“I just got done with work, and I’m kinda starving,” Alex said as he opened his fridge. “Do you want anything?”
“Uh, I’m okay,” Gemma lied.
The early-morning battle with Penn and the subsequent healing—like growing back her entire fin—had been very taxing. She’d woken with a slight ache in her bones, but a warm shower had helped that.
Her cravings were growing more intense, though. It had gotten so bad that she wanted to eat anything that was meat. A rare steak sounded amazing, but all she’d been able to settle for was her dad’s lunch meat, and that hadn’t sated her hunger as much as she’d hoped.
But her willpower was growing stronger. Alex was right, and thinking of love did a much better job of keeping her in control than fear or anger ever did. So when her hunger flared up, Gemma just pushed it back down and refused to acknowledge it.
“Or did you want to go out?” Alex turned back to face her, holding a Tupperware container full of spaghetti in his hand. “We could go someplace.”
Gemma shook her head. “No, here’s okay.”
“Cool.” He grinned and popped the food in the microwave, then grabbed a Mountain Dew out of the fridge and set it on the counter. “My parents are gone for the night. They went down to the carnival at Bayside Park.”
“That’s probably for the best.” Gemma hopped on a stool and leaned on the kitchen counter. “Your parents don’t like me much.”
“It’s just that since you and I started seeing each other, I’ve been acting so strange.” The microwave beeped, and Alex got his food out. “And that’s not your fault.”
“It kinda is,” Gemma corrected him. “I think they wished you’d ended up with Harper instead.”
“Maybe,” he admitted. “But I didn’t.” He shrugged and pulled up a stool next to her, so he could dig into his leftovers.
“How come you and Harper never did hook up or anything?”
“I don’t know. Neither of us ever wanted to,” he said between bites of food.
“I kinda always thought you guys would end up together, too.”
He raised an eyebrow and looked over at her. “Always?”
“Well, until I started crushing on you,” Gemma clarified. “But then I was kinda afraid you might.”
“Hmm, and when did this alleged crushing on me begin?” Alex asked.
She’d known Alex for so long that it was hard for her to say when she stopped thinking of him as just the boy next door. But when she thought about it, it was hard to remember her life without him at all. He’d always been there, whenever she or Harper needed him.
He’d walked her home from school dozens of times, and he’d once gotten a bat out of their house while their dad was at work. When Gemma had been babysitting and thought she saw someone outside, Alex had come over to make sure it was safe. He’d gone to her swim meets, always cheering her on from the sidelines, even when Harper or her dad couldn’t make it.
After the car accident, when both her mom and Harper had still been in the hospital, her dad had fallen to pieces. Gemma had gone out to the backyard to cry, and Alex had come over to her. He put his arm around her and promised that everything would be okay, and in that moment, she’d believed him.
No matter what, he’d always been there for her. Other than the ocean and her family, Alex had been the one good constant in her life, and when the sirens threatened to take everything away from her, he was still here.
“Was it when you gave me that steamy Valentine?” Alex asked, drawing her from her thoughts.
She propped her chin on her hand and looked over at him. “What are you talking about?”
He pushed the spaghetti away, apparently done with it, and wiped his mouth with a paper towel, then took a long drink of his soda before telling his story.
“You must’ve been like twelve, ’cause you were too old to be handing them out to just anybody. And you gave me one that had a green dinosaur on it, and it said something like ‘Don’t take a bite out of my heart. Be my Valentine.’ And then you signed it ‘xoxo, Gemma,’ which I thought was awfully forward.”
“What? I don’t remember that.” Gemma laughed. “You’re making it up.”
“I most certainly am not,” he insisted. “I still have the card upstairs.”
“You still have it?” she asked in disbelief.
“Yeah. Want me to prove it?” He pushed back his stool and got up. “Let’s go.”
“Fine. Let’s go. But there’s no way you still have this thing,” Gemma said. “I’m not even sure it really exists.”
She followed him to his room, and it wasn’t until then she realized how long it had been since she’d last been up here. The walls were the same shade of blue they’d always been, but everything else was different.
His old twin mattress had been replaced with a full-sized bed. A chic black dresser and desk matched his new bed set. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Blade Runner posters were both gone though his astronomy ones were still up. A sharp-looking computer sat on the desk, and a flat screen was mounted on the wall above his dresser, on which an X-Box and a stack of games sat.
“Whoa,” Gemma said as she looked around. “You redecorated.”
“Bought new furniture with money from my job. My parents were pissed ’cause they thought I should be saving for school, but it was time I got out of those Transformers sheets, you know?” Alex said.
He opened a drawer in his desk and started rummaging through it.
“I don’t know. I liked the Transformers sheets,” Gemma said, but she understood. Alex had grown up a lot this summer. She admired the strong line of his jaw and the way his T-shirt pulled taut over his arms as he opened the desk drawer and rummaged through it.
“That’s how I know I still have this card. I just moved it from the old desk to the new one, and yep! Here it is!” He held up a card half the size of a postcard with battered edges and faded ink.
“Oh my gosh.” Gemma laughed as she took it from him, and it appeared exactly as he’d described it. “I remember this now. You and Harper had just gone on some brainy decathlon, and you’d lost.”
“It was the Knowledge Bowl,” Alex corrected her. “And that was the only year we lost when I was on the team.”
“You were superbummed, and I felt bad, so I got this for you. You always looked so cute when you were sad.”