BEX IS NOT WHERE SHE said she would be. I circle the pickup area about five times and see neither her nor her beat-up Beetle that she was so proud to buy with her own money when she was eighteen. With a huff, I sink onto my suitcase to send her another text asking where she is. As I start typing, a car honking from right in front of me sends my heart pounding and my body falling to the cement with a thud.
"Ow," I say as the suitcase tips over and skids a foot across the ground. A few eyes turn to look at me, momentarily disrupting their conversations or hunt for a taxi, but as soon as they came, they were gone. I hear the slamming of a car door and a lilting laugh that could only belong to my monstrously evil best friend. I glare at the ground as I push myself up from it, rubbing the hip that I fell on gently. "Why are you so mean?"
Bex reaches down to pick up the small suitcase and scoffs. "That's how you greet your friend after not seeing her for almost a year?" She gives me a smile and opens her arms for me, which I easily step into and squeeze her tightly to my body.
"Well, you did make me fall on my ass, so." I pull away from her and poke her stomach. "Now lets go." My hand goes to reach for my other suitcase, but Bex slaps my arm and quickly grabs it herself.
"Don't be silly," she says quickly, toting them both towards her tiny car with ease. I patter behind her at a distance as they're stuffed into her trunk in a flash. "Now, go sit and we're out of here."
I beam at her as she does a goofy little dance and squeals that she can't believe I'm back before bounding around to the driver's side and hopping in. I tug the strap my purse over my head and follow after her to the passenger side. As I slide into the seat I begin to say, "It's so good to be back, I—"
"Did you miss us?"
And for the second time in the span of five minutes, I have a heart attack. My body's automatic response is to jump in the air, narrowly avoiding hitting my head, on the low ceiling, as I shop around to face the back seat where my brother is curled over Duck's body in laughter. My hand clutches my chest as the two of them make fun of my jumpy-ness. "Fuck, Zac," I groan, leaning my head against the back of the chair and reaching my arm back to stroke Duck's head, "a little warning next time. And aren't you supposed to be in California?"
"It's summer! I can come back to see my favorite sister if I want. And it's so fun to scare you!" He pats my head like one would a toddler that's just done something well for the first time.
"I'm your only sister," I retort, retracting my hand and holding out my hands toward them in a gimme kind of gesture. "Now let me have Duck."
"Fine." He adjusts his arms enough that Duck can wriggle out of his grasp and use his legs as a springboard to jump onto my lap, all sixty-something pounds of her. "Someone definitely missed you."
I barely catch her when she begins to lick my face excitedly and I laugh as Bex whines to her to stop wacking her face with her tail. "Hi, baby," I coo, "I missed you! Unlike your annoying uncle who I think is trying to kill me." My last words are muffled as I bury my head into Duck's sleek coat and dig my fingers into her side as she settles her head into the crook of my neck.
"So you didn't miss me at all?" he asks, pulling Duck into the back seat again so Bex can drive off onto the highway. "We've literally been at opposite ends of the world for the past year, since last summer."
I roll my eyes and grin at him. "Of course I missed you, dork. Just not as much as Bex, Dad, or Duck."
"Wow. Last. I'm honored," he deadpans. Duck settles her head on his lap as he strokes the spot between her eyes gently. "Well, you'll be glad to know I missed them more than you too."
"Wouldn't expect anything less." I give him one last smile before turning the dial on the radio from some ear-grinding techno music Bex adores to my preferred country station. "Much better," I say, closing my eyes and settling into my chair contentedly.
"Hey," Bex says, pouting as her eyes flicker to mine for a second, "I was listening to that."
"I know. And I love you. But I hate your music taste. I need something I can sing to." To prove my point, I start belting out the song, my wobbly voice clashing with Danielle Bradbery's much more angelic one. I roll the window down and stick my hand out as Zac joins in on the chorus with me. Then a thought pops into my head and I turn the radio down, with a small protest from my brother that I ignore, and I turn to Bex. "Speaking of loving you," I say giving her a sly smile, "I have your souvenir and you're going to love it."
"Ooh, can I have it now?" She glances at me excitedly, squirming in her seat.
"I kinda can't show it to you now. If I did you might crash the car." I settle back into the seat as a new song floats into the cab through the speakers.
"Hey, no fair. You can't get me excited and then tell me to wait."
"As soon as we get home, I promise."
"We'll just have to get home quicker then," she says, looking straight at me as she picks up speed, my brother guffawing in the background at my horrified expression.
"Bex!" I squeal, clutching the arm of my seat as Duck barks anxiously from the back. She slows down slightly, but continues weaving in and out of traffic all the way back to our house, making the trip in a little more than a half hour rather than the almost hour it should have taken.
While Zac graciously unloads my bags and Duck nips at my heels to play, trailing my best friend and me into the house. "Are you going to give it to me now?" Bex pushes as Zac appears in the kitchen with us tugging both my bags behind him.
"'Thank you, Zac. You're such a great big brother, Zac. I love you so much, Zac,'" my brother says as he leaves them at my feet and drops the keys onto the island.
I wrap him into a big hug, squeezing his neck as Duck whines at us. "Thanks, big brother. Love you."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." He pushes me off him and ruffles my hair before beckoning Duck to follow him out into the backyard.
"So?" Bex urges, leaning across the countertop on her elbows and arching her eyebrows expectantly at me. "What did you get me?"
"Chillax, woman," I say, chuckling as I produce my battered phone from my purse.
Bex whistles lowly and grabs it from me examining the damage. "Wow. He really did a number on it, didn't he?"
I snatch it back from her and shrug, swiping it open and going to my photo library. "It's just the protector."
"So, who was this guy? Did you ever get a photo of him?"
I smirk clicking on the designated video. "Here. This is the guy who knocked me over. And your souvenir."
She furrows her eyebrows and sidles up to me. "What?" As soon as the video starts she nearly drops the phone and squeals excitedly, jumping up and down and grabbing my shoulders painfully. "He didn't—you didn't—what?"
"Watch the video, Bex!"
"He said my name! He fucking said my name. And—No, you're amazing, Mr. Holland, and I love you." She sighs dreamily, leaning back into the counter as he finished his mini speech, and raises his fries up to her before shoving them into his mouth. "He fucking did cheers to me with his fries." Her tone is incredulous and her jaw is just about to the floor as she turns to stare at me.
"You're welcome." I bump her hip with mine and giggle as she squeals again.
"Send that to me because I'm gonna preserve that for posterity." I smile and do as she asked, watching as her face lighter sup when she receives it and replays the video. "So, is he cuter in person?"
I roll my eyes and snag a cookie from the jar next to the fridge. "I'm neither confirming nor denying that statement."
She laughs as I drag my bags arduously up the wooden stares, muttering to herself as she replays the video over and over again. "Welcome to the dark side."