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The Smoke Lingers
My shoulders began to shake in such a way that I thought they would never stop, in a way that I thought if they continued to shake, they would never stop.
Rejection was bad, but humiliation was worse. I experienced both that afternoon.
Laying next to the firepit, with Samantha and Katie beside me and Patrick in front of me, the butterflies were churning in my stomach. It was all I could do to avoid running inside and stealing a cold glass of water, but Katie kept catching my eye, anchoring me to the warm pavement.
Every time my brown eyes linked to her blue ones I felt an amusing impatience on Katie’s end and an intense nervousness on mine. She would wiggle her eyebrows towards Patrick, almost imperceptibly, and I would get that all too familiar sigh inside, a mix between a sigh of annoyance and a sigh of longing.
We were studying under the sparse shade of the bare winter oak trees that dominated my back yard. The sky above us was grey, but it provided a nice contrast for the bright orange flames in front of me, which were as exuberant as Katie was.
She could barely contain her excitement, never missing an opportunity to communicate with her shapely blonde eyebrows. Even though we were studying for exams, after the sixth eyebrow wiggle from Katie, I ventured from the studying territory into that of gossip.
“Is Hope really going to the dance?” I asked with a smile.
Patrick laughed, “Yeah, she was so desperate, she asked Luke. Well, I take it back. She asked Jake first but he didn’t want to go.”
“Of course not; he’s Jake.” Samantha smiled, as if that explained everything.
I hid my face as I turned to grab a bite of popcorn, which bought me time to think of what to say next. “She didn’t ask you?”
Katie interceded, “Of course she wouldn’t, Ellie, no one would ask Patrick.”
Patrick jumped up and started walking to the mailbox, pulling out his phone in mock despair. “I’m calling a cab.”
Katie smiled from where she sat near the firepit, laughing in Patrick’s direction. “All I meant is that everybody knows who you like.”
“That’s not true!” Patrick sat down again next to Samantha and shot a pointed glance at Katie. “You don’t know who I like.”
Katie’s eyebrows shot up. Honestly, it seemed like she only ever used her eyebrows to communicate. “So you don’t like Caroline?”
“Not anymore.” Patrick sat back, satisfied. The flames in the fire seemed to leap higher.
I bent over to toss some tinder in the fire, hopefully concealing any eagerness that jumped into my eyes. “So who do you like?”
I casually leaned back to look up at Patrick.
His face was pale, which was saying something considering how pale his usual face was. “I’m not telling that.”
“Is it a girl?”
Patrick chuckled nervously. “Of course it’s a girl.”
“Not of course!” Katie corrected. “You could like a boy, so we have to ask.”
“Well it’s not. It’s a girl in our grade.” Patrick's face flooded with enough color to paint a fire truck.
The fire suddenly felt very warm.
While Samantha and Katie bantered back and forth with Patrick, I sat back, letting the information sink in. He was being awkward over someone he liked and he wouldn’t tell us who, probably because that person was one of us three. That means he could like me!
Should I ask him then? Now could be a good time, but I couldn’t decide, but if I never asked I would always feel like I was missing something, and I hated that feeling so-
“Patrick?” I blurted out, almost holding my breath as his head turned my way. I looked right into those blue eyes and said, “Will you go to the dance with me? I know you don’t like me, but Katie and I would like to do a double date, because she is asking Sam to the dance.”
He looked almost startled, as if the thought had never crossed his mind.
Crap. Oh God, crap. I should have added “as friends” or “it’s not a date”. “I know you don’t like me” was such an awkward statement...
Patrick blinked like a deer in the headlights. “I don’t know, I’ll think about it.”
Without skipping a beat, Samantha began to cough. “The smoke is getting up my nose.” She muttered, but I knew she was feigning for my sake.
As Samantha sat in my smoke-free spot next to Patrick, I looked at the fire only to see that all the tinder burned fast and bright without catching onto the bigger logs. I stood up and began to search aimlessly for more tinder to place in the fire pit, but I couldn’t find much else, so I fostered the dying flame as best I could while blinking the smoke induced tears out of my eyes.
When I sat back down again next to Katie, I smiled as brightly as the dying embers at the bottom of the fire pit.
Katie and Samantha started chatting with Patrick, and soon we all began to study. But as we were talking about the Mongols and the nomadic war tribes, I thought about what Samantha said. The smoke is getting up my nose. Because then I felt it everywhere; up my nose, in my eyes, in my throat. The comforting and homey fire began to smell acrid, as if it was from the scene of one of those historic war zones we were studying about, instead of my own backyard.
Despite my devastation, I wasn’t awkward or sullen. In fact, things between Patrick and I were exactly as they had been before, except I avoided being alone with him. Instead, I focused wholeheartedly on keeping the fire from going out.
Then as the afternoon study session went on, I caught glances of Patrick and Samantha running around my backyard together, dodging campfire smoke while Katie and I studied. They laughed and carried on, and it was then I realized who the mysterious crush that Patrick hoped would ask him to the dance was.
While they goofed around, I poured glasses of cold water on the ashy logs in the firepit, trying to put the struggling flames out of their misery. No matter how many glasses I poured, the smoke always burst up in a great suffocating cloud, spraying ashes in my face. I dumped glass after glass after glass, but I was only ever met with the harsh complaining of the warm embers.
Eventually, I gave up on the embers and walked inside to finish cleaning. Patrick and Samantha went home and I ran upstairs as quickly as possible.
I tossed my smoky clothes into the corner of the bathroom and stepped into the shower. The clear warm water ran down my back, revealing the smoky scent on my body like a slap in the face. It was almost a relief to focus on purging the awful smell from my hair and fingernails, but it gave me time to think.
I wasn’t heartbroken, I told myself, nor was I humiliated. For all I knew, Patrick would say yes. But did I want him to if he liked Samantha instead?
Suddenly, my mother’s voice invaded my privacy. “Ellie?” she asked, “Did you asked Patrick out like you planned?”
I stiffened from behind the shower curtain, where my posture and expression were unreadable. “No.” My cheerful voice backed up my lie, but a stab of guilt punished me for my dishonesty.
“Okay, baby doll. I just wanted to know.” I heard my mom’s soft and gentle footsteps leave the room, and I knew that all she ever wanted to do was help. Somehow I thought help would break my heart even further.
That’s when my shoulders began to shake and my breath hitched in my throat, until I was grabbing onto the shower curtain to steady myself.
And no matter how many times I washed my hair, the smoke smell lingered.