I can feel my ice cream sundae curdling in my stomach. For the second time today I feel like I’m going to be sick. “Only everything.”
He grimaces. “I really didn’t realize your mother had given it to you or that it was so important.” As he retreats off to the kitchen, he says, “Hey, how about an ice cream sundae before dinner? Will that cheer you up?”
As if dessert before dinner would be the thing that cheers me up, as if I am Kitty’s age and not sixteen going on seventeen. I don’t even bother dignifying it with an answer. I just lie there on the floor, my cheek against the cool hardwood. Besides, there isn’t any ice cream left anyway, but he’ll find that out soon enough.
I don’t even want to think about Josh reading that letter. I don’t even want to think it. It’s too terrible.
After dinner (chicken, per Kitty’s request), I’m in the kitchen doing dishes when I hear the doorbell ring. Daddy opens the door, and I hear Josh’s voice. “Hey, Dr. Covey. Is Lara Jean around?”
Oh, no. No no no no. I can’t see Josh. I know I have to at some point, but not today. Not right this second. I can’t. I just can’t.
I drop the plate back into the sink and make a run for it, out the back door, down the porch steps, across the backyard to the Pearces’ yard. I scramble up the wooden ladder and into Carolyn Pearce’s old tree house. I haven’t been in this tree house since middle school. We used to hang out up here sometimes, at night—Chris and Genevieve and Allie and me, the boys a couple of times.
I peek through the wooden slats, crouched in a ball, waiting until I see Josh walk back to his house. When I’m sure he’s inside, I climb down the ladder and run back to mine. I sure have been doing a lot of running today. I’m exhausted, now that I think of it.
I WAKE UP THE NEXT morning renewed. I am a girl with a plan. I’m just going to have to avoid Josh forever. It’s as simple as that. And if not forever, then at least until this dies down and he forgets about my letter. There’s still the tiny chance he never even got it. Perhaps whoever mailed Peter’s only sent the one! You never know.
My mom always said optimism was my best trait. Both Chris and Margot have said it’s annoying, but to that I say looking on the bright side of life never killed anybody.
When I get downstairs, Daddy and Kitty are already at the table eating toast. I make myself a bowl of cereal and sit down with them.
“I’m going to stop by Goodwill on my way to work,” my dad says, crunching on his toast from behind his newspaper. “I’m sure the hatbox will turn up there.”
“Your hatbox is missing?” Kitty asks me. “The one Mommy gave you?”
I nod and shovel cereal into my mouth. I have to leave soon or else I’ll risk running into Josh on my way out.
“What was in the box, anyway?” Kitty asks.
“That’s private,” I say. “All you need to know is the contents are precious to me.”
“Will you be mad at Daddy if you never get the hatbox back?” Kitty answers her own question before I can. “I doubt it. You never stay mad for long.”
This is true. I never can stay mad for long.
Peering over his newspaper, he asks Kitty, “What in the world was in that hatbox?”
Kitty shrugs. Her mouth full of toast, she says, “Probably more French berets?”
“No, not more berets.” I give them both a mean look. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to be late for school.”
“Aren’t you leaving a little early?”
“I’m taking the bus today,” I say. And probably every day until Margot’s car is fixed, but they don’t need to know that.
THE WAY IT HAPPENS IS a strange sort of serendipity. A slow-motion train wreck. For something to go this colossally wrong, everything must intersect and collide at the exact right, or in this case, wrong, moment.
If the bus driver hadn’t had trouble backing out of the cul-de-sac, taking four extra minutes to get to school, I never would have run into Josh.
If Josh’s car had started up and he hadn’t had to get a jump from his dad, he wouldn’t have been walking by my locker.
And if Peter hadn’t had to meet Ms. Wooten in the guidance office, he would not have been walking down the hallway ten seconds later. And maybe this whole thing would not have happened. But it did.
I’m at my locker; the door is jammed, and I’m trying to yank it open. I finally get the door loose and there’s Josh, standing right there.
“Lara Jean . . .” He has this shell-shocked, confused expression on his face. “I’ve been trying to talk to you since last night. I came by, and nobody could find you. . . .” He holds out my letter. “I don’t understand. What is this?”
“I don’t know . . . ,” I hear myself say. My voice feels far away. It’s like I’m floating above myself, watching it all unfold.
“I mean, it’s from you, right?”
“Oh, wow.” I take a breath and accept the letter. I fight the urge to tear it up. “Where did you even get this?”
“It got sent to me in the mail.” Josh jams his hands into his pockets. “When did you write this?”
“Like, a long time ago,” I say. I let out a fake little laugh. “I don’t even remember when. It might have been middle school.” Good job, Lara Jean. Keep it up.
Slowly he says, “Right . . . but you mention going to the movies with Margot and Mike and Ben that time. That was a couple of years ago.”
I bite my bottom lip. “Right. I mean, it was kind of a long time ago. In the grand scheme of things.” I can feel tears coming on so close that if I break concentration even for a second, if I waver, I will cry and that will make everything worse, if such a thing is possible. I must be cool and breezy and nonchalant now. Tears would ruin that.
Josh is staring at me so hard I have to look away. “So then . . . Do you . . . or did you have feelings for me or . . .??”
“I mean, yes, sure, I did have a crush on you at one point, before you and Margot ever started dating. A million years ago.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything? Because, Lara Jean . . . God. I don’t know.” His eyes are on me, and they’re confused, but there’s something else, too. “This is crazy. I feel kind of blindsided.”
The way he’s looking at me now, I’m suddenly in a time warp back to a summer day when I was fourteen and he was fifteen, and we were walking home from somewhere. He was looking at me so intently I was sure he was going to try to kiss me. I got nervous, so I picked a fight with him and he never looked at me like that again.