The Hating Game Page 58

I get a pop-up notification that my parents have just logged into Skype, and I dial so quickly that it’s a little embarrassing. My mother appears onscreen, frowning and too close.

“Stupid thing,” she mutters, and then brightens. “Smurfette! How are you?”

“Fine, how are you?” Before she replies the screen fills with the fly of her jeans as she stands up and calls out repeatedly to my dad for one very long minute. Nigel! Nigel! Even the familiar tone and cadence her voice takes has me shriveling in homesickness. Finally, she gives up.

“He must still be out in the field,” she tells me, sitting back down. “He’ll wander in soon.”

We look at each other for a long moment. It’s so rare to have her to myself, without my dad’s gale-force personality propelling the conversation, that I hardly know where to start. I can’t seem to talk about the weather, or how busy I’ve been. As her shrewd blue eyes narrow as I choose my words, I realize I’d better ask the question I’ve been torturing myself with for these last few weeks, and perhaps all of my life. It’s something I should have asked her years ago.

“Before I was born, and when you met Dad . . . how could you give up your dream?”

The question clangs in the dead static air between her and me. She doesn’t speak for a long moment, and I think maybe I’ve said something I really shouldn’t. When she locks eyes again with me, her gaze is steady and resolute.

“If you’re asking me if I regret my choice? No.” She sits back into her chair, I sit up properly on the couch, and suddenly it’s like there’s no screen between us. No frame surrounding her face, or mine, and no strangely intrusive preview screen distracting us with our own faces. I feel like I could reach out and take her hand. It’s the closest we’ve been since I saw her last, when I hugged her at the airport and breathed her shampoo and sunshine smell. I watch her thinking, and the clock is ticking before my dad walks in and interrupts.

“How can I regret it for a second? I have your father, and I have you.” It’s the answer and the smile I knew she’d give me. How can she say anything differently?

“But don’t you wonder where you’d be now if you chose your career instead of him?”

She avoids answering again. “Is this about your job interview? Are you worried about what happens if you miss your big chance?”

“Something like that. I’ve just started thinking that even if I get it, I could lose out on other . . . opportunities.”

“I don’t think you need to give up your dream for anything. You want this, I can see it. I can hear it in your voice. Times have moved on, honey. You don’t have to give up anything. You don’t have to make a choice like mine. You just need to give it your all.”

A door bangs in the background on her end of the conversation, and her eyes flick offscreen. “That’s your dad.”

I’m starting to feel frantic. I can’t tell her about the change in my relationship with Josh, our competition, and what I will lose no matter what the outcome is. There’s no time. There’s only time for this.

“If I were in the same position, walking through an orchard, possibly about to derail myself somehow, what would you tell me to do?”

She looks offscreen and I can hear heavy boots clomping up the stairs to the office. Her answer convinces me of the cherry seed of what if that has always been lodged in her heart. “For you? I’d tell you to keep walking. I want things for you. Keep your eye on the prize and whatever you do, just keep walking.”

“What’s going on?” Dad appears, kissing the top of my mom’s head, and he sees me on the screen. “You should have come got me! How’s my girl? Ready to beat Jimmy at the interview? Imagine his face when you get it. I can just see it now.” He drops into the seat beside Mom and then beams at the ceiling, relishing my fictional victory and his own cleverness.

I can see it on the tiny preview screen; my face falls. It could be seen from space and Mom definitely sees it. “Oh. I see now. Lucy, why didn’t you say?”

Dad forges onward without a response from me. Next topic. “When are you coming home?”

I admit I pause for a second longer, for greater effect.

“The long weekend.” It’s the answer that my heart has been aching to give, and when I watch my dad’s face break into his chipped-tooth grin I’m glad I’ve said it. Mom continues to hold my gaze, steady.

“Just keep walking, unless what’s up that tree is as special as this.”

“What on earth are you talking about? Did you hear her? She’s coming home!” Dad’s seat squeaks under the rhythm of his chair dancing, and just like my mom, I’m at the gates of a frighteningly momentous orchard, and I need to focus my gaze forward on the far exit, laser strong, never looking up.

IT’S FRIDAY. IT should be a terrible mustard shirt today, but it’s not. I have my bag packed in the trunk of my car, and over the past two days I’ve been so nervous about this weekend I haven’t been able to stomach solids. I’ve subsisted entirely on smoothies and tea. I slept two hours last night.

It’s a relief that we’re at this point. The sooner we leave here, the sooner we can get it over with. My mind has run every scenario possible, in my dreams, in my every waking moment. And the only certainty I have is, whatever happens, it will all be over soon.

Josh has been in Mr. Bexley’s office for over an hour. There’s been raised voices, Mr. Bexley shouting, and silence. It hasn’t helped my anxiety level.

Helene went in earlier to intervene. More chillingly, Jeanette hustled past me about forty-five minutes ago and stepped into the fray. Maybe Josh’s strategy involves major workforce cuts and she was called in to consult.

When she left, she paused by my desk, and looked at me, and laughed. It was the kind of laugh tinged by hysteria, like she’s just heard the funniest thing.

“Good luck,” she tells me. “You’re going to need it. This is beyond HR.”

We’ve been found out. Someone has seen me and Josh together, and we’re busted. Danny has told someone. It’s out. This scenario wasn’t in the mix. I lean down and press my cheekbone against my knee. Breathe in, breathe out.

“Darling!” Helene is alarmed when she walks to my desk. My vision is gray. I try to stand and weave on the spot. She makes me sit back down and hands me my water bottle.

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