When seventeen-year-old Callie Christianson answers the doorbell, she never expects to find her ex-best friend, Egan Pasko, there with flowers. Their childhood friendship ended their freshman year when he shut her in a locker and walked away. But now he’s sorry and he’d like to take her on twenty-one dates to prove it. It’s an experiment, he says, to see if two people who used to be “just friends” can fall in love. And, of course, they’ll record the whole thing and put it online to see how many views they can wrangle out of it.
Callie’s ready to tell him to get lost. Until she realizes Egan’s crazy, stupid idea could help her gain the followers she needs to earn the mentorship opportunity that will launch her baking career. So the dates begin. And, even though nothing goes according to Callie’s plan, all the time spent with Egan is reminding her of everything she used to love about him.
The only problem is their viewers aren’t falling in love with her. The haters come out in droves to tell her exactly how terrible they think she is. The only thing keeping Callie in the experiment is Egan’s hints that he might be starting to fall for her. Except she can’t be sure he’s not playing it up for the sake of the camera.
Then Egan shares the most vulnerable parts of Callie’s life story online without her permission, stunning her into a shame spiral and leaving her to fend for herself in the comments. With their friendship once again at stake, will Callie walk away for good? Or is her heart too involved to let Egan go?
There’s a hippo on my front porch.
It’s fuzzy, purple, and the size of a small cat. A polka-dotted envelope is tied to one of its legs. And in case there was any doubt as to who it’s for, my name is scrawled across the envelope in letters so big the neighbors down the street can probably read it.
“Aww, Callie.” My best friend Annabeth squeals behind me. She swats my shoulder. “Why didn’t you tell me you’ve got an admirer?”
“I don’t.” I pick up the hippo and hold it by one ear at arm’s length. “Where did it come from?”
“Who cares where it came from? It’s cute. Read the note.”
“I care.” I stuff the hippo under my elbow as I work my fingers underneath the seal on the back of the envelope then read the inside of the matching card out loud. “I’m hippo-ing we can hang out sometime!” I wrinkle my nose. “Hippo-ing?”
“Hoping. I think.” Annabeth peers over my shoulder. “Okay, it’s a stretch. But still cute.”
I stand there. Several seconds pass. “So. What do I do with it?”
“Take it inside?” Annabeth says it like a question because she probably thinks it’s the obvious answer.
“And after that?”
“Gosh, Callie, I don’t know. Put it in your room, maybe?”
“You’re kidding, right?” She’s my best friend, but she can be clueless sometimes. “I don’t know who it came from, AB.”
She snatches the hippo from my hands and squeezes it, nuzzling it against her face. “Fine. I’ll take it home if you’re worried.”
“No way. The envelope says Callie Christianson, not Annabeth Mathis.” I grab the hippo by the neck and step back inside. “Maybe we’ll Nancy Drew it this afternoon and gather some more clues.”
I can almost hear Annabeth roll her eyes as she shuts the door behind me. “Great idea. Maybe we could dust it for fingerprints too. Life isn’t always a mystery, you know. Sometimes it’s a romance. Can’t you enjoy the romance for once?”
Not for once. For only. No guy has ever romanced me before in my life, so how am I supposed to know what to do?
I shake my head. “We don’t know this is a romantic gesture. It could be some voyeur trying to put one of those nanny cams in my room.”
“‘I’m hippo-ing we can hang out sometime!’” Annabeth waves her hands in the air. “Yeah, that’s exactly what someone says right before they end up the subject of some true crime documentary.”
“That’s what they’d want me to think. Lull me into a false sense of security.” I toss the hippo onto the kitchen table but keep the envelope and the card, which I stuff into the back pocket of my jeans. Something about the blocky handwriting seems familiar, like I’ve seen it before, probably more than once or twice. But it’s not Annabeth’s. She still dots her Is with hearts even though we’re seventeen.
“What does the timer say on the cookies?” I glance over at the oven, not quite able to see how much time is left. “They smell done.”
Annabeth pulls herself up on the countertop and draws her knees to her chest without bothering to check. “They smell like cookies.”
“Do they smell like award-winning cookies at least?” I ask as I grab a pair of oven mitts from a drawer and yank them on.
Annabeth shrugs. “I guess.”
I squat in front of the oven door to peer inside. “I need more than an I guess if I’m going to have any shot at that mentorship thing.”
“You mean the weekend with Raquel Martinez or whatever? The lady with that baking show?”
I frown at AB before turning my attention back to my triple-chocolate cookies. “Her name is Nichelle Melendez. And yes.”
“Why would you want to do that, anyway? You’d hate being on TV.”
“It’s a sacrifice I’d be willing to make.” A weekend with the woman who could help me figure out how to turn this baking hobby into a baking business would be worth it. One of the cookies burbles, a gooey chocolate chip oozing on the surface. I pop the oven door open and reach inside.
The doorbell chimes.
“I’ll get it.” Annabeth launches off the countertop and runs to the door.
I set the cookie sheet on the stove and slip off the oven mitts. “Who is it?” I call out to her. But Annabeth doesn’t answer. She drives me crazy sometimes. If she’s out there trying to convince a magazine salesman to come inside to try my cookies or something, we’re going to have to have a serious conversation about stranger danger.
I head toward the front door and get there only to see Annabeth peering around the large holly bush on the right side of the porch.
“What are you doing?” I lean against the doorframe.
“Looking for whoever rang the doorbell and left you those.” She takes another step through the pine straw and points at a whole box of Moon Pies, the kind you have to buy to stock up a concession stand at a Little League game.
“Whoever it is, they wouldn’t hide in a holly bush unless they were incredibly dumb. Those things hurt.” I pick up the box. My mouth waters.
Junk food is my love language. Moon Pies have been my all-time favorite, even over any homemade treat, ever since third grade when I had my first one. The fact that someone knows this about me and left them on my porch is enough to make my knees as gooey as the chocolate chips in the cookies cooling in the kitchen. The fact that I don’t know who that someone is makes me feel like I’m about to toss said cookies.
“Did you see anyone running away?” I ask.
AB shakes her head and pulls one of her copper curls free from her gold hoop earring. “Whoever it is, they move way too fast. Or they’re wearing an invisibility cloak. If they ring the doorbell again, we’re staking out your front porch.”
I cradle the Moon Pies to my chest. “You think this person actually likes me?”
“I think they’re in love with you.” Annabeth goes back into the house, fluffing her hair as she walks. “But that’s my opinion, so you know. Take it or leave it.”
I rip open the box of Moon Pies. “I think I’ll leave it.”
Annabeth shrugs and reaches for a triple-chocolate cookie. She stuffs half of it in her mouth and talks through the bite. “I’m excited for you, Cal. Like, it’s finally your moment to find love. Our entire summer break is in front of us, and now you’ve got this mystery person leaving you notes and fun presents.” She sighs and swallows her cookie. “It’s beautiful.”
I tear a chunk off my Moon Pie and examine the edges before popping it into my mouth. “You think it could be a joke? Like someone’s trying to make me look like an idiot?”
“Nobody’s that mean. I’m sure it’s some guy from your school. He was probably too afraid to say anything before summer started in case you’d shut him down and he’d still have to see you in the hallways every day.”
The doorbell rings again before I can respond. Annabeth and I stare at each other for a whole second before she runs back to the foyer. I don’t bother following her. Truthfully, I’m not sure I could. My feet may as well be glued to the floor in panic. Let’s say it is some guy from school who likes me. What if he’s out of my league? Or what if he’s a total troll?
I hear Annabeth fling the door open. She groans.
“Nope. Just a book this time.”
“A book?” I put my Moon Pie down on a napkin on the kitchen table without taking another bite. “What kind of book?”
“An old one.” Annabeth walks back into the kitchen, holding a paperback by the spine as though it’s vermin. “Whoever it is definitely knows you, though. Julia Child? She’s always been one of your inspirations, hasn’t she?”
AB tosses the book at me, and I barely catch it. The pages slip and bend between my fingers. The front cover has a pencil-drawn illustration of Julia Child standing in front of the stove tasting something from a spoon. She looks confident. Strong. Familiar. A zing of realization shoots from my fingertips up my arms and settles into the hollow under my throat.
No. Oh, no, no.
“I left the door open, so we’ll be able to see him if he comes back.” Annabeth babbles on. “Try tiptoeing around here now, Mr. Shifty McSneakyPants.”
I peel back the front cover. There’s a neon green Post-it note on the front page. On it, in the same blocky handwriting from the envelope, are the words, Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it. –J. Child
The Moon Pie churns in my stomach as I grasp the countertop suddenly breathless and dizzy. Why him? Why now? And why didn’t I put the pieces together before?
“Um, hello?” a deep voice calls through the open front door. Annabeth bolts toward it.
I don’t have to rush. I already know who’s standing there on our front porch. He’s been here a million times before, but it’s been a while since the last time. A whole two years in fact.
I fold my arms over my stomach so tightly it feels as though I could possibly snap myself in half. Annabeth returns, grinning and dragging our visitor by the elbow. He’s much taller now than I’d realized. He towers over both me and Annabeth, hovering somewhere over six feet. And his hair—it’s turned dark brown. At some point throughout the years, he lost his signature stuck-a-fork-in-an-electrical-outlet poof, trading it in for a more sophisticated cut: longer on the top and shorter on the sides. I never imagined I’d see him in anything other than athletic shorts and a T-shirt, but here he is in khakis, a green and gray button-down, and a striped bow tie. He clutches a bouquet of white Gerber daisies in one hand, nearly strangling them.
We’ve passed each other in the hallway at school a few times, but my strategy during school hours has always been more along the lines of duck and run instead of stand and stare. But now staring seems to be the only thing I can do.
“Hi, Cal.” Egan Pasko lifts the hand not holding the flowers in a sort of half wave.
Annabeth stands to the side, her eyes wide and glittery. She thinks he’s my prince. But he and I both know the truth.
Egan’s no prince. He’s my ex-best friend.
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My face burns. Literally. If I stand here much longer, I may spontaneously combust in a confluence of hives, confusion, and the memory of all the angry letters I’ve written over the last two years but never sent. And so I say, and do, nothing. For a full forty-five seconds, I stare. Annabeth’s grin fades while Egan picks at imaginary lint on his sleeves. She looks from my face to Egan’s then back to mine.
Finally, Egan pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and clears his throat. “I…wanted to return your book.”
I stare at him without blinking, without smiling, without any indication that his sudden reappearance has surprised me. I barely even breathe.
He scratches the back of his head. “Sorry I kept it so long.”
“Whatever.” I lift an eyebrow in nonchalance. “No big.” And then I cringe inwardly. Seriously? The first thing I choose to say to him in two years is, Whatever. No big?
“These are for you.” He hands me the bouquet of daisies.
I just look at them.
Annabeth steps behind me, nudging me forward. “Take them and say thank you, Cal.”
I know what she’s thinking: I’m being ridiculously rude, even for me. But she doesn’t understand what’s going on here. She and I go to church together, where my grandparents and I landed after I’d begged them to try a new place, somewhere significantly less Egan-y than the church where he and I had grown up. And she goes to a private school twenty minutes away from my public school.
For all Annabeth knows, she was right and Egan is just another cute guy who roams the hallways with me at Creekside Ridge. Egan is a stranger to her. I never told her I had a best friend before her. Or that it broke my heart when he left me.
“Thanks.” I yank the flowers from him and plunk them on the counter near the sink without bothering to look for a vase. I turn back to both Egan and Annabeth and cross my arms over my chest.
There’s yellow pollen stuck to the front of Egan’s slightly wrinkled khakis. He sucks in a deep breath through his teeth and looks around slowly like he’s trying to figure out what’s changed. “So. This is going well.”
“Callie,” Annabeth grinds out through clenched teeth. “What is wrong with you?”
“Didn’t you have that thing? Tonight?” I grasp her wrist. “The thing you had to take care of immediately.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Thing?”
Why she can pick up when I’m in the mood for stir-fry one minute and can’t understand my not-so-subtle-wink-wink-nudge-nudge the next, I’ll never understand. I pat her shoulder as though I think she must merely have a lapse in memory. “Isn’t it your cat’s birthday or something?”
After seconds of silent agony, Annabeth nods. Slowly. “Oh, right. I never miss the opportunity to throw a party for Mrs. Tinkles.” She backs away but lobs a parting shot at me. “Don’t forget, Cal. You said you’d be there later. In costume. Those kittens sure love Captain Catnip.”
Egan chokes back a laugh, and as soon as she moves out of earshot, he raises an eyebrow. “Mrs. Tinkles?”
I trace a pattern in the granite countertop with my thumbnail. “Her brother named it.”
“She doesn’t have a cat, does she?”
“No. She doesn’t.” I drop the ruse and turn the brunt of my gaze on Egan. “Why are you here?”
Egan pretends like he doesn’t hear me as he wanders around the kitchen island to the sink. He opens the bottom cabinet, pulls out an empty vase, fills it with water, then sets the daisies in it. “You should probably clip the bottoms so they don’t wilt even more.”
“Egan.” I drop into a chair at the kitchen table and jam my hands under my thighs.
“I know. I went overboard on all this. But I needed to talk to you. I couldn’t figure out another way to get your attention.” He points to the chair next to mine at the table. “Can I sit?”
I review my options.
I could ask him to leave. But he’d likely ignore me and stay anyway.
I could throw sharp objects at him and hope the police wouldn’t find out.
Or, the least appealing option, I could let him sit. Listen to what he has to say. And then send him on his way with no intention of speaking to him ever again.
I pinch the bridge of my nose. My hands are shaking. “Fine. Sit.”
Egan pulls the chair out. The legs clunk and scrape across the floor, and I wince. He eases down and rests his elbows on his knees. “How’re your grandparents?”
“They busy these days?”
“Busy enough. Grandma has a partial caseload now, but she’s still working at Creekside Counseling on Thursdays and Fridays. And Grandpa technically retired a couple years ago. But he’s consulting for the police department now. Are you really here to ask about them though?”
Egan drags his hand across the back of his head and sighs. “No. But I’m not sure where else to start.”
I look over his shoulder, refusing to meet his gaze. “Maybe with why you’re here. Sitting in my kitchen. After two years of nothing.”
He adjusts his glasses again, pinching the arm where it meets the rectangular frames. “You didn’t want me around, Noog.”
“I was hurt,” I manage to whisper, caught off guard by the ancient nickname and the flood of memories that come with it.
“You took it too personally.”
The searing ache that’s fueled hundreds of one-sided morning mirror debates wells up in my chest. “How else was I supposed to take it, E?”
I still remember everything as clearly as if I were watching it play out in real time in front of me. Things had been weird between us for a few months. Sometime after Christmas I’d started comparing Egan’s eyes to brown sugar and molasses instead of mud and old coffee grounds. It was dumb and cliché, falling for my best friend.
But it turns out it didn’t matter because in February of freshman year Egan said he was too busy to go to a basketball game with me. Then I saw him sitting at the top of the bleachers with the track team while I played my clarinet in the band section. He promised to come to my birthday party but never showed up. He stopped saving a seat for me in the cafeteria at lunch.
I pretended none of it mattered, that we were growing up and he felt as awkward around me as I did around him and maybe that meant something. Or at least it’s what I told myself until the last week of school.
Egan had sidled up next to me as I switched out my geometry book with my biology book. He’d peered into the mostly empty space of my locker and grinned. I remember the way my heart flip-flopped.
“Bet you can’t fit in there.” Egan had pointed to my locker, a spark in his smile.
I’d laughed and gazed at him wide-eyed. “Why would I want to try?”
“Because it would be hilarious, Noog. Come on. You’re small enough to fit.”
While junk food has always been my love language, stupid human tricks were always Egan’s.
So, I set all my books on the floor, pulled myself into my top locker, folded my arms and knees inside, and leveled him with a smug smile. “Happy?” I’d asked, basking in the music of his laughter.
Seconds later a person outside of my field of vision slammed my locker door shut.
“Leave her in there,” someone yelled as I blinked in the darkness.
“Yeah,” a different person laughed, “Two-shoes deserves it.”
Since I couldn’t see him, I don’t know if Egan hesitated, if he laughed, or if he turned immediately and walked away. But the point is, he walked away.
It took seventeen minutes for the school to locate the master key to get me out, and by the time I was free Egan was gone, and my crush and our friendship were both over for good.
Now I ask my question again, softer this time. “How else was I supposed to take it?”
Egan raises his shoulders. “It was a joke. A dumb joke, okay? I didn’t think it was going to cost me…” He clears his throat and holds his hands in front of his body, palms up, fingers splayed out. “I didn’t think it was going to cost me my best friend.”
We stare at each other, and I count my breaths until I can speak again. “Why didn’t you apologize?”
Egan looks away and leans back, sticking his legs out so his feet rest under my chair. He stuffs his hands into the pockets of his khakis. “Because I was fifteen. And monumentally stupid.”
My lips twitch, but I don’t smile.
He continues. “I didn’t know what to do, I guess. You’re a girl, and people were weird about us hanging out so much. I figured we’d had a good run and I’d leave it at that.”
“I know. It sucked for me too. Only it took me longer to realize it.” Egan reaches over and grabs the stuffed hippo from the tabletop. He palms it like a football. “I’m really sorry, Callie. For everything.”
Most of me wants to push him out of the house with a don’t let the door hit ya. But then a tiny sliver of me has missed him, missed our friendship. Missed us. Nobody, not even Annabeth, knows me as well as Egan used to.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Egan interrupts my waffling.
“Yep. You’re wondering how long you can drag this out so I’ll bring you more Moon Pies.”
I laugh. “So not what I was thinking.”
“Oh. Well, I got nothin’ then.” Egan sets the hippo on the table then stands up and holds his arms out wide. He smiles. The single dimple on his cheek deepens.
I stand too but don’t move toward him.
His smile disappears. He draws his arms back in and locks his fingers together in front of his chest. “I am for real sorry. Forgive me?” His voice is low, deeper than I’ve ever heard before.
My heart pounds in my throat, and it feels like I’ve traded my T-shirt for a tight, woolen turtleneck. I hold my breath and count seconds. When I get to seventeen, Egan touches my shoulder with his fingertips. “Noog?”
I jerk away. “Don’t call me that.” I press my fingers to my temples and shake my head. “And I can’t. Not right now.”
“Oh.” He whispers the single syllable. “Okay. Well.”
“I’m really sorry,” I say, then immediately want to cover my face with my hands. Why am I apologizing? He’s the idiot here, not me.
Egan scratches the back of his head and looks away. “I get it. It was a long shot to begin with. I was just kind of desperate, and—no, never mind. It’s not your problem.” Without warning he steps close and crushes my cheek against his chest, curling one arm around me and holding me tight. The buttons on his shirt gouge my face. He smells like clean laundry.
“Anyway, it was good to see you again,” he says.
“You…too.” My voice is muffled. I stand there, arms dangling at my sides, because, of all the things I thought I’d be doing today, hugging Egan Pasko was not one of them.
Egan steps away. He backs down the hallway and holds one hand up in a stationary wave. “Have a good summer, Noog—I mean, Callie.”
“Sure. I will. That is, I mean, you too.” I start to wave back, but a loud clatter followed by a series of softer thuds in the front foyer interrupts.
Egan whips around and lunges toward the noise. I spring after him and nearly bump into his back when he stops suddenly in front of the open hall closet. My grandma’s faux-fur winter coat, the hose from a long-departed vacuum cleaner, and Annabeth are in a pile on the floor.
“Annabeth.” I frown at her as though she’s a naughty toddler. “Seriously? What are you still doing here?”
“That’s it?” Annabeth reaches for Egan’s hand, gasping as though she’s erupting from the sea. “Please tell me you didn’t do all that—the hippo, Moon Pies, the book, the flowers—just for some lame apology.”
“It wasn’t…” I watch wide-eyed, my words dying in my throat as Annabeth tumbles out into the hallway while Egan tries to extricate himself from her clutches. The vacuum hose is tangled around her ankles.
Egan looks at me, his eyebrows raised over his glasses.
I square my shoulders and march over to grab Egan’s wrist and pry Annabeth’s fingers off him one by one. “This is not okay, Annabeth. Let go of him. You don’t even know him.”
She stares up at Egan and puts one hand on top of his shiny brown loafer as though it’ll keep him from escaping, then pops upright and sticks her hand out. “I’m Annabeth Mathis. And you are?”
Egan gives her hand a quick, perfunctory shake. “Egan Pasko.”
“So now that we know each other, there’s more to it, isn’t there?” A stray piece of her hair sticks to her nose, and she swipes it away with her free hand. She looks like a wild-eyed, auburn Medusa.
When Egan stays silent, I roll my eyes. “Okay, this is ridiculous. Bye, E—”
“She’s right.” Egan stuffs his hands in his pockets and looks away.
“Wait. What?” I squint at him.
Annabeth claps her hands together. “I knew it.”
Egan nods. “Your friend is right. There is—was—more.”
“And?” Annabeth asks when I say nothing. Her brown eyes are huge, nearly taking up her entire face. She leans toward Egan in eager expectation. “And…” Egan turns his full attention back to me. He half-shrugs. “Well, it sounds weird now. But I wanted to take you on a date. Or, rather, I wanted to take you on twenty-one of them.”
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