“Twenty-eight… twenty-nine… thirty!”
Adeline’s high tops tiptoed along the log above the small creek.. She knew she wasn’t supposed to use it, but she’d done it dozens of times before. Besides, detouring all the way to the bridge would take up valuable time that she could use to find Peter. He could be anywhere in the forest.
Her foot snapped a twig as she stepped onto the bank, and she cursed to herself. Peter might know where she was now. Nevertheless, she knew she would find him this time.
“It would be so easy to rob this place.”
Adeline chuckled, humouring him, as always. “You say that every time.” Peter held the door for her, sarcastically gallant as he waved her through.
“And every time I get closer to doing it.” She just sighed.
The classroom was dark in the dimness of a March evening. Blue chairs were perched on top of the desks. The only light came from a distant street and the small window in the door. But they didn’t bother to turn the light on; they never did.
Adeline raced through the forest at top-speed. It was just large enough for such an exercise, with just enough hiding places as to be inconvenient for her. She wasn’t deterred, though; if she found Peter fast enough this time, she would win their tournament.
Peter immediately tossed his bag down and picked up a whiteboard marker. He started to sketch their music teacher on the board. It was a nervous habit of his to draw caricatures. Of anyone, really: the Beatles, Chandler Bing, Adeline.
She watched while she lowered her backpack, noticeably more careful than Peter, and wondered what might prompt such an anxious compulsion of his. “What’s up?”
“We need to talk.” He didn’t miss a beat as he sketched Mr. Fanning’s square glasses.
“Yeah.” Adeline was alarmed to find her heart skip a beat. Of course they had to talk. Things had been noticeably off between them the last few days. But maybe, just maybe, he really would talk this time.
Peter fell silent for a moment, sketching away, as if expecting her to continue. Even though he was the one that wanted to talk. Eventually, he got the hint. “Addie, are you really sure you should be going on that date?”
“What?” He wasn’t really going to do this, was he? Something in his tone made her want to stomp.
“Look, I know you’ve been looking forward to it and everything but… I don’t know. I’m not so sure about Ted.” Peter didn’t even spare her a glance, just continued drawing furiously like a nervous tick. He really was telling her not to go, and not telling her why. Not really.
Her flamboyantly red hair fanned out behind her as she checked inside a thick copse (no Peter), under an evergreen bush (so that’s where her bracelet went), and every other conceivable spot Peter could be. It was routine at this point, though she checked everything in a different order each time they played to throw him off her scent. It was a clever game, Adeline thought. It took more than people realized.
“What’s wrong with Ted?” She’d play along for now, she supposed.
“I just don’t like the guy. He gives me a bad feeling.” I wonder why, stupid, she thought. Did he really not see it? He would spend all this time convincing her not to go, when all he had to say was “go with me instead.” But he didn’t. He never did. “And you don’t even seem like you like him that much.”
“Sure, I do.” Adeline didn’t mean it to sound so indifferent, but it came out ridiculously so. Finally, Peter turned around. He laughed, and so did she.
As she raced through the terrain she knew so well, Adeline heard a rustling in a nearby maple tree. She slowed her pace, smirking quietly to herself, and moved in for the kill. But just as she got to the foot of the tree, a blue jay flew out of it above her. She jumped a foot, startled. Adeline chuckled at herself and took off again.
Ted was funny, and smart, she guessed. He wasn’t who she wanted, but what did it matter? She couldn’t have Peter anyway. Not like this. So she’d go out and have a good time. There was nothing wrong with that.
When Peter faced the board again, she felt suddenly awkward. She began to pace up and down the aisles of desks.
“I just think that your first date is supposed to be special, you know? It should be with someone who…”
“Who what?” Adeline fought to keep the frustration out of her voice. If he would just say something. Did he have no idea or no guts?
“You know.” Do you?
“No, I don’t.” This time she failed, and her voice came out jagged. She forced her legs to keep moving up the middle aisle.
She stood silent, frozen, listening for any sign of him in this great, big world of hers.
Peter said nothing. He just kept drawing those stupid cartoons.
“I thought you’d be happy for me.” It was a sad confession. A desperate reach for him. Adeline saw this penetrate as he hesitated so briefly over Mr. Fanning’s striped suspenders. Of course he wouldn't be happy for her. In an ordinary world, he would, but this was far from ordinary.
“I am,” he muttered, almost a whisper. It sounded like shame. She expected that if there were light she would see him flush.
“No, you’re not. If you can’t even pretend to care, why is it even any of your business?” She didn’t know what she was saying, not really. Adeline stopped pacing at the end of the middle row. She was across the room from him now, and there was so much distance between them, with his marker in between.
“Addie, I want to be, it’s just…”
“I’m trying to protect you-”
“Would you put that damn marker down and look me in the eye?” He was doing it all wrong. It was all wrong. If he could just say something honest, for once. She loved him, but god, she hated him.
Peter put it down on the ledge and turned a little too suddenly, finally getting frustrated. “If you would just listen to-”
“You’re not saying anything.”
“He’s a douche. He snaps at his friends, he-”
“No.” Adeline couldn’t even stand to hear it.
“You don’t really like him, it’s supposed to be-”
“I don’t want you to get hurt, I’m trying-”
“If you’ve got something to say, would you just say it?”
At last, Adeline had him. She spotted him from a distance, lying flat behind a fallen tree. His red sneaker was just poking out at the end.
Struck with adrenaline, she snuck up slowly behind him, looking out for twigs to step on and dips to trip her. How good it would feel to scare him. And she did.
When she got close enough, she dived over the dead bough and on top of him. As she laughed raucously, Peter’s scream melted into that big, limitless laugh of his. They lay there next to each other, rolling around with laughter for ages.
Adeline had found him.
That was it. There was nothing more that Adeline could say or do to make him say it. Say he loved her, would she choose him. If there was any moment that he would say it, it would be now. This moment in the darkness of the classroom and the starlight of the window and the death of their shadows. It was a cliff. Everything could change. It could be perfect.
Or it could be now or never.
He didn’t break.
He stood there, staring Adeline in the eye. They each pled their cases. But if he didn’t give in, he didn’t give in. And he didn’t.
It should’ve made her want to scream, but all she felt is the same heartbreak she’d felt a thousand times. Every day. Every single time they had this conversation. Why would now be any different?
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. Sorry for not being brave enough. Sorry for fighting. Sorry for betraying the microphone you gave me. Sorry for not loving you enough.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Sorry for not being brave enough. Sorry for forcing you. Sorry for holding you up so high. Sorry for not loving you enough.
Peter approached, light on his feet, and embraced Adeline. His arms draped over her shoulders, her head. His cheek on hers. Her arms around his waist. Her tears failing to appear. It was unextraordinary.
He watched her walk away with the snowflakes.
Sorry for loving you.