Joe stared herself down in the mirror, almost challenging her reflection to stop her.
When it didn’t she spit out her toothpaste and pointed her toothbrush, bristle side, to her glaring image. Weapon-like she wielded it, white spit clinging to her lower lip.
“You can do this.” Joe said in her most convincing tone. “You’ve practiced what you’re going to say a million times. You know those words by heart.” Her reflection stared back at her, looking unconvinced. She felt her confidence waver. If she couldn’t even do this now how could she possibly go and tell him?
Even thinking of his name (Hickory Benjamin) made her want to take back her promise and curl up in a ball, never to speak to another human again.
“Stop that!” Joe chided herself with gritted teeth. She had to do this. They had known each other forever and finally after his fifth breakup she had realized how much that actually meant to her, and how much seeing him flirt with other girls hurt her.
He had never so much as glanced at her in a way that suggested he liked her and Joe couldn’t stand it. Even if it was just to explain her feelings to him she had to do it. She couldn’t be the third wheel in another one of his doomed relationships. She was so tired of it that she would even risk her friendship with him altogether.
Joe wiped the residue spittle off of her cheek and nodded confidently. She would do it. Today she would march right up to him and let him know how much he meant to her. No more waiting in the wings. She could do this.
She couldn’t do this. What was she crazy? This was going to ruin the only decent relationship she had ever had with a guy. This was her oldest and dearest friend. Someone she had cared for since he had moved into her neighborhood in 4th grade.
The memory of their childhood was still fresh in her head as she got ready for the day, hands shaking. Recently, it seemed their past was the only thing she could think about. That and just...him in general.
They had become fast friends on the playground and still to this day managed to stay just as close. He was her safety net when middle school became terrifying and high school loomed dangerously overhead.
He was home.
Back then, Joe still recalled being fascinated that a boy wanted to hang out with her at all. Her! A short, awkward nine year old with too much to say and not enough brain to stop speaking. Even now it still baffled her. Why would he want to play with her when there were so many other interesting people to play with?
But still, every afternoon they would cross the boiling bark chips to find their sanctuary under the tree. They had found a box at the beginning of the school year and used it day in and day out as their transportation to other worlds. They had used crude crayon drawings to make it look like a proper spaceship, but days in the sun and rain had worn at the box till it was barely staying together with generous amounts of glue and packing tape.
Their game would always start the same, Hickory would say: “The stars are a-waitin’” and Joe would reply “Well then why don’t you chart a course you silly boy?”
The first couple of times it seemed the most funny thing in the world and they would break their old box laughing at it, but now it was like their secret code. An inside joke only they shared.
Joe pulled herself back to the present, wiping her sweating palms on her jeans as she boarded the bus, still shoving toast in her mouth.
Usually she read a book on the way to school but this morning her breakfast was not sitting well, combined with her nerves she thought she might be sick. She felt the Cheerios in her stomach retaliate against her iron-will. She had to do this. No matter how much she really didn’t want to. She had to be brave.
Marching down the bus aisle Joe tried to think of something else. Literally anything besides Hickory’s butterscotch eyes and swirling cinnamon hair...
Today though, he was all she could think about. As the bus rolled down the dirt road, Joe lost herself in memories of the days when things weren’t so hard. When it was just her and Hickory and that was enough.
“Why is the sky blue?” She had asked him one summer afternoon, popsicle juice dripping from their fingers. They were a bit older than fourth grade now, nearly in middle school.
Hickory had scrunched his eyebrows together, like he was taking a test. Then his face cleared and he smiled proudly, “I read somewhere that when light enters the atmosphere it gets all mixed everywhere but the main light that shows through is blue because it’s light waves aren’t as long.” He had licked at the red juice threatening to stain his Transformer t-shirt. “That’s why we see blue.”
Joe had nodded thoughtfully, more than a little impressed. “Woah.”
They sat there a long while after that, Joe asking the strangest questions she could think up, and Hickory answering most of them without an issue. If there was a question he couldn’t answer he would pull out his thick science book and search for some explanation.
That day was one of her favorites with him. They had done every wonderful thing in one day. Spent all day swimming, eating themselves sick in ice cream, and laughing until their sides burned.
Joe smiled at the memory, trying to place an exact moment when she began to fall for his nerdy charms but couldn’t remember when she had realized it. It had just sort of....happened.
Joe sighed, pulling her jacket tighter around her small frame. She really should just let these feelings fade, wait until they passed and continued being with him for as long as she dared. Her heart throbbed in her chest at the thought of letting another agonizing year go by. She had to say something.
Just for her own sanity, he had to know.
She knew the likelihood of him returning those feelings was slimmer than slim, but Joe had to try. No matter the outcome.
The day had never felt longer.
Joe would have stolen Hickory sooner if she had a class with him, but she had no way to talk to him during the day except when they walked home together.
That night was the annual St. Greenwhich celebration of their town’s founder. There would be fireworks, lemon cake, and dancing in the streets. Joe intended to tell him before any of the festivities. If she managed to get the right words out, Joe wouldn’t mind telling him right after school in their walk home. She would try her best. She would be brave.
Joe sat in the crisp weather alone. Everyone else was preparing for the festival. There would be no better time to tell him. Still, she shivered both from fear and cold.
Trying not to tremble like a leaf Joe checked her watch again, wondering what could possibly be taking him so long. Dread pooled in her stomach as she thought of all the ways this could go wrong.
He could be late because he found some new, pretty girl to date. He could laugh at her for being so stupid. He could reject her and never talk to her again.
But, thinking all that over, Joe breathed again, laughing weakly. This was Hickory she was talking about. Kind, smart, funny Hickory who would never ditch her just because of some stupid crush. She tried to let this calm her, willing her knee to stop bouncing and her posture to straighten.
She could do this. She could do this. She could—
She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t do this. She couldn’t do this.
Her legs felt like jello, her heart was flying and rattling in her rib cage. She wanted to throw up.
Joe turned at her name and smiled timidly in his direction. Hickory.
He flashed her a charming smile and offered her an arm, all proper and gentlemanly. “Joe. You won’t believe what we did in robotics today! Turns out, you know that competition I did like a month ago? Right, well Jamie and me...”
Joe unintentionally tuned him out, tracing the curve of his brow and the sharp ridges of his nose and jaw with her eyes. She breathed in deeply. This was Hickory. She could do this.
Finally, his story came to its smashing conclusion and Joe couldn’t take it anymore. She had to speak. “Hickory.” She pulled at his arm, forcing him to stop.
She met his doe-brown eyes, suddenly awash with intense concern. “Joe?”
She inhaled again, her resolve hardening. It was too late to back out now. “Hickory...”She started again, hoping she wouldn’t stumble over her words. “I have something important to tell you.” He raised a curious eyebrow. “Actually, I’ve been meaning to say this for a long time now, I just never got the courage to go through with it.”
Joe stared at her red mittens. Had it gotten hotter while she spoke?
“I’ve known you as long as I can remember. I can’t think of a time that we were apart after we met.” He was analyzing her now, trying to guess her next words. “You are truly my dearest friend.”
His smile warmed her, and encouraged her to continue.
“The point is, I don’t think I can just be friends anymore.” She wanted to be brave enough to look him in the eye, but she was sure she was shaking now and breathed in another heaving breath. “I....I really like you Hickory.”
A silence stretched between them for what could only have been a few seconds, but passed like a lifetime to Joe.
I knew it. She thought, hope rapidly deflating. In his eyes I’m just a friend and that’s all I’ll ever be.
Then he started laughing. Joe looked up and he chuckling to himself. “I was wondering when you’d come clean.” He teased, pulling her into a bear hug.
Joe gaped at him. “This isn’t funny, you know!” She huffed, and hit him on the shoulder. “I’m being serious!”
Hickory’s eyes softened and he pulled away, noticing her fuming he raised his hands in surrender. “I know. I am too.”
Joe unfolded her angry arms, dared to hope. “What?” Her heart fluttered.
He laughed again and rolled his eyes as if she was missing something extremely important. “I feel the same way. I always have.”
Joe felt like crying. Or laughing. Or both. She wanted to scream her joy to the world, but instead she pulled him close to her and inhaled his smell of fire smoke and old wood. She felt like she was in some dream. This couldn’t possibly be her reality.
“The stars are awaitin’” He whispered to her. Suddenly the words took on a whole new meaning. Our future adventures together are waiting. This new relationship was waiting. Unresolved feelings were waiting to be resolved. She felt happy tears stinging her eyes. It was like climbing back in their old spaceship box. Familiar and welcome.
She giggled and buried her face into his thick coat. “Well then why don’t you chart a course you silly boy?”