Laela thrummed the tip of her popsicle stick against her cheek, carelessly letting the sticky juice run down her hand. She squinted at the blinding sun, “Melted.”
It was the first thing she’d said in the last hour. Dmitry sucked a breath in, prying his eyes off Laela and following her lazy gaze to the cloudless sky. It was an overwhelming blue, and Dmitry could make out tiny black specks littered in the air. Black Oystercatchers. After all, they could see the sparkling sea in the distance.
A noise interrupted his thoughts. Laela had stuck the wooden stick between her teeth and chewed boredly. The crunching sound reminded Dmitry of his dog Roofus crushing the bones of a dead hatchling. The memory made goosebumps creep onto his arms, making him shiver despite the blistering heat. “Do you want me to get you another one?” he asked, trying to avoid staring at Laela’s beautiful face.
She sat about two feet away in a lawn chair, her muscular legs thrusted onto the glass antique table Dmitry and his mother had given his grandma for her birthday. Laela didn’t seem to notice it was extremely precious and could break with one easy kick. Her red hair was cropped close to her scalp, and she wore cheap bumblebee yellow sunglasses. When she moved her head an inch to the right to acknowledge Dmitry, he could see his ugly face reflected in her dark lenses. He wrinkled his forehead because he couldn’t see her eyes through the glasses. Her eyes were always a mystery, which is the reason why he loved looking into them. Decoding her complicated reactions and thoughts was one of his favorite pastimes.
“I’m good,” she answered, examining his face with the chewed popsicle stick resting between her teeth. As if she knew what he was thinking, she raised her sunglasses, let them rest on her head, and stared into his face with full force. Dmitry blinked rapidly, staring at Laela was like staring at the sun. “So why did you actually invite me out here?” She raised a single delicate eyebrow without changing her expression.
This question left Dmitry in a state of confusion. What did she mean? What was she thinking? Was she implying that he had invited her out to Oregon for some other reason than just relaxing as friends?
Wait. There it was. The truth, buried beneath so many lies it was hard to keep count. Laela was digging for the truth.
Once Dmitry realized what Laela was talking about, his cheeks turned ten times more red. If Laela really wanted it to be this way, why hadn’t she made her move before? She wasn’t the type of girl to wait seven long years before confessing. Besides, he had excluded one factor of the equation that would keep them apart forever.
“Uh . . . to have fun and hang out . . .” he trailed off, not meeting her eyes. Laela unconsciously scooted her chair closer to his. “As friends,” he added hastily. The thin line of her mouth curled into a frown. She turned her head away from him to let her eyes wander amongst the redwood trees. A light breeze swept by the deck, rustling Laela’s long feather earrings. Dmitry wondered if she was disappointed—or glad.
She nodded slightly, bobbing her head up and down just enough to make her earrings dance again. Tilting her face up at the sky, she said, “Okay.” But he questioned it: Was it really okay?
Dmitry thought of all the times dorky or cool kids walked up to her to flirt. He thought of all the times he’d seen Laela at the school dances, wrapped in some stranger’s arms. His mind then went to all the people she’d dated. His stomach twisted while his perspective flipped. Wanting to slap himself, he gulped and reminded himself not to think about it.
Suddenly, Laela turned to face him again. “I have a confession to make,” she declared confidently. She stood up and walked over to the edge of the deck. Letting her hands rest on the wood, she sighed and let herself bathe in the sun.
Dmitry sat very still, his last breath caught in his throat. A confession? A love confession? Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead as a result of the suspense—and the heat. Obviously, Laela wanted him to join her at the edge of the deck, but he couldn’t move a muscle. She leaned over the wooden railing, breathing in the fresh smell of pine trees. He knew he should stop her, warn her that the deck wasn’t stable and probably couldn’t handle her weight, but nothing came out of his mouth. He let her do it. She spun her head around, a wild grin on her face, the wind whipping her clothes. “Come on,” she beckoned him forward with a bony finger that held a silver ring with a purple stone.
Dmitry shook his head, crossing his arms against his chest. But the disappointed look that Laela gave him forced him to reluctantly cross the deck to stand by her.
“Okay, here it goes—” she was cut off by an exasperated groan. It came from Dmitry.
He took his hands off the smooth, red wood and ripped them through his hair. Sighing, he swallowed hard. Here goes all my self-confidence, he thought. “Wait, Laela. I have a confession before you make yours. Somehow, I suspect they’ll be connected.” Laela’s eyebrows wrinkled, but her eyes told a different story. She was intrigued. “Okay, here mine goes . . .” He licked his lips, turning to face her. She looked like a goddess on that deck. Her fiery hair perfectly matched her crimson lips. Her crazy green eyes searched his face for clues about what he was going to say. Her ill-fitted baby pink tank top was flapping in the wind behind her. His eyes wanted to examine every cute freckle on her face.
Before he could speak, Laela put her hand up and closed the space between them. Dmitry’s lips parted in surprise just as they met hers. He stood rigid, his hands stuck to his side while he kissed Laela. It only lasted a few seconds before she put her hands lightly on his shoulders and pulled him out of the kiss.
Dmitry became aware of the horror painted on his face when Laela shot him a slightly hurt look. He gulped and took a step away from her. Letting his eyes rest on the fading bits of sky, he reflected on the previous event. How could he have gotten exactly what he wanted, but was now disgusted at himself for even wanting it in the first place? The only girl he’d ever had a crush on was Laela. He’d been in love with her for seven years. How did she figure it out? How long has she known? Why did she do this to him now?
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions,” Laela said, somehow magically reading his mind again, “and I might have answers. Just let me first start off with I love you, but not in the way you might think—or want.” She too glared up at the sky.
“But Laela,” I interrupted, annoyed how my throat seemed to choke on her name. “You’re . . . gay.”
She blinked once. “Let’s not jump to conclusions, and if you’d let me finish, I was going to say I love you as a friend. As a best friend, as family, as”—she puffed out a breath—“a brother.”
Dmitry expected his heart to shatter in his chest, but it didn’t. Confused, he turned back to Laela, searching her beautiful face for traces of lies. There were none.
“But why did you k-kiss me?” he asked, his legs shaking while he walked back and fell awkwardly into the lawn chair. Laela’s face softened, her eyelids closing for a small second, but it was enough to tell him she was tired.
She followed him and collapsed into her own lawn chair. “Because I thought that’s what you wanted. What would make you happy. Do you realize how glum you are these days? Besides, I’m still figuring out my sexuality.” Her tone was playful yet emotional, and Dmitry wondered how she did it. “Obviously, I was wrong. I thought you had a crush on me, but I’m assuming you got over it faster than my popsicle can melt in this scorching heat.” A smile danced on her lips while her eyes were weary and sad.
He couldn’t take it anymore. Laela needed to know the truth. “Lae,” he said, wiping sweat off his forehead, “did it ever occur to you that kissing me might break my heart more? Did you really think I’d get over you that quickly?” He wasn’t yelling, but he was certainly on the verge of raising his voice more and more.
She sucked in her breath through her teeth. Her legs made a jumping motion, like they were going to hop onto the glass table, but at the last moment, they decided not to. “I’m sorry, Dima. I didn’t consider that. Please forgive me. And calm down.” She leaned back as far as she could go in the lawn chair.
He sighed, recognizing that he really did need to calm down. Forgiving her was the easy part, forgetting it ever happened was the hard part. “Do you want to know why I kept crushing on you, even when I knew you weren’t interested in me and when I found out you were gay?” Laela’s emerald eyes flicked to his. “It’s because of something silly my mom told me once. It was after I came home crying because you picked some other boy as a lab partner and not me. She sat me down and told me to toughen up because . . . because . . . Hearts are meant to be broken.” He let that sink in before continuing. “So I thought it wouldn’t matter if I kept loving you, because hearts are meant to be broken, so I was meant to be hurt.”
She pursed her lips, putting her tiny hands on her hips. “I can’t believe you,” was all she said.
Putting his head into his hands, Dmitry let a tear slide down his cheek. He thought it was harmless at the time, but more followed. Suddenly, he was sobbing and holding himself like there was no tomorrow. Through his blurry vision, he saw the sky and the trees and the distant ocean. They all blended together like a watercolor painting.
He unexpectedly felt new, warm arms embrace him. A fuzzy version of Laela appeared to be hugging him, whispering comforting words and rubbing his back. He hugged her back. After a few minutes, the rivers on his pink cheeks went dry, and his vision cleared up.
“Great,” she said, pulling away to look him square in the face, “you finally got a grip.” Then she added more kindly, “It’s going to be okay.” Classic Laela. Say a smart remark and then say something nice so you won’t get angry at her. Dmitry rolled his eyes and wiped traces of saltwater off his face.
Burying his face in a nearby pillow, he muttered, “I could’ve cried the Pacific Ocean.”
She laughed soundlessly and winked, “You said it, I didn’t.” Gathering a sneaky expression on her face, she made her eyebrows bounce on her face. “Soooooooooo, kissing you was pretty nice, and it’s just for fun, not real at all . . .”
Dmitry sighed, trying to hide a smirk. “Alright, geez. As long as it’s just for fun.”
She glanced at him and smiled like a sister might smile at his brother. The sky changed from blue to a mixture of orange and pink. He could feel a showstopper sunset coming on. Laela grinned and sat beside him on the lawn chair. “Besides, Dima, hearts are meant to be broken.”