Shelly reaches for the poster advertising Pelee Peugeot’s latest novel and upcoming appearance, and I clutch her wrist before she can mangle it.
She gives me a sheepish grin. “Just this once?”
“Nope.” I lead her inside the bookstore. “My little Miss Demeanor.”
“You’re one to talk.”
Last summer, Shelly and I met when we served community service together. Footage of my arrest is on YouTube if you want to see it. I got expelled for bringing fireworks to school to blow up my ex-best friend’s car. You might say I have anger issues.
Shelly figured out pretty quickly I also lived in my car. A normal girl would run like a man on fire from a guy like me. But hardly anybody accuses Shelly of being normal. Besides, I’m a magnificent kisser.
Funny how we didn’t have a thunderbolt moment when we met. We didn’t even like each other. More like Shelly and I grew into one another like ivy on a brick wall, and now I can’t imagine life without her.
“Pick out any book you want,” she tells me inside the store.
“I still don't know why we’re here. It’s not my birthday, or my unbirthday.”
“It’s National Poetry Month, Neruda,” she says, using the nickname she gave me. It’s also my surname on my fake ID. Shelly wraps her hands around my bicep, a move designed to soften whatever blow she plans to hurl on me. “It’s my way of celebrating.”
“Yeah, right. You’re probably planning some fractured April Fool’s joke.”
She scrunches her face. “I’m not!”
Our first real date was here at The Book Loft in Columbus. Every time we come here I ask for a store map because the bookstore has thirty-two rooms.
She glances over my shoulder at my map. “Let’s start up in Poetry and work our way down.”
We weave our way up the narrow staircase. On the poetry shelves I scan a few titles, but none of them pulls at me. My brain is elsewhere. School is over in less than two months and I have no idea what to do with the rest of my life.
Shelly yanks my sleeve. “Let’s go visit Fiction.” We meander over to rooms eight, nine, and ten.
“Why did I know you’d head straight for your boyfriend, Jack Kerouac?” I ask.
She sticks her tongue out at me and moves down a couple of shelves. She grabs a copy of Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. “Ooh! Here’s the book we need for our lit class.” She and I are finishing high school at the community college. The good thing is, it’s a thousand times better than the melodrama of Rooster High. The bad thing? Shelly and I hardly see each other all day. The only class we share is Contemporary Lit.
I shrug. “Okay.”
Shelly scrutinizes me. “What’s up with you today? Normally you’re like a crack addict around books.”
I lift a copy of the Murakami book from the rack. “I don’t know. Trying to figure out the rest of my wretched life.”
“Today is your lucky day because I have a plan for you.”
I roll my eyes. “Can’t wait to hear this.”
Shelly snags me and hustles me toward the staircase. “C’mon. Let’s go have coffee.”
We wind our way down to the checkout and Shelly pays for both books. At the cafe next door, we order lattes and coffee cake. It’s unseasonably warm, so we sit outside.
I flip through my book and rest it on my lap. “Thank you for my gift. But tell me what’s really going on.”
Shelly delays her response by hiding behind her coffee cup.
I cross my arms and give her the stink eye.
She sets her cup down. “I have two things to tell you. One of which you’re going to love.”
“And the other one?
“Not so much.”
I give her a lopsided grin and drink from my latte. “May as well spill it.”
She stirs her drink. “I’ll start with the good news. First off, you’ve known about your father for almost a year and it’s time to connect with him.”
“That’s not for you to decide.” Last summer Shelly made me her pet project when I told her I’d never met my father. We spent weeks trying to find out the guy’s identity and discovered he lives in Seattle and writes bestsellers about climate change. The more I learn about him, the more I know I’m not worthy to claim myself as this guy’s son.
“But I found a way to get you to Seattle.”
I squint at her. “How?”
She pulls a white business envelope from her purse and hands it to me. It’s addressed to me at her parents’ address, and I notice the University of Washington return address. They already rejected me, so I’m confused. The letter reads, “Congratulations, Michael G. Flynn, you’ve been accepted into the Hugo House Summer of Writing Workshop.” I look up. “What the hell? I never applied for this.”
“I found it online and applied for you.”
I frown and scan the letter again. “Why would you do something like that without asking?”
She shrugs. “We had to get you to Seattle so you could meet your dad. I figured it was worth a shot.”
I fling the letter across the table. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“Michael, if you want to be a writer, you have to experience life outside of Rooster, Ohio.”
“What if I want to write about Rooster?”
“Hemingway had to move to France in order to write about the Midwest, and he couldn't write about France until he came back to the states.”
I slap the table. “I’m not Hemingway!” Our cups sway.
She places her palm against my forearm. “Neruda, you’ll have a chance to improve your writing, and be in the same city as your father.”
I chew on a cuticle. “This isn’t what I planned after graduation.” Okay, so I hadn’t really planned anything. But still.
She hauls out her iPad and pulls up the site. “Look. It’s three weeks, and you’ll live in a dorm and take classes with other word nerds.” She passes me her tablet.
I swipe through the page. “It costs almost three thousand bucks.”
“You got a full scholarship.”
I glance at the letter again. “Yeah, well, I’d still have to get there. The Whale eats gas, and I doubt it would make as far as Dayton.”
“So, you’ll fly there.”
I furrow my brow. “Doesn’t that require money?”
“We’ll find a way, Neruda. Listen, this is meant to be. It’s being handed to you.”
I take a deep breath and scroll through the site again. “I had no idea stuff like this was out there.”
“That’s why you have me.” She grins. “I’m your human Google.”
“How did you get me in?”
“I filled out the application and clicked send.”
I squint. “How’d you fill it out?”
“You used my laptop to write your college apps. Also, I sent one of your college application essays. You do write pretty well.”
“For a redneck?”
She punches me lightly. “For anyone, silly.”
I scratch my head. “How’d you pull off the teacher recommendations?”
“Duh. I emailed Mrs. Silver and Mrs. Tucker. They wrote glowing recommendations, and Mrs. Rhinehart sent them your transcripts and ACT scores. Plus, I had all your identification info from when we tried to find your birth certificate.”
I set her iPad on the table. “Why do you want me to do this?”
“Because you don’t grow unless you get out of your comfort zone.”
“You live a leisurely lifestyle with your big house and pool,” I say.
Shelly snatches her iPad off the table. “I’m not talking about furniture and swimming pools. I’m talking about stretching your brain. Besides, my life isn’t all easy street.”
“I know.” I sling an arm around her and rest my cheek against hers. She’s had her share of drama. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m only forgiving you because you smell like melted butter and cinnamon.”
I kiss the crown of her head. “But why didn’t you tell me you did this?”
“I figured if you didn’t get in, no problem, because you didn't know about it in the first place. But you got in, with a full scholarship.”
I sit back and study her. To the uninformed observer, my girlfriend’s straight, black ponytail and bangs over bright blue eyes make her look innocent. Little do they know. “Shelly, I’ve lived my whole life teetering on the edge. I’ve earned the right to rest and have a lazy ass summer. There comes a time in everyone’s life when things should be unexciting.”
“Yeah, when you’re ninety.” She fixes those baby blues on me. “There’s more for you to do, Michael Neruda Flynn. You need to get out of Rooster and find out how the world works.”
“I’ve done worldly stuff,” I say. “I lived in my car for nearly a year, and I almost burned down the high school.”
Shelly sighs. “That’s not worldly stuff. Those are bad circumstances and stupid decisions. You have to go away for a while. There’s stuff for you to do. One is to meet your father.”
I’ve known Shelly long enough to suspect there’s something else going on. “Why are you trying to get rid of me?”
She hesitates, and her voice gets tinny. “I’m not. I just want you to take advantage of this golden opportunity.”
I chew on my cuticle again. “You said there were two things you had to tell me.” I arch my eyebrows. “You haven’t contacted my father, too, have you?”
“God, no,” she says. “Even I have limits.”
Neither of us speaks for a few moments. Then she says, “I’ve done everything I can to get you there. It’s up to you to take the next step.”
I slump in my chair. “I just don't want to end up being homeless again. Now that my sister and I have a decent place to live, I kind of want to stay here.”
“The workshop is only three weeks. You can come back.”
I look at the letter again. “I have until April tenth if I choose to accept.”
She scowls at me. “What do you mean if? There’s no if. You are going.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
She settles against my chest. “Think about it overnight?”
Her hair smells exotic, like ginger and nutmeg, and I almost want to take a bite out of her. “Okay, I’ll mull it over.” I reach for the Murakami and page through it. “So, what’s the other horrible thing you did to me?”
She crosses her arms. “When you put it that way, I’m not sure I want to tell you.”
“How much worse can it be?”
“I guess it depends on your perspective.”
I sigh and set the paperback on the table. “Just tell me.”
She squeezes her eyes shut and takes a deep breath. “I’ve been accepted to Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.”
I draw back from her. “You applied out of state?”
“It’s where my mom went to school.”
“But it’s out of state!”
“I never said I wanted to stay in Rooster. Or Ohio for that matter.”
My chair scrapes the concrete as I shoot up. “I’m
outta here.” I head down the street toward where I parked her car.
Shelly retrieves my book and the letter and runs to catch up to me. “Neruda, did you really think I’d want to stay here?”
I stop and look at her. The girl who knows all my secrets and accepts me as I am. “Yeah. I thought you’d want to stay with me.”
Shelly sits in the passenger side and clicks her seatbelt. As soon as I start the car I crank the music. Talking would be a bad idea right now.
Normally we take scenic roads back to Rooster from Columbus, but today I barrel east on I-70, jaw clenched, laser focused on the road. Shelly lets me silently stew as Coldplay screams from her car stereo.
I park Shelly’s car in her driveway and shut off the ignition. I dump her keys on top of the dashboard. “See ya.”
As I walk down the drive, I hear her say. “Michael, you forgot your book.”
I give her a backhanded wave and don’t stop. “Keep it.”
“Michael, don't be that way.”
The Whale’s old engine makes a loud phoomp when I turn the key and pull away from her house.
Heartbreak for Dummies
©2019Laura L. Moe
All rights reserved. No part of this document may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of Laura L. Moe