Pepped Up and Ready(3)

By: Ali Dean

A girl I’ve never seen before emerges from Wes’s tent, her long dark hair wrapped up in a bun on top of her head. Despite the cold morning air, she wears only a thin camisole and flannel pajama bottoms, which rest low on her hips, displaying her jutting hip bones. A sleeping bag is wrapped around her shoulders like a blanket and she approaches Wesley with a pout.

“Baby, why didn’t you wake me up?” she whines while climbing up his body to whisper something in his ear.

Jace isn’t paying attention. “I wanted to go on a hike with you today, but you were running for so long, will you be up for it?”

“Of course,” I assure him. “That’s why I wanted to get my run in early, so we could get going on the hike.”

“You can’t take a day off from running even if you go on a long hike? If we’re going to make it to the waterfall, it’s ten miles round trip.”

“Nope, I’ll get behind on my mileage if I take a day off,” I tell him. “Long-distance runners are way more hard core than quarterbacks,” I tease.

“You think so, huh?” Jace tickles me until I squirm. I try to suppress my giggles so that I don’t wake everyone up, but Jace is relentless and bursts of giggles inevitably erupt. When he finally backs down, I find Wes watching us before crawling into his tent, an unfathomable expression on his face. Before I can decipher the look, the girl’s arm pulls him inside, and he zips up the flap.

Jace shuts down various invites to join others on activities, and we successfully manage to go on a hike with just the two of us. It’s rare to get Jace alone like this, and I savor the hours of comfortable silence beside him on the trail. Jace sets a brutal pace, and I imagine that’s the only reason we were able to dissuade others from joining us on the hike. By the time we hop in his Jeep to head back to Brockton, I’m beyond exhausted.

I must have fallen asleep because I wake to Jace kissing me gently on the forehead. The Jeep is parked outside my apartment building on Shadow Lane, and it’s dark outside.

Jace is leaning over to my side, and he cups my chin in his hand. “Hey, sleepy girl.”

“Hey,” I say softly. I’ve managed to avoid thinking about it all day, but suddenly the weight of what is about to happen hits me with a force so strong, I can barely hold back the tears threatening to spill. Jace is moving into his dorm tomorrow for football preseason. He won’t live down the street anymore.

Jace tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “I texted Buns, she’s expecting you for dinner.”

“But not you?” I ask, confused. Jace always joins my Gran and me for dinner when he can. He lives with his dad, Jim, and while the two of them have breakfast down pat, their skills at cooking dinner are fairly pathetic. But that’s not the only reason Jace is always at our place. He’s family. He has his own spot at the table and it feels empty when he’s not there. My Gran, Bunny (Buns to Jace), has been helping take care of Jace since he was in diapers.

Jace shakes his head. “Dad wanted to take me and Wes out for dinner one last time before Wes leaves for Princeton.” And you for college, I think. Sure, he won’t be far, but he’ll eat dinner with his team at a special cafeteria for athletes every night instead of with me and Gran.

“Why does this feel like goodbye?” I ask to myself, realizing too late I’ve said it out loud. “Not to you,” I amend, “but to a chapter of our lives?”

“The chapter of Pepper and Jace on Shadow Lane?” Jace asks with a smile.

“Is it silly for me to be so sentimental about this?” I ask him, hoping he’ll tell me he feels sad too.

“You’ve been worried about me starting college all summer, Pep. But things aren’t going to change so much. You’ll see,” Jace tells me. He’s so confident, I almost believe him. But I catch the fear lingering in his green eyes.

I kiss him then, hard, hoping to solidify with my lips the faith I have in us. That we will continue to be us even as Jace leaves behind his life on Shadow Lane.

Chapter 2

A strange melancholy settles over me when I finally climb out of Jace’s Jeep. It follows me through dinner and into bed that night. When I wake up in the morning, a sense of loss is still draped over me like a heavy jacket. I’d take it off if I could, but I know it’s no use.

My phone shows several missed texts and phone calls. Zoe dropped Charlie off at Mountain West yesterday and wants to go on a run with me today. Jace returned from dinner with his dad and brother late last night, and apparently stayed up most of the night packing. I have one voicemail I must have received while hiking yesterday that I never checked before going to sleep.