Tiana and I were sitting by the fire, not being able to sleep. Willow, Cory, and Caleb had already fallen asleep, so it was just the two of us now.
“The cave looks kind of eerie right now,” I said.
Tiana shrugged and looked around, smiling, “I think it looks beautiful, the way the fire glows on the stalactites.” She grinned at me, “Like when we went ice skating and the sun glowed on the ice during sunset.”
I chuckled, “I remember that day. You insisted on doing a figure eight, no matter how many times you fell, no matter how weird you looked trying.” I turned to her, “I’ve always admired that about you. That you don’t care that you look weird to other people, you’re just…you.”
Her face darkened for a second and she turned back to the fire.
“What happened?” I asked. “What did I do wrong?”
Tiana turned back to me, her eyes looked like they had tears in them as she sighed, “Do you remember about a year ago when you, your mom, and Granny Miyako went on a three-month long trip to Asia?”
I nodded. I remembered that trip. I remembered it for sure. We went to all different kinds of countries in Asia. China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, you name it. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I felt so free…it was one of the few times that I could just feel spontaneous without overthinking everything.
Although…it doesn’t seem like it was one of Tiana’s best experiences. I didn’t know what went down since she didn’t come on the trip with me. She had begged her parents to let her come, but they refused. I mean, I see why, if I had a kid, I wouldn’t let them spend three months in Asia without me, no matter how much I liked their best friend.
“Well…there was someone who…didn’t really like that I was so weird and happy.” She said.
“What? What do you mean?” I asked her.
“I had a bully,” She said quietly like she didn’t want me to hear her.
She had a what? I mean, I thought something was kind of off when I got back, but she didn’t say anything about it, so I just let it go. But now…
“How could you not tell me about this?” I questioned. “How could you not tell me that someone was bullying you?”
She turned to face me again, and I could see that there were tears trickling down her cheeks. “I was humiliated, Evan. You know how much I like being different. Always saying that I didn’t think I was weird, that I was unique. I didn’t want you to know that there was someone who tried to take that from me and that I almost let them.”
“What did they say?”
“Just things like stop being who you are, no one likes you, and if you don’t stop I’m going to take care of you myself. And some other not so pleasant things..." She was crying now, so I put my arms around her, and let her silently cry, her tears soaking my shirt.
“You got this resolved, right?” I asked her.
She nodded, “As soon as Principal Henderson found out who it was, he suspended her, and then I found out that she moved schools because her mom had made a big fuss that I was the issue, so they were moving.”
That Tiana was the issue? How stupid was that? It wasn’t like she asked to be bullied by this girl. “You said she. Was it Kimberly Nixon?”
Tiana nodded weakly, “Yup.”
I hugged her tighter, “Well, Kimberly Nixon is an idiot. You’re okay now. You hear me?”
She nodded again, “I am.”
I let go of the hug and we talked for a little while longer. About different things that we liked. Books, music, drawing, things like that.
Finally, I just blurted out, “Tiana, do you like me?”
Oh god. Why did I ask that? As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I regretted saying them.
She seemed startled for a moment that I asked that question. Then, she made a face and shook her head, “No.”
Oh…I had to admit, I was a little disappointed by her answer.
“Are you sure?” I pressed on.
What the actual heck was wrong with me? Why was I digging myself deeper?
“Yes,” she said curtly. She was acting really cold about this question. “Can we just watch the fire?”
I nodded, “Yeah.”
We were watching the fire again, every few seconds I would sneak glances at Tiana. I couldn’t help myself. She though, kept her eyes trained on the fire. Until she glanced over and caught me looking.
“Stop.” She said.
I nodded and went back to watching the fire. I snuck another glance at her, and then averted my eyes. She asked me to stop, I told myself. I have to respect that.
I glanced once more and saw that she was staring right at me. When she saw that I was looking, she asked, “Why do you keep looking at me like that?”
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked her, deflecting the question.
She just shook her head and turned back to the fire, “Nevermind.”
“If you don’t like me,” I began. “Then why would you look at me the way you’re looking at me?”
She stood up, but I could see that she was blushing hard. “Look, if I liked you like that don’t you think that I’d just tell you? Well, I don’t, so-”
I was on my feet now too, my hands placed on the sides of her face as I brought her close. I could feel my lips brush slightly against hers, but I hesitated for a moment before letting her go and pulling away.
I looked at her and saw that her eyes held a mix of happiness and confusion. “Why did you do that?”
I shook my head, feeling my face grow warm, but I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t from the fire. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
She bit her lip and stared at me, “Don’t be.” Then, she walked to where Caleb was sleeping.
God, this was going to be a night I’d never forget.
We woke up the next morning, feeling groggy. Sleeping on a cave floor does that to you. You know what else does that to you? Not being able to sleep because you feel your heart pumping so hard that you’re afraid it’s going to burst out of your ribcage. After that incident at the fire, I just couldn’t sleep.
This was worse than the time we got invited to a party at school. You know those parties you see in the movies where bad things happen.
“Look who’s coming,” Tiana had said excitedly. “Ryan Bradford and Missy Hart handing out invitations to the party of the year. It’s begun.”
“What makes you think we’ll even get an invite?” I had asked her.
Ryan and Missy came and started to pass by us when Missy stopped him. “Wait.” She had said.
The two of them rifled through the envelopes and handed one to each of us. Then, they walked off.
Tiana started smiling really big. “Do you know what this means?” She had asked excitedly.
I shook my head.
“We’re going to be with them! We’re going to live the popular life!”
“Do you really think we should go to this party?” I had to voice my concern here. What else was I supposed to do? “I mean, these things always end up trouble.”
“C’mon,” Tiana had soothed. “We’re only eighth graders, it’s not like everyone’s gonna get drunk or something.”
I voiced it again when we were in the hallway about to knock on the apartment door. “Are you sure about this?”
She nodded her head rapidly, her frizzy curls bouncing up and down.
Missy opened the door and led us inside. My eyes nearly came out of my head. The whole eighth grade had to be here! Maybe even some kids from the high school were here too!
I wanted to leave, but I sucked it up and sat in a corner with my sketchbook. I didn’t even know how much time went by until Ryan came and hauled me up by an arm.
“Are you going to play or what?” He asked.
I was mystified. “Play what?”
He pointed to the floor where a lot of kids were sitting in a circle, with…was that a bottle in the middle?!
“I’d really rather not…” I started to walk away, but Ryan sat me down with all the others.
Thankfully, none of the spins had landed on me – or Tiana, for that matter. Some of the kisses only lasted two seconds, while some of them lasted for longer. Ryan and Missy’s lasted the longest. Eventually, it was my turn to spin. I tried to pretend like I had already gone but it was no use. I gave the bottle a good spin and it spun around, and around, and around until it landed on…Tiana?!
Her eyes went wide, and I felt my face burning red.
I fumbled with the bottle and muttered, “I messed up, hold on…”
“No, no, no, no,” Missy laughed. “You gotta kiss her.”
The two of us stood up and I whispered, “Sorry.” She put a hand on the back of my neck, and I set one on her waist. We leaned in slowly; I felt our noses brushing against each other.
Suddenly, the lights were on and I heard an adult voice yell, “What is going on in here?”
It was Missy’s parents! They kicked us all out and Tiana and I walked back home in awkward silence, not being able to look each other in eyes.
I really hoped it wasn’t going to be like that again.
The five of us were getting ready to go exploring some more when I accidentally bumped into Tiana.
“Hi,” she said awkwardly.
“Hi,” I said right back. We just stood there a while, staring at each other.
“What’s the matter with you two?” Willow asked us. “You were perfectly fine talking to each other yesterday, now you’re looking at each other like something happened.”
Tiana and I quickly averted our eyes from staring at the other and looked at Willow.
“Wait a minute,” she began. “Did something happen last night? First kiss or something?”
I felt my face grow warm as my eyes widened, “No!”
Willow shrugged, “Yeah, sure, okay.” But I could tell that she didn’t really buy what I was saying. She started to walk away but she turned around and called, “You two are going to figure it out someday, there’s something there.”
Tiana and I just watched as she walked away.
“I don’t know what she’s talking about,” Tiana said finally.
“I know,” I said, crossing my arms. “She hasn’t even known us for twenty-four hours, and she thinks she has us all figured out.”
She laughed awkwardly, “Yeah…”
We drifted off and back to getting things ready for more exploring. Eventually, we set off walking, Cory and Willow in the lead. We walked for a good while before stopping at a forest.
“Vresk Forest,” Tiana whispered.
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