tomorrow, we're all going on a fun adventure to Animal Kingdom." I stared back at him, as the concept of nature and wildlife didn't exactly go with my family, even if we would just be observing from afar.

"So, whose idea was that?" I asked.

"Ben's actually," my mom answered, pointing to him and the subtle shit-eating grin on his face. "He said that you told him you've always wanted to visit. Mentioned something about the safari ride there too."

I had never in the history of my twenty years discussed this theme park with Ben, nor had I expressed any desire to be near wild animals. On the contrary, I was petrified of them, while Ben would have petted a mountain lion if he had the chance.

"Right," I said, picking up my cup of coffee and sipping it in the same manner of Leila. When my parents weren't looking, I elbowed Ben so hard in the side that he nearly spit out a ball of bread.

"I think," he began in my ear afterwards, "we need to establish some rules about hitting me, sweetheart." He grabbed my wrist under the table and wrapped his large hand entirely around it.

"When did I ever mention to you that I wanted to go on a safari ride?" I asked, wriggling my arm out of his vice-like grip. That was to no avail.

"They're not going to eat you alive, Samar. It's Disney World. You're just a baby."

"Well, anyway, if they somehow plan to, at least you got more meat on your bones," I said. He pinched my hand, and my jaw dropped. "Are we in second grade?"

He stuck his tongue out.

"Everything alright between you two?" my mom asked, darting her eyes from Ben to me. He slung an arm over my shoulder and grinned.

"Everything's perfect," he said, and I saw the corners of her lips curl up into a satisfied smile. It didn't last long since I wriggled out of Ben's hold and stood up.

"I'm going to go change," I said, pointing to my uncomfortable shift dress. Somehow that sentence registered in Ben's brain as "come with me," as he immediately stood up. "You don't have to come," I mumbled to him as we began walking away.

"Elevators are creepy," he said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his white shorts. "I believe in the buddy system."

"For me or for you?"

Coughing, he replied, "Me..."

I gave him a half-smirk half-eye-roll, and we continued on from the restaurant to the set of elevators. We ended up migrating to the middle of the elevator, our arms brushing as we moved up in silence. Ben glanced at me. "So, what happened to last night's getting along? Too afraid to show your parents we can do anything other than rip each other's hair out?"

"We still get along," I answered, folding my hands together in front of me. "I just think this feels more natural."

"Now who's acting like a second grader..."

"Oh come on, you know you love me."

"Debatable," he sing-songed and moved past me to exit the elevator.

Fifteen minutes later, we both exited our rooms ready to go bake in the sun all day. Ben hadn't put on a T-shirt yet, and he curled his lips into a smug smirk, as if waiting for my reaction.

I kept walking.

"Are you really being this hostile because of that dumb theme park?" he asked, placing a navy shirt over his head. He fumbled with it, getting his head stuck in the armhole. At last, he yanked it on.

I wasn't hostile, per se, but more or less a little off, because last night's sudden closeness made me want to pull away from him. We had gone through so many years participating in a love-hate relationship that it didn't feel right to get along so quickly. Maybe the true problem was that I had an issue with letting go of the past or Ben was far too easy going.

"Let's just get to the pool," I said, avoiding the topic altogether. He huffed and rolled his eyes, stalking away from me. This time on the elevator ride down an old woman stood in between us, who wouldn't stop staring at Ben. I couldn't believe that a small part of me ended up feeling possessive of him over an eighty-year-old's spectacled stare.

"It's quite the ego boost to know that I've got a nice range of women swooning over me," he remarked after the woman creeped away. "You, all the way to that grandma."

"I'm happy my group of admirers has a much smaller standard deviation," I quipped, noticing Derek sitting by the pool. He lowered his sunglasses and smiled as we walked across the concrete. Ben groaned.

"Why is this guy always here?" he hissed, looping an arm around my waist so quickly we almost both toppled into the pool to our right. "I'm starting to think he's stalking us."

"Yeah, definitely stalking," I answered, placing my hand on top of his to get it to move. "It's not just because we're staying in the same hotel during a period of very nice weather or anything."

"What's so great about him anyway?" he grumbled as he walked us to the chairs on the other side of the pool. "Is it the accent? Because he sounds constipated."

I snorted at his remark and clamped a hand over my mouth. It was true that Derek's voice did sound a little strained, but it was attractive...well, until Ben gave me some new imagery.

"Stop acting like a jealous boyfriend." I sat down in the middle of the first row of chairs and lied back, slipping on my cat-eye sunglasses. "It's not a good look on you."

"Yeah, but so is denying the fact you're madly in love with me, Samar Karam," he replied, flashing me a white-toothed smile and lying back on the chair next to me. I went to whack his arm, but he grabbed my hand and clasped it in his.

My mother's words from a week before came back to my mind: make sure the next guy you want to be serious with chases after you.

I could definitely say Ben was doing just that.

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