Hopscotch

I’m not sure how long I’ve been out here, staring at this envelope. I’ve planted myself against a cinder block wall on a dimly lit patio that’s attached to a hole-in-the-wall club. It reeks of rancid beer and mildew, but it’s the only place in town that hosts all-ages shows. I should be inside, doing a sound check with my band. Tonight’s our first gig. But I’m resigned to sit in this dark corner until it’s over. Or at least until my mom returns my desperate texts to explain why I found a bill from Esperanza Cancer Center on our kitchen counter today.

My phone buzzes. I flinch. But it’s just my cousin, Connor.

Dude, where the hell are you? We go on in ten.

I probably shouldn’t even be here. It’s not like I believe in curses or anything, but I’m not exactly a good luck charm. Connor should’ve known better when he asked me to join his band. Because ever since my dad died eight years ago, whenever I start to get comfortable, everything falls apart.

It always starts when I wake up feeling relaxed. I can take a deep breath. I don’t mind the smell of the clean-cut grass mixing with the Florida humidity outside. It’s so intrusive that I let my guard down. Before I know it, my cat will go missing or my granddad will end up in the hospital. When I wake up feeling good, it’s the calm before the storm. 

Over time, I’ve learned to treat these days like a game of chess. I go on high alert and exhaust myself obsessing over what might go wrong. Maybe I’ll get a speeding ticket? Or a college rejection letter? Is there a catastrophic hurricane brewing in the Atlantic? Perilous asteroid heading towards earth? The possibilities are endless. By the time I’m done worrying, I’m numb with exhaustion. But at least I know I’ve saved myself—maybe even society—from utter devastation.  

This morning, I was so preoccupied with the gig, I barely realized how good I felt. When I did notice, I didn’t sabotage myself. 

I should’ve known better.

After school, I was blindsided by the bill from the cancer center. I texted Connor that I was staying home for the night. He showed up twenty minutes later and found me on my couch, staring at the coffee table. There used to be an ashtray there before my mom quit smoking. If I inhale too deeply, I still get whiffs of stale smoke throughout the apartment. 

“I’ll get your bass into the van. You’re not staying here alone,” he said.

He’s always thinking two steps ahead.

When we got to the club, the first band was already playing. The stage was surrounded by sweaty teenagers swaying back and forth like a school of goldfish. I surveyed the crowd, but I live across town, so no familiar faces. The lights were low and the old wood-paneled walls were so musty it made me dizzy. I hadn’t taken a full breath in hours. I bolted out the nearest exit. That’s how I ended up here. 

I open the envelope and stare at the bill again. I’m annoyed the biopsy results haven’t magically appeared. I shove it back inside, wincing as the edge of the paper slices my thumb. My foot stops tapping against the cracked tile below me. I apply some pressure to the cut and check my phone again. Another message from Connor.

I know it’s been a shitty day, but don’t bail on us. 

I’m about to text him back when the patio door swings open. Through the dim light of a flickering lamp, I make out the silhouette of a girl my age. She sits in an old plastic chair and gazes towards the starless sky. I almost say something so she’s not startled, but she notices me first.

“Oh, hey, got a cigarette?” she asks.

It’s like a punch to the gut. 

“No, I don’t have a fucking cigarette.”

“Sorry, just making conversation.”

“Do you even smoke or are you just trying to act cool?” 

“You know what, pretend I’m not here. You can get back to whatever you were doing.” She gestures around the empty patio. The light blinks weakly behind her. My head falls into my hands. I don’t normally snap like that. But a cigarette? I don’t know anything about this girl and she’s already disappointed me. 

“I don’t smoke. Not usually anyway,” she announces after a few beats. “I just assumed you did since you were out here.”

“I came here to sit in silence.” I glare at the bill. “Smoking’s a death sentence. A long-term plan for a slow, painful demise.”

“Lesson learned,” she says in this flirty voice, as if she expects me to laugh. 

Does she think I’m joking? 

“Are you here to see one of the bands?” she asks.

“I thought you said I could pretend you weren’t here?”

“Screw it, you’re right. I’ve had enough rejection lately. I’ll go.”

My stomach clenches with guilt. I do this sometimes. Push people away without giving them a chance. But since my dad died, I’ve learned it’s pointless to let people into my life. I’ll just lose them.

“Shit, I’m sorry. I’m having a bad night. You can stay.”

“Oh, wow. It’s so nice of you to allow me to stay here in your delightful presence.” She saunters towards the door. “No thanks.” 

I’m not sure if it’s her voice I’m drawn to. It’s perfectly modulated, like she’s singing instead of speaking. Or maybe I don’t actually want to be alone. But suddenly, I’m desperate.

“I’m in one of the bands.”

She hesitates before reaching for the handle.

“Which one?”

“Cat 5.” 

She lets out this laugh that’s strong and breathy. It’s powerful enough to be infectious—if I wasn’t on the verge of emotional collapse.

“Either there’s five of you and you all have cats, or you named yourselves after the most terrifying hurricane category?”

I’m glad it’s dark so she can’t see all the blood rush to my cheeks. “The latter.”

“So, the show’s gonna, like, blow me away?” 

I surprise myself and let out a single laugh. She returns to the chair in response.

“Let me guess, you play bass?” she says. 

“How’d you know?”

“I’ve dated a few bass players.”

Even though I’m actively avoiding looking at her, I can hear a smile on her lips.

“I’m Jane, by the way.” 

Despite all my efforts, her voice is a magnet. I can’t avoid the pull. I peer towards her but I’m distracted by the way she’s sitting. One leg tucked under the other, the skin of her knee shining through a hole in her jeans. The porch light is just bright enough that when I see her face, I realize exactly who she is. Why her presence has me so flustered. 

Janie DeLuca.

She sat next to me in fourth grade. I was the nerdiest kid in class. Obsessed with comic books and captain of the chess team. I wrote a poem about her once. She took it off my desk and read it silently. I thought she’d tease me, but a bright smile spread across her face. She asked if she could keep it. I never understood why she wanted to hang around with me when she could have chosen anyone. She was pretty, funny, smart. Maybe it was because she was new at our school. Maybe her heart was made of ancient alien particles. She was superhuman, I concluded. It was the only plausible explanation.

“So why are you hiding out here?” she asks.

My brain is still trying to catch up with the pounding of my heart. It’s like I’m a ten-year-old kid again. And if I thought she was pretty back then, she’s downright beautiful now. I can’t form a response. All I can think about is February 14th, eight years ago. I gave her one of those crappy Valentine’s cards from the grocery store. It said Over the Moon for you. She handed me a homemade orange-and-purple friendship bracelet. She made one for every kid in the class, but that’s beside the point. I put it on right away. It was the best day of my life.

Until it wasn’t. 

It actually ended up being the worst. That night, my dad was late getting home from work, so he wasn’t there to count the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling with me before bed. My mom’s phone rang at 9:23 PM. I’ll never forget the piercing cry she let out. He’d been in an accident. He died instantly, they told her. Felt no pain. 

Ironic, considering how much it hurt us.

My whole life was uprooted in an instant. That was the end of good days. We moved in with my granddad for a while, so I had to switch schools. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Janie. It broke my already fractured heart. I still have the bracelet, though. Buried in a drawer somewhere. 

Once again, I can’t figure out why she’d stick around with me. I’m so consumed by her presence I barely notice the patio door rattle open. Connor sticks his head out.

“Yo, Fizz, there you are. Time for our set.”

“I don’t know, man.”

“Listen, you need to ask yourself if you really want this. If the answer is yes, just give it a chance.”

I feel like I’m trapped in one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books he was always reading when we were younger. Chess is about strategy, but those stories were all risk. Even as a kid I felt queasy trying to decide my next move without being able to foresee all possible outcomes. 

“Oh, hey. Didn’t see you there,” he nods towards Janie.

“You’re Connor, right? Davis’s boyfriend?” she asks.

“That’s me,” he smiles.

“I’ve known Davis forever. I’m Jane.”

He looks at me and I watch a flash of recognition cross his face. 

“Well, I better see you two in there,” he says pointing at us before disappearing back inside.  

“Fizz?” she asks.

“Stupid nickname.”

“Well, there’s a story there and I’d very much like to hear it.”

“It’s not that entertaining. Just an incident involving soda coming out of my nose.” 

“First of all, that’s incredibly entertaining. Also, how do you know Connor?” 

“He’s my cousin.” 

“I figured you weren’t from around here or we’d know each other. This is Pinesville. Everyone knows everyone.”

“Right,” I say. If my dad hadn’t died, I’d probably still live in Pinesville. I’d be part of that collective instead of just Connor’s cousin, perpetual outsider.

“So, Fizz, did you make your choice?” 

“Huh?”

“Connor told you to take a chance.”

Thousands of cicadas chirp from every direction, amplifying the panic building inside me. I blink a few times, but my brain is fogged.

“I’m not much of a risk taker, Janie.”

“Did you just call me Janie? No one has called me that since elementary school.” She squints in my direction. “Wait, do I know you?”

My body shifts to flight mode. I’m not ready for an adventure.

“I gotta go,” I mutter as I rush inside.

And just like that, I’ve left her behind. 

Again.

My plan is to retreat, but Connor’s standing on the other side of the door waiting for me. 

“Is that the girl from fourth grade?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s wild. But I’m not letting you bail on us. Or yourself,” he says.

I check my phone one more time as he drags me onstage. It’s 9:23 PM, my daily marker. The time we got the call about my dad. Usually, once I make it to 9:24 PM, I can go to sleep knowing the day is over and everything will be okay. But today is different from all the other days. I’m not in bed. I’m in a filthy dive bar, covered in sweat, balancing on a rickety stage. I’m trying not to panic. Music is supposed to calm me. I’ve spent the better part of the last decade listening to my dad’s old records at night. It was Connor who convinced me to take up bass. I glance at him. He looks nervous holding his guitar. I give him a nod so he knows I’ve got his back like he always has mine.

Our lead singer, Joel, introduces the band, and I resist the urge to search for Janie. I probably couldn’t find her anyway. When I look into the crowd, all I see are glowing flecks of dust, lit up by floodlights.

I don’t want to be reminded of stars right now. 

It’s too late to turn back. Our drummer, Gillian, taps her sticks and I’m on autopilot. The bass surges through me and syncs with my rapid heartbeat. We start with a song that’s totally instrumental. It builds up for two minutes and then explodes like an epiphany. Everyone starts dancing. It’s epic and chaotic. I’m surprised at how alive I feel. 

When we finish, I unplug and my mind starts reeling. Today I found out my mom might be sick, and who shows up but Janie on the same day? It’s not like I’ve spent all this time missing her. In fact, I haven’t thought of her much at all. Because thinking of her makes me think of my dad, and that hurts more than anything. 

Which is why I need to get out of here. Forget it ever happened.

Except I can’t.

When I walk outside to find Connor, Janie is there, leaning against the wall. A streetlight nearby shines just enough to illuminate every curve of her body. She pushes herself away from the building and faces me.

“Finn Callahan. Fourth grade. Ms. Wright’s class. The boy with the dark green eyes,” she says, folding her arms over her chest. “You were my partner for that ‘Phases of the Moon’ project. We used to play hopscotch during recess.”             

I kick the pavement and take a shallow breath.

“Janie DeLuca. You stuck up for me when Zac Geller made fun of me for wearing your friendship bracelet.” 

She sighs and leans back against the wall. “I worked so hard on those and you were the only one who wore yours.”

“I still have it.” 

For a while, I refused to take it off. A reminder there was still good out there. That she was still out there. I even wore it to my new school. No one made fun of it. They didn’t care about that or anything else about me. Not the way Janie did. But at some point, between the last time I saw her and now, I learned it was easier to avoid the risk of suffering than to be constantly let down. 

“You waited for me out here?” I ask.

“It’s not the first time. I waited for you to come back to school, but you were just gone.” 

Before I have a chance to explain, Connor and Davis approach. They’re holding hands, buzzing with excitement. They’re not afraid that their night is going to end in disaster because they’re having a good time.

Is that all it takes for some people?

“Hey, you two,” Connor croons. I glare at him, a silent plea to not humiliate me.

“We’re thinking of heading to Sunshine Diner, wanna come?” Davis asks.

Janie checks her phone. “Sure. My friends are going to a party, but I’d rather get a milkshake.”

Connor looks at me, then Janie, then back at me. He knows me better than anyone, but he’s not sure what I’m going to say. Even I don’t know until the words pour out of my mouth.

“Yeah, cool. I could go for some cheese fries.”

We meet at Sunshine a few minutes later. It smells like overcooked bacon and damp grass, courtesy of the local high school football team. Connor sees a group of friends from his private school sitting together. There’s not enough space for all of us. Janie points to a two-person booth near the kitchen.

“You and I can sit over there and catch up.”

So, now I’m sitting across from Janie in a crowded diner. I avoid her eyes, but I notice every other detail about her. Her pale blue painted fingernails, which are tapping to a beat on the edge of the table. I wonder what song is playing in her head. Her wavy brown hair that curls right beneath her chin. I remember it used to always be pulled back in a ponytail. The gray sweater that hangs off one of her shoulders. I notice her skin looks warm like honey. 

It’s very distracting. 

I don’t know how to start a conversation under these fluorescent lights. Especially since I’m concentrating way too hard on not looking at her lips. 

“Your band was awesome. Totally not what I expected,” she says.

“What did you expect?” 

“I don’t know, with a name like Cat 5 I was anticipating some hardcore screamo vibes, not indie pop that made me want to dance. Is your lead singer actually Scottish, or does he just think he’s Stuart Murdoch? Either way, it works for him.” 

“Let me guess, you want me to introduce you?”

“No way. I don’t date singers.”

“Only bassists?”

“I’m not answering that because I feel like it would come off as flirting and I promised myself I would stop.”

It stings a little, but the flirting is unnerving. I know it’s better this way.

“Do you know how to communicate without flirting?” I ask.

“Not sure yet. This is new territory.”

She scrunches her nose. It’s such a familiar quirk that I relax slightly. 

“So, you really remember me?” I ask.

“Of course! I just didn’t put it together. It was dark and I wasn’t exactly sober.”

“Why were you out there, anyway?”

“Okay, this is embarrassing, but I tried to talk to this guy I used to like and he blew me off.”

“So, your ‘no flirting’ rule only applies to me?”

“Oh, come on. We’re old friends. It’s different. Just trust me, if you run into a past crush, don’t throw yourself at her. You’ll only embarrass yourself.”

I’m fidgeting with the wrapper from my straw. I glance up but quickly look back down.

“I’d be more likely to lecture her about cigarettes.”

She lets out a small gasp and points to herself. 

As if it could be anyone else.

I shrug. “I’m sure every guy in that class had a crush on you, Janie. I’m nothing special.”

“You were the only one to wear my bracelet, so I disagree.”

“You know, after Zac shoved me for that, he told me I was too much of a loser to be friends with you.”

She rolls her eyes. “Well, we were friends. You weren’t a loser. And he’s still an ass.” She nods her head towards the football team’s table. I should have known the price I’d pay for reconnecting with Janie tonight would be seeing him, too.

“To be honest, Janie, I never even understood why you wanted to be my friend.”

“That’s easy. Since the day we met, you always cared about whatever I had to say. Like, really listened. A guy like you has a way better chance with a girl like me than Zac.”

“You’re flirting again,” I say.

“Not flirting. Just being honest.”

“Oh.” 

“But if I may flirt, for just a minute, you do realize you’re totally hot now and like twenty girls and at least three guys were swooning over you the entire show?”

This feels like dangerous territory. Part of me wants to go back to serious stuff. That’s where I thrive.

“Didn’t notice.”

“Yeah right. I’m on to you. You’ve got that tall, dark, shaggy-haired musician look now. I mean, you were cute when we were kids. Your eyes, Finn. Even back then, I noticed,” she trails off. “You can stop me anytime, you know.”

But I can’t stop her because I can’t even speak. It’s not that I don’t like Janie flirting with me. It just feels way too good. 

And I know better. 

“Flirting again,” I warn. 

“Sorry. Not quite sober, yet.” She tosses her head back and chuckles. “Maybe we need a code word so you can let me know when I’m pushing the limits?” 

“Like what?” I ask. 

“How about hopscotch? Our old favorite game.”

I don’t want to be just another guy Janie flirts with. But I also don’t want our conversation to end. I convince myself it’s a decent compromise.

“I’ll do my best to keep you in line.”

It’s almost 11 PM and I still haven’t heard from my mom. Our waiter drops off a chocolate milkshake for Janie and a plate of cheese fries for me.

“So, where’d you go anyway?” she asks as she steals a fry from my plate. 

“First of all, hopscotch.”

“What? Why?”

“You don’t steal someone’s fries unless you’re dating or flirting.”

“Geez, tough crowd,” she says, the corner of her mouth turning upward.

“Hopscotch.”

“I’m not allowed to smile at you?”

“It feels like flirting.”

“Wow, I don’t know if we can hang out if I’m not even allowed to smile.”

“You’re the one who made up the rule. I’m just trying to help.”

She leans over and grabs a handful of fries, places them on the napkin in front of her, and flashes me a wide grin. Her front teeth are slightly crooked and I’m not sure how, but it makes her smile even more captivating. 

“You’re impossible,” I say. 

“And you still haven’t answered my question.”

This is starting to feel like a game of chess. Instinct tells me to retreat, but I ignore it.

“My mom and I had to move in with my granddad. I didn’t think anybody cared anyway.”

I can feel her eyes piercing through me.

“Well, you were wrong.” 

Every cell in my body goes haywire. I’m definitely short-circuiting. Maybe I’m the one who’s not human.

“When you disappeared, Finn, I was so sad. My mom couldn’t explain. Just like when my dad left. I really missed you. It sucks you thought I wouldn’t care.”

“I didn’t know your dad left.”

“It wasn’t exactly playground conversation, you know?”

“I’m really sorry.”

“He and my mom were never married. Every so often I try to get in touch. Like I said, I’ve had my share of rejection this week.”

“That’s what you meant on the patio?”

“Yeah. Sometimes it feels like I’m just waiting for someone to care about me long enough to stick around.”

“For what it’s worth, I wish I could have stuck around back then.”

She starts picking at the nail polish on her left thumb. “Since we’ve gone back to serious stuff, I wanted to say, just because I’m a flirt doesn’t mean I hook up with a lot of guys. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me.”

“What idea?”

“You know what I mean, Finn.”

“Doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t judge you either way.”

She wipes the specks of chipped nail polish off the table onto the floor and straightens up. 

“Oh really? Because you definitely judged me for asking for a cigarette earlier.”

“I’m sorry, Janie. For being a jerk. Although I stand by what I said. Just not the way I said it.”

She sighs and leans her arm on the table. Her chin rests on her open palm. “No one has called me Janie for so long. I like the way you say it. Your voice is—”

“Janie,” I say.

“Yeah?”

“Hopscotch.”

“I might be a lost cause.” She sinks back against the booth’s red vinyl cushion. “But what can I say? I like flirting. It’s fun. Everything else terrifies me.”

“Meaning?”

“Love, sex, commitment.”

“So, you stick with flirting to protect yourself?”

“I mean, yeah. I’m not hard to figure out.”

“Your dad disappointed you when you were young and now you have trust issues?”

“Basically.” She takes a long sip of her milkshake. “What’s your excuse for avoiding relationships?”

“How do you know I don’t have a girlfriend?”

“Do you?” 

My muscles tense. I think of junior year. A girl named Lena from Connor’s school thought it was hot that I was sad and mysterious. He convinced me to ask her out. She intrigued me with her purple hair and nose ring. It seemed easy enough at first. Our make-out sessions at Connor’s house were the best part of my weekends. I let my guard down with her. I even mentioned my dad one night. How we used to count stars. But when she said I love you, I couldn’t risk saying it back. In the end, she realized there was no mystery. I got dumped for a happier guy. 

“No,” I answer.

“Ah, now it’s your turn to be analyzed. You think you’re easy to forget. You think you can’t trust anyone.” 

I nod in agreement, but what I don’t say is that the person I trust least is myself. We stay quiet for entirely too long, just me messing with my paper placemat and Janie with her thumbnails. When she finally breaks the silence, it’s under her breath.

“Speaking of our mutual friend.”

I look up to see a husky guy walking towards the table. Zac. He slides into the booth next to Janie.

“Jane D. You on a date? Is this why you won’t go to prom with me? You’ve got some secret hipster boyfriend?”

He steals one of her fries.

My fries, technically.

“Shut up, Zac. I won’t go to prom with you because you’re an idiot. And this is Finn.”

I glance towards him and give him an indifferent nod but his eyes go wide.

“Finn fucking Callahan? Whoa! We all thought you were dead!”

I try to swallow but taste acid rising in my throat. So that’s what everyone thinks happened? No wonder I feel like a ghost half the time.

“God, Zac. Seriously?” Janie punches his arm. 

That’s when my mom decides to call. I don’t have time to worry about anything else. I rush away without an explanation. The world goes quiet as soon as I step outside, but my mom assails me with questions about where I am, who I’m with—whether I’m drunk.

I tell her I’m at the diner and remind her I don’t drink.

“Why did you text so many times? You had me worried sick.” 

“Are you sick, mom? You left a bill on the counter. From the cancer center.”

There’s no response at first. I stop pacing to look at my screen and see if we’ve been disconnected.

“Mom?”

“I didn’t mean for you to see that.”

“Well, I did.”

“Listen, Finn. They removed a small tumor. They think they got it all. Hopefully, everything’s fine.”

My knees give out and I’m back to where I started. Sitting against an unyielding wall, silently gasping for air.

“What if it’s not?”

“We’ll get through it, okay? I’ll let you know as soon as I know anything. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. It’s just, I’m more concerned about you than the results, hon.”

I hate that my anxiety is such a burden on her.

“I’m fine,” I lie.

I hang up and my phone drops to the ground. My fist lands on top of it with enough force to crack the screen into hundreds of tiny fragments that can never be put back together. My mind churns. I’m eighteen now. If I lose my mom, I’m on my own. I should be getting excited about college. The beginning of the rest of my life, whatever that means. But how am I supposed to look forward to the future when I know how easily it can all implode? 

A shadow falls over me. I look up and it’s Connor. He joins me on the ground.

“You okay, man?”

“Define okay,” I mumble.

“What did she say?”

“No results yet.”

“You know you’ll never really be alone, no matter what, right?”

I nod and swallow the lump in my throat. Connor’s quiet for a minute.

“So, you having a good time with Janie?” he asks as he bumps my shoulder with his.

I smile involuntarily. 

“I’m not even convinced she’s real,” I say.

“I beg to differ,” Janie’s voice rings out from above us. My heart catches in my throat. 

“Uh, I think Davis is waiting for me,” Connor says, squeezing my shoulder before getting up. “See you two later.”

Janie stands there, picking at her nail polish again.

“I thought you ditched me.”

“Sorry. Got a call.”

Her demeanor softens when she sees the shattered phone.

“Listen, about what Zac said—”

“It wasn’t me who died, obviously. It was my dad.”

“That’s why you left?”

“It was a motorcycle accident. He’d been drinking.”

“I’m sorry you went through that on your own, Finn.”

She says my name with the care of someone I’ve known much longer than an hour. It makes me feel like I’m being taken apart and put back together at the same time. 

“For what it’s worth, I hope you decide to stick around now.”

I’ve spent half the evening with her and I still can’t look her in the eyes. I’m not supposed to feel anything but pain tonight. It’s like trying not to look at the sun. I want to. So bad. But I know it will hurt to see that kind of light. 

“Let’s go,” she says. 

“Where?” 

“For a walk. I already paid our bill.”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

She doesn’t know I worry about everything. She just extends her hand and helps me up. She holds on a second longer than necessary and my heart starts banging against my ribcage, reminding me to be cautious. 

“Your hands are softer than I imagined,” she says.

“You’ve thought about my hands?”

“I mean, you play bass. I was expecting more calluses.”

“Oh, right.” 

We walk several streets away with only the crickets and an occasional car passing as our soundtrack. The sky is painted dark blue and the moon is barely a sliver. We’re standing close. I could reach down and grasp her hand again, if I was braver. I follow her across the street and through a pathway in the branches of a giant oak tree. Its limbs stretch so far that they reach back into the ground in every direction. We walk under a small gazebo covered in vines and past a basketball court that’s lit up by streetlights. She stops suddenly when we reach the sidewalk.

“Wanna talk about what’s wrong?”

“Talking to you makes me nervous.”

“I can tell. That’s why I tried to stop flirting. But I can’t help it. I like you, Finn. I feel like we picked right up where we left off. I don’t want to push you away.”

“It’s not like that. I mean, it is. That’s the problem. The good things in my life, they always get eclipsed by the bad.”

“I get that there’s always ups and downs, but that doesn’t mean it’s a tradeoff.”

Her bangs wisp in a gentle breeze and I’m overcome by the desire to smooth them out. I run my fingers through the knots in my own hair instead. I take a step back, dig the envelope out of my pocket and hand it to her.

“Today I found this.”

She scrunches her nose as she reads the return address. “Esperanza Cancer Center?” 

“It’s my mom’s. She had a tumor removed. I found out today. And instead of home miserable like I should be, I’m standing here with Janie DeLuca. My literal dream girl. Who can’t stop herself from flirting with me?” I drag my hands down the side of my face. “So, yeah, it sure as hell feels like a tradeoff.”

“You know you’re allowed to be happy, even when life sucks, right?”

“I have so little left to lose, Janie. I’m not sure you understand the risk here. If I stick around, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna fall in love with you.”

I cover my face with my palms. But Janie doesn’t falter under pressure. 

“That sounds kind of nice. I’ve never been in love before.” She takes a step closer, pulling my arms down just enough that I’m forced to finally look directly into her dark brown eyes. I thought it would hurt, but it’s not pain I feel.

“Esperanza,” she says in a hushed voice and holds up the envelope. I stare at her, my eyes clouded with confusion and longing.

“It means hope, Finn.”

I let out an exasperated sigh. “I’m not great at hope. The stakes are too high.”

“But you can’t shut out all the good things because you’re scared. You might miss out on something that can help you get through the hard stuff.”

Her words flow through me, there’s no way to stop them. I’m not even sure I would if I could. She’s standing close enough that when she tucks a piece of hair behind her ear, I’m overwhelmed by the scent of lavender and coconut. I notice she’s chipped all the polish off her thumbs. They’re no longer concealed, just raw and real. She may be human after all. 

“What if we’re meant to leave each other?” I ask.

“What if we’re meant to find each other,” she counters.

“This feels like a really intense game of chess.”

She smiles wide, a single star in the great expanse of endless night. “Remember when you tried to teach me chess?”

I shake my head and chuckle under my breath. “You were convinced every move you made put me in checkmate.”

“Not my greatest skill,” she laughs, “but I do remember all the phases of the moon.”

I look up at the small sliver in the sky again. “Waxing crescent tonight.”

“The bravest lunar phase, in my opinion. The moon doesn’t mind being partially illuminated. It knows it will be full again.”

“I wish life was still that simple. Like when we were kids.”

“Maybe it still can be.”

“How?” 

“Let’s play hopscotch,” she says, gesturing toward the faded outline painted below our feet.

It feels like the ground has shifted below me.

“I don’t remember how to play.”

“I’ll go first then,” she says. She picks up a rock. “You just throw it, then jump. No strategies. No risk.”

“There’s always a risk, Janie.”

She tosses the rock anyway. It lands with a thump. She hops four times, leans over, picks it up. Throws it again. When she reaches ten, she turns and faces me. 

“I’ll just wait over here, on the other side,” she says.

“You’re not sick of waiting for me?”

“What I’m sick of is being scared. I realized that tonight. Because of you.”

Her eyes lock on mine as she tosses the rock back in my direction. 

“Your turn.”

I throw it. It lands on five. 

I’m halfway there. 

“What if something bad happens?” I ask.

“You were worth the wait for me then, and you’re worth the wait now,” she says.

I swallow and throw the rock again. It lands right at her feet.

“The question is, am I now worth the risk for you?” she asks.

I feel as brave as the moon. I close the space between us and she reaches up and holds my face in her hands. I lean down and then her lips are on mine and I’m gripping the small of her back. The rest of existence falls away as we kiss in the light of the imperfect moon. Janie stops and looks up at me, still holding onto my arms. 

“You have a very cute smile, Finn Callahan.”

“Hopscotch?” I ask breathlessly.

Janie’s lips linger inches from mine. She slowly shakes her head no. An impish grin spreads across her face.

“Checkmate.”

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