21. Bailey

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"I just think it's bullshit," Nick says from the backseat of the car after school. "I don't even want to fucking go."

Ian and I are laughing, amused by the situation. "Well since you may end up being our Prom King, I don't think you have a choice," Ian says.

Nick continues his rant. "And that's the other thing, since I'm on the court, I like have to have a date, right?"

I nod. "Yeah. No one stands up there by themselves. That's basically unheard of."

"Who are you guys going with?" He asks. "You obviously need dates too."

The question would have been awkward two months ago, but Nick have actually been sticking to this "friends" thing. It helps that he is never home anymore. He works every night after school and only gets every other Sunday off. When he is home, he is either doing homework or sleeping, so I usually only see him at school and during the car rides to and from.

"I just want to know how I got in the 'popular' car," Mandy speaks up next to Nick. "I'm the only one here who didn't get nominated. I am so offended."

I laugh. Mandy could not care less about any of this. She's been dating Mike since her ski trip, and spends all of her time with him. He usually picks her up from school but couldn't today, which is why she's with us. I doubt she has any intention of even attending her high school prom.

I respond to her first. "I'm only nominated because I'm the cheer captain, it's like a requirement or something."

"Yeah, okay," she says, and I know she's rolling her eyes.

I ignore her and answer Nick's question. "I'm sure Ian's going with Amanda, his giiiirlfriend," I tease my brother, pinching his cheek. "And I'm going with Derek."

"Derek?" Nick asks "Derek Bell? I didn't even know you hung out with him."

His tone surprised me. So maybe Nick cares more than I thought.

"We're just going as friends." I turn my head to look at Nick, and he's staring at me, eyebrows creased together. I try to break the tension. "So who are you going with?"

He breaks eye contact and looks out the window. "Well, since I just found out ten minutes ago that I even have to go, I haven't figured it out yet. I mean, everyone probably already has dates, right? Who's left?"

I mentally run though a checklist of the girls in our grade. He's right. Most of them already have dates.

"I don't have a date," Mandy says.

Nick's head whips around to her. "Ha-ha. Were you even planning on going?"

She shrugs. "My mom has been nagging me about it. She says I'll regret it if I don't. I doubt it, but if I make an appearance, she'll lay off."

She turns toward him and dramatically takes his hand in both of hers like she's proposing marriage. In her most theatrical voice she asks, "Nick Robinson, will you go to prom with me and make all my dreams come true?"

Ian starts cackling with laughter and glances at the scene through his rear view mirror.

"What about Mike?" I blurt out. I'm not laughing. And I'm angry at the quick jab of jealousy I feel in my gut. Why is Mandy doing this? She knows everything about Nick and I. I know he and I are trying to just be friends, but shouldn't that be against girl-code or something? Or at least cousin-code?

Mandy drops Nick's hand and breaks character. "There is no way Mike will go with me. And he's definitely not going to get jealous of a high school boy—no offense." She adds, looking at Nick.

"None taken," Nick responds. "And this is actually perfect. So, yes, Mandy Rogers, I will go to prom with you."

"Well then that's settled," I say, turning around in my seat. It came out more harshly than I intended. I look at Ian, hoping he didn't notice, but he is as oblivious as always.

My phone chimes, telling me I have a message.

Mandy: What's with the pissy attitude?
Me: I have no idea what you're talking about.
Mandy: U have to know that I'm only going with him for u
Me: ?
Mandy: U 2 are so fucking obvious. Could u be anymore jealous? Wouldn't u rather he go with someone where there is NO chance of hooking up?

She's right. The idea of Nick going with another girl, any girl, would make me miserable the whole night. This way, we can all go as friends with no awkwardness.

Me: You're the best. Love you.
Mandy: 😘

I'm in Ginny's bedroom making some final decisions on prom. Since our school is small, her and I complete the prom committee. Ginny wasn't my first choice as a partner. She tends to be kind of a shit-stirrer and a gossip, but I've been friends with her forever. She also lives across the street from me, so meeting up is easy. But now prom is one week away, and we still haven't finalized decorations.

"Just go with the silver," she says, pointing at the tulle samples I have displayed on her computer. "No one's going to care."

I know she's right. Everyone in our class is more excited about the after-party than the dance. But I can't stop myself, I want it to be perfect.

"Anyway, I need to ask you something." She says, obviously past the whole "prom decorating fiasco".

I click the "Buy Now" button on Amazon and turn to look at her, waiting for her to continue.

"There's been kind of rumor around school." Here we go. I knew we wouldn't get through this meeting without her spreading some gossip. When is she going to learn that I don't care about who is having sex with who or who went skinny dippy at the party last weekend?

"...about Nick."

Shit. I can't breathe. How would she know about Nick and I? Does Ian know? How would anyone know? Did Nick tell someone? Did Mandy tell someone? Neither of those things could have happened, I know it. I push those thoughts away.

"People are saying that he's, like, living at your house. Normally I would just brush it off," Yeah, right. "But then I see his truck parked at your house like all the time. Even more than before."

Only my family knows what happened with Nick and his stepdad. We never sat and had a conversation, but it's been an unspoken agreement that's it should stay between us. I'm not sure what excuse he gave for his broken nose once he returned to school, but it's been forgotten about for months.

"He's not living there," I vehemently say. "He just stays the night a lot. He always has, you know that."

She nods and looks out the window in the direction of my house. I wonder if Nick's truck is there right now. "Yeah, but, Bailey, when I leave for school in the morning, he's there. Every...single...day."

"Yeah, he's, uh, helping my mom out with some stuff."

She looks confused. "With what?"

"Painting." What? It's the first thing that came to my mind.

"Painting what? Like the walls?" She's understandably confused.

I keep it going. "Yeah. He comes to my house after he gets off work and just...paints." I sound like an idiot.

"For four months? What the hell are you painting that takes four months? He's been there since January at least."

December, actually. "Nick is a really good artist, so he's doing these, like, special drawings in all the rooms and stuff. They take a long time." What the fuck am I talking about?

Ginny seems to accept it, although she still seems skeptical. "Okay. I guess I never knew Nick was so...talented."

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