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Week # 17: Creative Writing Challenge – Love or Nemesis

May 3, 2021

The love of your life is your brother’s nemesis.

Prologue – Finally, it was mine. A Celestron StarSense Explorer LT telescope, 114mm aperture and a focal length of 1000mm. I’d been badgering my parents for a telescope for the past 4 years and finally they’d relented. They claimed it was a congratulations gift for being accepted at the Telfair School for Science and Technology, but I knew they were just tired of me begging. I’d be starting TSST in the fall for my freshman year of high school while my normal (read: not science nerd) twin brother Derek would be attending the local high school. We had just moved and I was super excited about this new chapter of exploration. I loved science, especially biology and environmental science. Just to give you an idea, when I was twelve I made a dichotomous key for all the trees in our neighborhood and went door to door explaining to all the neighbors how to figure out which trees they had in their yards. Derek called me “tree hugger” for months after that. We clearly had different goals in life.

Anyway, I had my new telescope and despite Wall-E being on TV, I went out to the backyard to set up my new toy and get a good look at Saturn. Our new backyard was large, with a fence on two sides and a row of hedges on the other that flanked our neighbor’s backyard. After surveying the sky, I realized the only place to get an unobstructed view would be by the hedges. It was the darkest part of the yard and we had some Adirondack chairs arranged around a small fire pit and some short tables. They’d be perfect to set my field notebook and lenses on while I set everything up and observed.

As I approached, the chairs and fire pit emerged from the shadows and I bit back a startled shout. There was a boy lounging back in one of the chairs looking at the stars. He hadn’t heard me, and he didn’t look dangerous, so I took the time to observe him. I was good at observing. He had thick wavy brown hair that hung almost to the collar of his shirt. It was too dark to tell what color his eyes were, but he had an angular jaw that convention would say was “strong”, and his nose was uneventful. I could see his ears peeking out from under his hair, but they seemed uneventful too. I liked the word “uneventful”. It could have so many meanings: nothing of significance, not worth noting, not exciting, boring, perfectly pleasant but not overwhelming. I knew I was thinking the last one as I watched him. He didn’t seem too tall, but he was sitting down, so I’d collect more data later. He was a little scrawny, not small, but thin and wire-y. I knew boys usually went through puberty later than girls so he was likely close to my age, and the way he held himself indicated that he’d probably fill out a bit in the next couple of years. I’d studied anatomy and my mom had had to accompany me to the public library when I was eleven so I could check out all the books on hormones, puberty, and human development. I was curious and my mother understood I wouldn’t be satisfied until I knew everything I could. I loved my mom. I digress. Back to the strange boy in my backyard. He was wearing a shirt that said “Green Day”. I wondered if he was an environmentalist like me. I made a mental note to look up Green Day when I got back in the house.

I must have made some sort of thinking noise out loud, because the boy startled and shot up out of the seat. I didn’t move, but was satisfied to see that he was only about 3 inches taller than me. I could almost see his brain spinning as he assessed the situation. It was fascinating thinking about all the neurons that must have been firing in his brain trying to figure out who I was and what to do about me. It was clear the moment he made his decision.

He took a step toward me and reached out his hand while he said, “Hi, I’m Tyler. I live next door, but I didn’t realize that someone had already moved in. I just got back from soccer camp, so I’ve been gone.”

My arms were full of telescope, so I just stared at him. I kinda wanted to see what he would do. Would he squirm? Would he run away? Would he stand his ground patiently? I was fascinated by human behavior. I was fascinated by a lot of things I was finding.

He started to look me over, seeming to realize that my arms were full and wouldn’t be able to shake his hand even if I’d wanted to. I slowly walked closer and set my telescope down on one of the tables. Once I was sure the table would hold the weight and nothing would slide off, I faced him and held out my hand. I was pleasantly surprised at the “stand his ground patiently” behavior. I was also pleasantly surprised at the wide smile he gave me as our hands met. His hand was warm and his shake was firm but not tight. I found that I was adding this boy to the list of things that fascinated me.

“I’m Sophie.” I told him quietly, for the first time worried that someone might hear us from the house. “Do you make it a habit of scaring girls in their own backyards in the middle of the night?” I teased him.

Tyler immediately stiffened. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you, really.”

“I’m kidding. You’re more fascinating than scary,” I admitted. “But why are you in my backyard instead of your own?”

“Just looking for a little peace and quiet.” Tyler said as he glanced back toward his house.

“Okay, well, you can tell me all about it later if you want, but right now I need to get this beauty set up so that I can finally say hi to my rings.” I pointed at the telescope. “You’re welcome to stay, but I’m looking for a little peace and quiet too.”

I started setting up the telescope and ignored him. Without saying a word, he sunk back into his chair. Once I had the telescope calibrated, I popped the 25mm eyepiece on and sought out my ringed baby, Saturn. I gasped when I found it. It was beautiful and literally looked like every picture I’d ever seen of it, but not in a disappointing way. It looked like a cartoon. I was smitten. With my eye still glued to the telescope I said, “Could you open up that notebook and start a new page with the date on it?” I knew Tyler had been watching every move I made. Maybe he thought I was fascinating. That would be something I hadn’t ever experienced. Now I heard the rustle of pages as he flipped to an empty one. “10:30 PM, 25mm eyepiece, 25 degrees above the horizon, direction Southeast, rings clearly visible at approximately 15 degrees relative to Earth’s horizon, ring colors: whitish with brown specks, Titan not visible.” I dictated.

Finally I pulled my eye away from the telescope. “Would you like to see?” I offered to Tyler as I settled back into one of the Adirondacks. He pulled himself up and took a look through the viewer. I was unexpectedly happy when I heard a small gasp from Tyler as he spied Saturn. He stood very still for a long time as I watched him. He was definitely uneventful looking, but in a way that piqued my curiosity.

When Tyler finished looking at Saturn he returned to his chair and looked at me. “What do you think?” I motioned to the telescope as I asked. When he finally answered he never took his eyes off me. “It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” Tyler’s look had been so honest that I was momentarily confused about whether he was referring to me or to Saturn. But of course he was talking about Saturn. It was amazing.

We spent almost an hour more with me findings stars, dictating observations, and then letting Tyler see what I had found.

At midnight, my mom called from the house that it was time to come inside. I was thankful for the darkness of the fire pit, not wanting to explain the presence of this fascinating new human. Fascinating was definitely my new favorite word.

A week later I carried my telescope out to the fire pit again. It seemed that Thursday nights were going to start becoming a habit. My parents had date nights on Thursday’s and always came back after a dinner out to watch a movie. They didn’t want me in the backyard super late when they weren’t home. I was 14 already, but I knew how they worried, so I didn’t push.

As I got to the fire pit, Tyler looked towards me from what I now considered his chair and said, “I was wondering when I would see you again.”

“Have you been here every night waiting for me, neighbor Tyler?” I challenged.

“Maybe.” He replied and gave me a grin. Oh this was going to be fun. “I’ll make you a deal, you tell me something you learned this week you think I’d be interested in, and I’ll let you look at Jupiter tonight.” I bargained with him.

“I don’t think that’s very fair. I don’t know you at all.” He countered.

“Well, you were staring at me enough last week, I thought for sure you would have figured out all my secrets by now. But if you’re not up for the challenge, I understand.” I don’t know what had come over me. I wasn’t well versed in how to flirt with boys, nor was I usually very confident in any of my peer group social interactions.

I couldn’t tell if Tyler’s face had turned bright red, but he laughed and said, “Game on Sophie Jackson.”

I was momentarily surprised. I hadn’t told him my last name the week before, which meant he’d either overheard it somehow or he had asked about me. Either way, it made me feel vaguely uncomfortable knowing that I was being talked about.

“Okay, something that you’d be interested in.” He paused in thought for a while. “Okay I’ve got one. Apparently plants have circadian rhythms just like humans do. People are talking about growing more food by making sure that agricultural things happen based on plants circadian rhythms, like giving them food and water at the right times.”

He looked so proud of himself. I smiled. “Yeah, it’s called chronoculture. The circadian rhythms are controlled by genes which could make breeding food species for these traits easier and more targeted.” I replied. He looked disappointed now. “Don’t look disappointed, just because I already knew about it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested.” I paused. “Two questions and then you can get your look at Jupiter. How did you know about that study, and how did you know I’d be interested in it?” I was very curious.

Looking more comfortable now, Tyler replied, “My mom’s a plant geneticist at the University and she was talking about it at dinner. My mom thinks the more my brothers and I are exposed to science, the more likely we’ll follow in her footsteps. As for knowing you’d be interested, you’re the only one who ever tends the garden beds in the front yard. And all the food in those beds looks delicious. You obviously care about plants.” I just looked at him. He’d been watching me. Well, all the garden beds were in the front yard so he could have just been looking out his front windows or something and seen me. Right?

“I will forfeit my Jupiter access if you’ll answer a question for me.” He broke the silence.

Why on earth would he want to do that. Jupiter was amazing. Boys were stupid and I was now annoyed. I guess he took my silence for acquiescence because he asked, “What is your deal?” He didn’t say it in a snarky tone or anything. It was just a blunt question.

I think my jaw probably dropped. “Well Tyler…” I waited for him to insert his last name because I still didn’t know it. “Williams,” he said. What a boring last name. I guess I was one to talk with “Jackson”.

“Well Tyler Williams. That is a remarkably vague question, one that implies there’s something wrong with me or something out of the ordinary. Also, I don’t think any question is worth answering if the price is Jupiter.” I was surprisingly upset and confused, so I scooped up my telescope, which I hadn’t set up yet, and ran back toward the house. When my parents asked, I told them the air was too humid and the stars were hard to see.

The next week Tyler wasn’t at the fire pit, but there was a note held down by a small rock on one of the tables. I picked it up and read. “Dear Sophie, I’m very sorry about my behavior last week. I didn’t mean to make you feel bad and should have worded my question more thoughtfully. I find you fascinating and just wanted to learn more about you. Please don’t be mad at me. Your (hopefully) friend, Tyler.” I had to admit it was a pretty good letter. Maybe he was worth a second chance.

Chapter 1

“Your brother hates me Soph.” Tyler complained from his chair. It was our usual Thursday night telescope ritual that no one from our families had discovered, not that Tyler’s family would care. It always surprised me how oblivious my brother and parents seemed to be sometimes, not that they cared about astronomy anyway. We’d been meeting almost every week for three years at the fire pit to observe the stars and chat.

I looked up from the telescope to see Tyler watching me. I was a senior now at TSST and Tyler and my brother were both seniors at the local high school. Over the last three years Tyler had become my best friend. My secret best friend, because of my brother.

“I can’t see why.” I rolled my eyes. Derek and Tyler had been at each other’s throats from the minute they met freshman year. They were both midfielders for the school soccer team, attended the same summer soccer camps, and were both smart enough to be up for all the academic awards at the end of the year. Before sophomore year things were fairly tame between them, just the normal competitive attitudes and trash talking. But during the winter of sophomore year things had gone downhill when Derek’s girlfriend Trina had broken up with him two days before winter formal. When Derek had shown up to the dance stag, Tyler had walked in with Trina on his arm. Trina went to my school and had met Derek when she and I worked on a genetics project together, so she had no idea that Tyler and Derek went to the same school. It was a mess, and both Derek and Tyler had gotten suspended for a week after the fight that erupted. I guess it was kind of my fault too. Tyler had asked if I wanted to go to the dance with him as friends because he didn’t have a date. I turned him down because I had a paper on cryptocurrency to write. Also, I didn’t want to deal with my brother. It turned out that Trina is Tyler’s cousin and his mom arranged the date to winter formal for him, but Derek didn’t believe him.

I made it a rule to stay out of their feuding, and since the dance debacle, Derek’s and Tyler’s competitiveness had taken on a whole different aura. I heard stories of stealing clothes in the locker room, filling lockers with honey, telling embarrassing and untrue stories about each other. I knew a few people at their school and it seemed like everyone knew they hated each other and no one really cared. In fact, it seemed like Derek and Tyler’s antics were super entertaining to everyone and they were both really nice to everyone except each other.

I finally broke, “You’re lucky I’m in the mood to be entertained. Tell me a good story about what D did this time.” I demanded as I tried to find alpha centauri in my telescope.

“So I got to the locker room this afternoon to dress out for practice and I couldn’t find my cleats anywhere. I ended up late to practice still without cleats. Coach Pillai came up to me and told me that he was so sorry I wasn’t feeling well and to please let him know if there was anything he could do. I was really confused obviously, but he told me to hang out on the sidelines with the subs while the team played a game of 10 takes. Rishi told me he overheard Derek telling Coach Pillai that I was having trouble pooping and I was going to have to miss practice next week so I could get a colonoscopy.”

I was trying not to laugh out loud, but I was starting to fail miserably. Between quiet peels of laughter I managed to say, “Poop jokes aren’t my favorite, but they’re a solid number two.”

“Okay okay, get it all out.”

“No thanks, it’s too stinky.” I was on a roll.

All of a sudden Tyler grabbed me from behind and slung me over his shoulder, carefully avoiding my telescope. He carried me toward the pool, knowing that I wouldn’t cry out and wake the house, but also knowing that he wasn’t really going to toss me in and wake the house. I managed to elbow him in the kidney before we made it too far from the fire pit and we both ended up on the ground in a heap of limbs. We untangled and lay on our backs looking at the stars.

“How’s school?” Tyler asked quietly.

I knew he wasn’t really asking about school, but I could hear the worry in his voice. A few months ago I’d admitted to him that I wasn’t very happy at TSST. Intellectually, it was amazing. The teachers encouraged curiosity and then actually had the materials and facilities to help us follow-through on our ideas. Socially, TSST was a nightmare. The students that went there were smart, but very few of them had much social intelligence. Trina and her (our) friend Eleanor had been the best of them, but after the fiasco with Derek I hadn’t seen either of them often outside of school. I was lonely, that was all.

“It’s fine.” I replied. He rolled over so that he was looking at me from above. “I know when you’re lying Soph, and you don’t have to pretend that you’re fine.” Tyler told me.

We stared at each other for a few moments and it reminded me of every rom-com where the guy realizes that he’s really in love with the girl. Does real life happen that way? Tyler’s eyes scanned my face, lingering on my lips. Oh man, maybe it did happen that way. Before I could form another thought, Tyler shook his head quickly and pulled us both up and back to the telescope. For the rest of the night I found myself sneaking glances at Tyler to see if he was doing the same to me. Oh goodness, had I finally gotten boy obsessed? The intellectual part of me was fascinated to see where my emotions and hormones would take me, but the emotional part of me was just plain terrified. Ugh.

As I lay in bed later that night, going over every word and every touch from Tyler, I had two sudden realizations. First, no one knew that Tyler and I were even friends. We were just next door neighbors who knew that each other existed. Second, Tyler and my brother were arch-nemeses. They hated each other. This was gonna be trouble.

Chapter 2

“Please Derek, could you just take Sophie with you to your soccer game and then let her hang out with you and your friends afterwards. She’s having a hard time right now and needs our support,” I heard our mom say to Derek as I made my way downstairs the next morning. I froze on the stairs, not wanting either of them to hear me.

How did my mom know I was having a hard time? Had she noticed something? It wasn’t like I’d changed any of my habits. Maybe I was staying late at lab more often, but my genetics project this semester had me taking care of baby zebrafish every single day. As it was, survival was only about 30% no matter how careful I was.

To make things worse, I knew my brother didn’t want to hang out with me. Even though we were the same age, and twins, we were very different people. I think he thought he’d have to babysit me and make sure I didn’t get into any trouble because I’d been interacting with social recluses for three years. Also, I was prone to panic attacks sometimes. They didn’t happen often, but it was embarrassing for everyone involved.

It wasn’t that Derek didn’t love me. I knew he did. I knew he’d support me in anything I wanted, and help me out if I asked. But Derek was a social butterfly and I think I cramped his style. I didn’t blame him for saying, “Mom, it’s our region game tonight and I don’t want to be distracted. There’s a scout coming and I don’t want to be responsible for Sophie.”

“Your sister is not something that needs to be watched over and guarded Derek. I know you worry about her, but she’s stronger than you think she is. She’ll meet you at the game and then you’ll take her with you afterwards,” Mom chided him. I loved our mom so much. She was my biggest fan, and I was hers.

“Fine, but if something happens, don’t blame me.” Derek said under his breath, but loud enough so that he was sure our mom heard.

I didn’t move until I heard the front door close. As I made my way into the kitchen to grab a bowl of cheerios, I gave my mom a huge smile to let her know that I’d heard everything and I was appreciative. I knew Derek and his friends would end up at Andretti after the game and I’d always wanted to race go carts and play arcade games with people my age. No one at TSST would want to go except for Trina and Eleanor. Maybe I’d invite Eleanor with me, just in case.

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to sweetie,” She said gently.

“I’ve never been to one of Derek’s games. It’ll be fun, and maybe I’ll invite Eleanor to come too. That way if something happens I’ll have a buddy.” I told her.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea.” She said and gave me a hug.

As my mom walked out of the kitchen I said, “Thanks for thinking that I’m strong mom.”

She came back toward me and said, “You’re stronger than you know Sophie. Your brother isn’t old enough to see the strong, independent woman you’re becoming. I’m just here to point it out until he can recognize it on his own. Your brother loves you very much sweetheart.”

The day had been busy and I’d lost a whole clutch of zebrafish eggs overnight. Zebrafish have clear eggs that you can see under a dissecting microscope. They start moving within the chorion after about two days and they hatch within about four. It was day three. There was no movement in any of the eggs and some had even started to grow mold in the hatching solution. I spent the whole day trying to figure out what went wrong so that it wouldn’t happen again. It had to have been the heating pad I put them on. They must have gotten too cold.

I had been so preoccupied with my zebrafish that I’d forgotten to ask if Eleanor wanted to come with me tonight and it was too late now, so I was just going to have to go it alone. No biggie.

I biked home to change out of my school uniform. I threw on my most comfortable pair of jeans, a soft jersey t-shirt that said “Environmental Scientist is not a career, it’s a post apocalyptic survival skill”, and donned a set of well-worn teal converse. I grabbed a flannel jacket with fleece lining for later when it was sure to get chilly.

I set off once again on my bike. I was a bike enthusiast for the environmental benefits, but also because I was terrified of driving. Something about being in charge of 2000 lbs of metal hurtling through the world made me panic. It was fine. There were good bike lanes and I always wore my helmet.

I was early to the game. The team was still coming from the locker room and a few were just starting their stretches and warmup. I found a place to lock my bike and walked toward the field. As I got closer, I noticed heads starting to swivel my way. I looked frantically for a friendly face, but I’d never been to a game so I didn’t recognize anyone.

That was when I saw Tyler jogging across the field staring at me. So this is what he looked like in the daylight. His soft brown waves were a medium length around his ears and cut so they wouldn’t stick to his neck when he got all sweaty. Tyler had grown a good eight inches since we first met at the fire pit, while I had only grown two. Not only was he taller but he seemed broader in the daylight, still lanky but full of muscle. Those muscles had so easily thrown me over his shoulder last night. And he was tan. Definitely not something that I would notice at the fire pit. I was staring and I wouldn’t be surprised if my mouth was hanging open. Tyler was gorgeous in the daylight and he was running towards me.

As he ran through his teammates and made a beeline in my direction, I heard several questions and comments shouted at him. “Who’s that?”, “Is that your girlfriend?”, “She’s hot”, all of which he ignored. When he got to me, he was barely out of breath. I was going to have to do some research on physiological adaptation to exercise and VO2 max when I got home.

“Hey Soph.” He paused and gave me a once over. “You look more beautiful in the daylight than I imagined.” He said quickly and then stuttered, “I mean I just haven’t seen you in a while in the daylight, and you’re always beautiful, and I really like your shirt.” He covered his face. “That was embarrassing. I wasn’t expecting to see you and my brain apparently isn’t connected to my mouth very well. Can we just pretend that didn’t happen?”

I laughed a bright cheery laugh. “Absolutely not. We will remember that nervous word vomit for all eternity.”

“Knew I could count on you.” He laughed too. “So what are you doing here?”

“My mom guilted Derek into inviting me to the game and whatever he’s doing afterwards with his friends. So here I am.” I exclaimed.

“You’re coming to Andretti?” He asked excitedly.

Before I could answer, Derek walked up behind Tyler and clapped him on the back. It looked a little too hard to be friendly. “Hey Tyler, you remember my sister Sophie.” Derek said with a snarl.

“Derek, thanks for the introduction, but you know full well Tyler knows me, considering that we’re neighbors and all. I’m not a complete hermit, you know.” I snapped. “In fact, Tyler came up to greet me because you were still in the locker room and I didn’t recognize anyone. I must have looked a little lost.”

“Thanks for taking care of my sister Tyler. Your help is no longer needed.” Derek said dismissively.

“Enjoy the game Sophie. It was good to see you.” Tyler said solemnly, but winked and flashed me a grin before he ran back to the team.

“You know I’m never going to get to work on my social skills if you’re the only person I ever socialize with Derek.” I complained.

“Choose someone else Sophie.” Derek said in an exhausted tone. “You can sit wherever you like, but it’s easier to see the whole field from higher up.”

“But then you won’t be able to hear me when I scream your name little bro.” I knew he hated when I called him that. Technically I was two minutes older and based on the sibling code, I would never let him forget it. He grinned mischievously and then ran toward me. I ran as fast as I could, away, but he really was the athletic one and caught me easily. He threw me over his shoulder like Tyler had the night before, and walked me to where his teammates were stretching in a circle. He set me unceremoniously on the ground in the middle of the circle.

“Everyone, this is my twin sister Sophie. As you can tell she’s lovely just like me, and very nimble, but not very fast. What you can’t tell is that she’s also the smartest person I know, so don’t mess with her or she’ll rip you into pieces with her words and then put them back together again in an effort to figure out how you work. She’s here to cheer us on and then beat us at all the go carts and arcade games I have money for.” Derek said loudly to his friends. I didn’t think I’d ever loved my brother more than I did right then.

The game was interesting and by the end I think I’d figured out the strategy and rules. They could have scored about 10 more times than they did, but the team won 4-1 in the end. Tyler and Derek both scored, so at least they wouldn’t have that to fight about tonight.

I waited on the bleachers for my brother, but Tyler beat him out of the locker room and joined me. When he sat down I could smell shampoo and soap, and I had the overwhelming urge to run my fingers through his wet hair. Was this the hormones? I’ll put it on my list to investigate when I get home.

“Hey. Did you enjoy the game?” Tyler asked.

“Yeah it was great!” I refrained from any kind of analysis.

“So, about your brother…” Tyler paused as if waiting for me to say something. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say, so I stayed silent. “Would it be easier if I didn’t come tonight?” He asked.

“Why would you say that?” I demanded.

“Well, you know we don’t really get along that well, and I don’t want you to have to see that side of either of us. Also, I think Derek might be a bit more protective than you’re expecting.” He explained.

“Well, just don’t be a dick then. Maybe Derek won’t either.” I’d wanted to try that phrase for a while now and it seemed appropriate. Tyler just laughed and said, “Did that feel weird to say, or did your face just react on its own?” I guess it wasn’t a phrase I would be keeping in my vernacular.

“Do you want to pretend we don’t really know each other?” Tyler asked quietly when he finished laughing.

“Honestly, I’m not sure that’s possible, but we should probably tone it down a bit so Derek’s head doesn’t explode.” I responded and then continued, “I didn’t realize that my coming would be so difficult.”

“Hey, it’s not difficult. It’s a dream come true to see you during daylight hours. I’m happy you’re here and I’ll do my best not to provoke Derek.” Tyler promised and got up to leave before Derek saw us together.

Five minutes later Derek emerged from the locker room and his shoulders visibly relaxed when he saw me sitting in the stands alone. In the car on the way to Andretti, Derek tried to prepare me for his friends. I wasn’t the idiot he thought I was and he was treating me like a child, but I was too excited to push back, so I just let him talk.

“You’re really quiet Sophie. Are you okay?” Derek finally asked.

“Yeah I’m fine, but I’m really not something you need to protect all the time. I’m not as totally socially inept as you think I am D.” I managed to respond.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to imply that you were. I just…” He paused. “I love you Sophie and I’m your brother and it’s my job to look out for you. I’ll try not to be too overbearing tonight.”

“Thanks. I just want to have some fun.” I smiled at him and he found my hand and squeezed it.

Andretti was crowded when we got there and most of the team and their friends were already hanging out. The school apparently reserved a room for the team as a congratulations, and please celebrate responsibly gift. Not a bad idea in my opinion. We found seats and dug into the pizzas that were already cramming the table.

“If you’re really Derek’s twin, how come we’ve never seen you before Sophie?” A guy on my left asked. I think I remember him being introduced as Walker. Here we go social interactions!

“I go to TSST across town. It keeps me really busy.” I responded.

“That’s super cool. So you’re a senior?” Another guy asked. I nodded. “So TSST is all science stuff. Do you have a favorite topic or are you doing anything cool right now?” He continued. I thought his name was Ashwin. He and Walker kept asking questions and I told them all about my zebrafish project and my internship at the botanical gardens. They kept asking questions and I kept answering them until I realized that I was surrounded by five or six of my brother’s friends from the team, all listening to me chatter away.

I asked them lots of questions in return and they seemed happy to answer them. At one point I noticed Tyler across the room watching me. When he noticed my gaze he flashed me a smile and a look that said “see, you’re the only one that doesn’t believe you’re amazing”.

Suddenly, Derek came running into the room with a huge bag of tokens. “Alright Sophie, the time has come to show us all how inadequate we are. I spent my life savings on coins so I could see you beat all my friends at arcade games. Make me proud.” He set the bag in front of me with the biggest grin I’d ever seen. This was going to be awesome.

I practically lunged for the bag and ran out the door, all the guys trailing me and laughing. The night stretched on and I didn’t win all the games, but I won a fair number that were based on strategy. I usually caught on pretty quickly if I could see someone else playing first.

I found myself at the skeeball ramps next to Tyler sometime around 10. “I bet you can’t beat me,” I taunted. “You really wanna bet Soph?” He challenged.

“Yeah, I do actually.” I was feeling bold. “How about we follow each other like in H-O-R-S-E. If the person doesn’t make it they have to answer a question.”

“I already know everything about you.” He countered.

“Are you sure?” I looked him right in the eyes. I noticed his gaze fell to my lips before he looked away and said, “Okay, you’re on. I shoot first.”

He landed his ball in the 60pt bullseye. I followed and made the same bullseye.

“My turn,” I said. I rolled my ball into the 40pt bullseye. Tyler’s went into the 60pt. “Okay, what do you want to know that you don’t already?”

I thought carefully. “Why were you in my yard the first time we met?”

Tyler looked surprised, but answered after a moment. “My little brothers are a handful. You know that. I’d just gotten home from soccer camp and my mom was running raged after a day in the lab and my brothers were getting into something. I don’t even remember what. My mom yelled at me to deal with them and I yelled back at her and then bolted. I didn’t want her coming to find me, so I snuck through the hedges and sat at your fire pit.”

Tyler shot his ball right into the 100 pt bullseye. I tried, but failed.

“What were your first and second thoughts after you read my apology letter at the fire pit?” Tyler asked almost shyly.

I considered. “To be honest, my first thought was that fascinating was my favorite word at the time. You used it in your letter and it made me happy. My second thought was that your letter was a pretty good apology and that maybe it would be worth my time to get to know you.” I looked at him. He was smiling.

I shot my ball. I failed again. I really wasn’t good at skeeball.

He shot his and made it into the 60pt. bullseye again. So did I.

I made a shot into the 40pt bullseye, but he didn’t.

I gathered my courage and asked, “What were you thinking about when you first saw me at the game today?”

He sighed. “The truth?” he asked. I nodded. “I almost didn’t recognize you at first. I don’t see you during the daylight hours very often. Once I was sure it was you, I was running before I thought anything. I momentarily thought you were there to see me and then realized that of course you came to see your brother. But I was really glad to see you.”

He shot a ball into the 100pt pocket. Of course I failed.

“Last night, when we ended up on the ground, what were you thinking about?” He asked. I felt my face turn red.

Just then Derek appeared between the two of us.

“Is she crushing you Tyler?” Derek asked excitedly.

“It turns out that I’m not that great at skeeball D.” I said, feeling a bit relieved at not having to answer Tyler’s question. I really had wanted him to kiss me, but I wasn’t about to admit it. It felt like laying all my cards down on the table, and I wasn’t that confident. Maybe someday, but not tonight.

“Wanna race the go-carts?” Derek asked me.

Before I could answer, Ashwin and Walker had arrived and chimed in with a race challenge. I guess I was going to learn how to drive a go-cart. As we walked over, Derek was giving me all kinds of advice about not turning the wheel too sharply and letting up on the accelerator going around corners. He was making me nervous.

I would not be nervous, so I snapped at him, “Stop being so patronizing. I’ll figure it out!”

As we got into the cars and the operator gave directions, I paid attention as much as I could. Tyler was grinning at me from two cars over and I couldn’t help but flash him a smile. Next to me, Derek checked my seat belt and told me to eat asphalt. Was that a real phrase?

The “gun” went off. It took me a few seconds to make sure that my foot was on the accelerator and not the brake, and then I was off. I was behind everyone else but it was fun watching them take each curve and then mimicking the lines they took. It all boiled down to physics after all.

After a couple of turns I noticed Derek and Tyler ahead of me vying for space. Suddenly Derek hit Tyler’s car hard and Tyler spun out into some bales of hay. He had regained control by the time I came up beside him. We were so far behind at that point that I was sure we would be lapped. So much for winning all the games.

I heard Ashwin behind us yelling, “Get out the way granny!” as he zoomed past us. Then it was Walker and another guy named Bryce. There was definitely not enough space to get around us and before I knew it, Walker’s car hit the side of mine and I was spinning. I had lost control of a motor vehicle. No, it wasn’t the size of a real car, but the panic I felt was very real. As I spun, I tried to rationalize that I was safely secured with my seatbelt, I was just going to hit hay bales, and that I really wasn’t going very fast, but none of it calmed my screaming heart and my fast breathing. It played out exactly as I imagined and I ended up crammed against a hay bale, but I was in full on panic mode by then.

I could hear voices, but it wasn’t clear where they were coming from, or who they were coming from. I heard my name and I looked around, but didn’t really see anything. Pretty soon I would blackout from hyperventilating. It had happened before at my Nana’s 80th birthday party. I had a phobia about millipedes. It was an odd fear, but something about that many legs really bothered me and one had crawled up my arm in the middle of cake. I had passed out within about a minute.

Suddenly I could feel pressure on my right wrist and then warmth along my side. I could hear a soft voice in my ear saying my name and saying that I was safe and that everything was going to be okay. I took a deep breath when the voice said to breathe and let it out when the voice said to let it out. There were fingers stroking gently through my hair. Things were getting clearer. I could see the go cart I was sitting in and I could see my hands in my lap. My right hand had another hand wrapped around it. A strong hand, a comforting hand. I figured out the warmth on my side meant there was a person there. Whoever it was must have jumped in my car when they saw I was panicking.

I kept following their instructions breathing in and out and felt myself calming down slowly. Finally, I looked up and found Tyler’s eyes, big and wide. It was his hand around my wrist putting gentle pressure to remind me of being present. It was his voice telling me to breathe in and out. His fingers in my hair. I folded into his warm chest as he let go of my wrist and wrapped his arms around me, holding me tight.

He was trying to say something into my hair. The only snippet I heard was “your brother” before he was being wrenched from me. There were voices yelling and I was really confused.

“Get away from her.”

“She needed help, I was just trying to help.”

“We don’t need your help. Don’t ever touch her, Tyler.”

“I think she can decide that for herself Derek. You don’t own her. She can make her own decisions.”

As Tyler and Derek screamed at each other in the middle of the Andretti race track, Walker and Ashwin pulled me out of my go-cart and walked me slowly back to the rented room. Walker got me some water while Ashwin made excuses for my brother’s behavior. I wasn’t listening to him. The room had windows that looked out over the track and I could see Tyler and Derek gesticulating wildly, but couldn’t hear anything.

Derek had his back to me, but Tyler was facing the room. Tears were streaming down my face. Tyler was right, this was horrible to watch. Tyler locked eyes with me and I could see him take a deep breath, his shoulders letting go of some of the tension they held. I could read his lips as he said to Derek, “I’m done fighting with you,” and walked away. Derek must have been too stunned to follow him, because he paused and then turned to the rented room to see me watching them with my tear-streaked face.

I immediately stood up, startling Ashwin and Walker, and ran. I needed to get away. Andretti wasn’t too far from my house, so I just kept running and running.

I made it home eventually, but Derek’s car wasn’t there. I quietly unlocked the front door and started upstairs when I heard mom’s voice from the front room. She said, “Come tell me about it sweetheart.” Her voice was clear and sad. I realized that Derek had already been home and told her a version of what happened.

I stepped back towards the front room and asked, “Where’s Derek?”

“He’s out looking for you. He’s worried.” She replied. She patted the couch next to her and I walked over and sunk into the pillows, leaning into her warmth. Her hand immediately went to my hair. There’s something about someone else’s fingers in my hair that immediately calms me, and it reminded me of Tyler a couple of hours ago. How did he know that would work? I made a mental note to look up connections between physical touch and panic attacks.

I sat there soaking up the comfort of my mother and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. And then I told my mom everything that happened. Obviously leaving out the part out about Tyler and I playing skeeball 20 questions. She didn’t need to know about that. I was just telling her about running out of Andretti when the phone rang.

She disentangled herself and walked across the room to answer our land-line. Yeah, I know it’s antiquated, but my parents are old-fashioned like that.

“Yes, she’s here. Yes, she’s safe. I’ll let her know you called and thanks for your help tonight. I know she appreciated it.” I heard my mom say from the other side of the room. In response to my questioning glance she said, “That was Tyler from next door. He was just calling to see if you made it home okay.” I must have had a smile on my face because my mom raised her eyebrows and giggled a bit before she hugged me again.

“Sophie, nothing that happened tonight was your fault. You know that right sweetheart?” She looked so hopeful that I would understand, and I did, so I nodded. “Okay, to bed with you. I’ll recall your brother and give him a piece of my mind.”

Chapter 3

Over the next week, I threw myself into schoolwork and ignored my brother. He had tried to apologize several times, but I was having a hard time assessing his sincerity, and frankly just wanted to forget the whole thing had ever happened.

Thursday night came and I didn’t feel like looking at the stars. What was wrong with me? I made a note to look up the symptoms of depression later.

Instead of setting up my telescope I decided to read a book about epigenetics. It was fascinating how traits like the ability of an organism to adapt to its environment could be passed onto the next generation by methylating the genome. It was totally opposite of what Darwin thought, but it also made a lot of sense. I sat in my window seat reading late into the night.

Occasionally I glanced from my second-floor window down into the backyard toward the fire pit. I knew Tyler was sitting there even if I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t face him yet. I was embarrassed about my brother’s behavior, but it wasn’t just that. My brother would always be there between us no matter what. There wasn’t any future there, friend or otherwise, with all that anger radiating from Derek. We could have our fire pit, but we couldn’t ever have daylight. It made me sad.

Eventually I went to bed and fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up late the next day and rushed to school.

I totally forgot that my parents were headed out of town for the weekend until I was on my way home later that afternoon. It was my parents’ 20th wedding anniversary and they were going to have a romantic weekend up in the mountains. My brother was spending the night with Walker and Ashwin. My parents had left money for me to order pizza and the phone number of the cabin they had rented.

I was contemplating what I was going to do for the weekend as I biked home. I needed to work on my final manuscript for my zebrafish project and I had fluid dynamics problems to solve for homework. There were a couple of cars behind me, but I signaled to turn left into our driveway and quickly moved into the lane like I did every day.

I started to turn into our driveway. Before I realized what was happening, I felt something solid slam into my left leg and I was falling. I hurt and I heard screaming. I was still in the middle of the street but now I was on the ground and I was confused. I think it was me that was screaming, but my mind felt disconnected to my body. I made a mental note to look up reactions to blunt trauma. It must not have been too bad if I was still able to make mental notes to myself.

As I contemplated my own brain, I saw Tyler’s familiar face hovering over mine. “Stay with me Soph. Stay with me.” I thought I heard him say before I blacked out.

I woke up to a white spinning room and quickly closed my eyes again. I knew the room itself wasn’t spinning. I must have a concussion or some kind of traumatic brain injury. I slowly worked my way through my body, subtly testing to see what was functioning. Everything checked out except my left leg. It didn’t quite hurt, but had a weird numb feeling and I couldn’t move it. I could wiggle my toes, so I was pretty sure my leg was still attached and signals were getting through somehow. Maybe it was broken?

I took a deep breath to brace against the spinning and opened my eyes. My stirring must have roused him, because Tyler was starting to sit up from a chair next to my bed. He took my hand.

“What happened? Where are my parents? My brother?” I couldn’t help it, but I also said, “I’m scared.”

“Hey Soph. I’m here and you’re going to be okay.” I nodded as tears welled in my eyes. “You’re okay, I’m right here with you and I’m not going anywhere. I promise.” I nodded again and he squeezed my hand.

Apparently, as I was turning left into my driveway, a car had gotten impatient about the slow-down and sped past the other cars and straight into the side of me and my bike. There hadn’t been any soccer practice and Tyler had just gotten home and seen the whole thing. I’d hit my head on the pavement, hence the concussion. My left leg was broken in two places, but didn’t need surgery. They had already put it on a cast. I had a bunch of bumps and bruises but would only need to stay in the hospital overnight to make sure I was okay.

Tyler had called my parents and they were on their way back from the mountains. It would take a couple of hours to get back to town. Tyler said that he’d tried to call Derek, but that he wasn’t answering his phone.

“Where’s my phone?” I asked Tyler. He pulled it out of his pocket and tried to hand it to me.

“I know this is probably the last thing you want to hear, but will you please try calling Derek using my phone. He’ll probably pick up.” I hoped.

Tyler didn’t hesitate to dial. He waited a few rings before my brother picked up. “Hey Derek, it’s Tyler. Hey don’t hang up. I’m with Sophie and she’s been in an accident. She’s fine, but she’d really like her brother here with her.” Tyler told him where we were and gave him directions.

“He’ll be here in about 20 min.” Tyler told me. “Thank you,” I said softly.

I closed my eyes because the room was spinning again. “Thank you Tyler,” I murmured. Before I fell asleep again I felt him squeeze my hand and heard him say, “I’d do anything for you Soph. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

I woke up to hushed, but angry voices. One of them was my brother, the other was Tyler. I don’t know what they were saying but this needed to stop before they had some kind of fight that got them thrown out, because I needed them both right now.

“Stop.” I said as forcefully as I could. I don’t know if it came out like I wanted it to, but at least it got them to shut up. Derek rushed to the side of my bed.

“I’m so sorry Sophie. I’m sorry I wasn’t home.” Derek almost pleaded with me. I just looked at him and squeezed his hand. It wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t home. It was just a freak accident. I was just really glad that Tyler was there to help out.

Tyler had settled himself in a chair in the corner and was watching my brother and I as we chatted quietly. Derek noticed that I was watching Tyler and said, “Tyler thanks and all, really, but why are you still here?” It was a challenge.

With my eyes I tried to plead with Tyler not to start anything, but when Tyler just kept looking at me and not answering my brother, Derek got up and started walking towards him. I was starting to panic and I felt nauseous. The room was still spinning. I was actually going to throw up. I groaned, and both boys whipped their gazes towards me.

My face must have looked as green as I felt, because when I tried to sit up my brother lunged toward the bed to help me maneuver so that I wouldn’t throw up on myself and Tyler came to my other side with a bucket. The nurses must have left it. I knew nausea was a side effect of concussion and I couldn’t hold it in any more. I vomited into the bucket with Derek’s steady hand on my back and Tyler’s free hand holding my hair.

“Shit, I thought you said she was okay.” Derek challenged.

“She’s got a pretty bad concussion Derek. The nurse said this might happen, along with sensitivity to light and loud noises. The room’s probably still spinning for her.” Tyler said softly as he put down the bucket and reached for a wash cloth on the table next to the bed. He handed it to me and I wiped my mouth, head still hanging over the side. I groaned as they both helped me get comfortable again. And then I was asleep.

I woke up a bit later to see my mom where Derek had been. It was dark outside and Tyler was in the corner chair with his mouth wide open and fast asleep. I didn’t see my dad or Derek.

“Hey sweetheart. How are you feeling?” My mom whispered.

“I hurt and the room is spinning a bit still, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to survive.” I gave her the best grin I could muster.

I looked toward Tyler in the corner. My mom turned her gaze to him too and said, “I bet you had an interesting afternoon with him and Derek that had nothing to do with your accident.” I groaned. I think groaning was my new favorite noise to make. It could communicate so many different emotions. My mom knew all about the feud between Tyler and Derek but had made a point to stay out of it as long as no one got hurt and didn’t seem to be impacting others. In fact, over the years a couple of the pranks Tyler had played on Derek made it to our dinner table conversation and resulted in hearty laughs for all, including Derek.

My mom grinned, likely remembering those dinners too. “You know he cares about you, right?”

“Yeah I know Derek cares. I just wish he could let it go.” I replied.

My mom cocked her head. “I meant Tyler.” She said. I couldn’t help but smile. My mom squeezed my hand. “You know they’ll figure it out between the two of them. They’ll do it for you if that’s what you want.” She leaned over and kissed my forehead before I could respond. “I’m going to go find your Dad and Derek. They were supposed to be looking for coffee, but goodness knows what they’ve gotten into at this point. I love you Sophie.”

As my mom left, Tyler stirred in the chair. His gaze surveyed the room until it fell on me. He got up and came to sit by me.

“Hey Soph.”

“Hey Tyler.”

“How was your day today? Anything exciting happen?” He asked conspiratorially.

“Oh you know, this really great guy just saved my ass. It was pretty heroic.” I grinned. He grinned.

Tyler reached into his pocket and pulled out my cell phone and handed it to me. “So, I doubt you’ll be very mobile in the next few weeks and might not be up for astronomy. I hope you don’t mind, but I put my number in your phone so that you could text if you were headed to the fire pit or needed help or whatever.” He looked down like he was embarrassed.

I looked at my phone to see the entry he had pulled up. The contact didn’t have his name. It was just an emoji of a telescope. I hit the message button and started typing.

Dear [telescope], I tried to think of a good vomit joke, but I couldn’t. Thanks for holding my hair.

“I think I got it right. My vision is still spinning a little.” I said as Tyler’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out and read. He laughed and smiled up at me.

“I’ve gotta get home. My mom probably needs help getting my brothers to bed. I’ll see you soon Soph.” Tyler said as he leaned down and kissed my forehead. His lips were warm and soft and stayed on my forehead for at least three of my heartbeats.

Chapter 4

I was finally off my crutches and my cast got cut off a couple days ago. Tyler and I had been exchanging texts for a month now, but I hadn’t seen him except from afar. The crutches had really cut down on my freedom. I couldn’t wait for Thursday night when I would take my telescope out to say hi to my rings and see Tyler. I was counting down the days.

Thursday came around and the evening was fairly warm. It was spring already and sometimes we got a lucky warm night that made astronomical observations much more comfortable. I wore my comfy jeans and threw on a shirt that said, “One tectonic plate bumped into another and said; Sorry my fault”. It always made me giggle-groan. That’s a thing right?

When I got to the fire pit that night Tyler was already situated in his normal chair. When he saw me he popped up to help me with the equipment like he always had.

“Love the shirt. I missed seeing all your funny science shirts.” Tyler said.

I smiled. “I missed you too.” I said with some snark to my voice. “What do you want to look at tonight?” I asked.

Tyler took a deep breath and said, “Just you.”

He took a step towards me. I held his gaze and when I didn’t move he took another step towards me. Three more steps had him close enough I could almost feel the heat radiating off of him. Why were boys so warm all the time? I made a note to look it up later.

He raised a hand and tucked a stray piece of hair behind my ear. “I have something I’ve been meaning to tell you and it’s been eating at me for the past month.” He whispered.

“And what’s that?” He was too close. I couldn’t think straight.

“I missed you. When I saw you the day of your accident I was really excited because I knew that Derek wasn’t home and your mom had asked my mom to check in on you because they were going out of town. I thought maybe you’d want to hang out with me and I was excited. And then I saw that car and I saw you on the ground and I was so scared.” He ran a hand through his hair. I just watched him as he searched for the right words. “I was scared that I was never going to get to hold your hand again or hear what you think about California’s regulations to put solar panels on all new constructions. I was scared that I’d never get to tell you how much I love that your hair never stays behind your ears no matter how many times you put it there. I was scared that you’d never know how much I care about you and how much I’ve wanted to do this.”

He closed the gap between us and raised a hand to my neck as he kissed me with those soft, warm lips. My eyes fluttered closed and my mind went blank. My lips naturally knew what to do in response. I’d always been worried they wouldn’t be able to figure it out on their own. When Tyler pulled away I realized that I’d lost track of time. It could have been a second or a milenium.

My brother’s voice cut like ice through all my swirling thoughts. “Hey Sophie. Mom wanted me to come check on you. Are you at the fire pit?”

I knew he couldn’t see us yet because of the shadows, but there wasn’t going to be enough time for Tyler to make it through the hedges back to his own yard. Besides, Derek would have heard him.

Derek started walking our direction when I responded with a panicked “Yes”.

Tyler was still looking at me, understanding dawning on his face. He brought his mouth close to my ear and whispered, “I love you Soph. I’ve loved you for years and I’m really really sorry for what’s about to happen.” I didn’t understand what he meant until I saw him square his shoulders and face the direction my brother was coming from.

“See anything awesome Sophie? Is it nice to…” Derek’s voice stopped as he made out Tyler and I standing closer than was probably appropriate.

“What the fuck are you doing here Tyler?” Derek challenged. His gaze registered how close we were standing, the telescope that wasn’t set up, and the startled look on my face.

“I was just hanging out with Sophie. I haven’t seen her in a while and wanted to see how she was doing.” Tyler said casually. Oh this wasn’t going to end well for any of us.

“Just hanging out, in the darkest part of the yard, in the middle of the night. You think I’m stupid. You can’t just think you’re gonna to take advantage of her and get away with it asshole.” Derek was yelling now and was slowly moving towards the fire pit.

“Hey, you’ve got the wrong idea Derek. There’s no way I’d take advantage of Sophie. She’s wonderful.” Tyler said.

“That right, there’s no way anything’s going to happen between you and my sister.” Derek screamed and lunged for Tyler, wrestling him to the ground near the fire pit.

I yelled as they landed punches on each other and wrestled around our backyard. I screamed at them to stop. Finally, my dad came running out the back door. When he saw Derek and Tyler on the ground he rushed over to them and pulled Derek off Tyler.

“What on earth is going on here?” My dad bellowed at the two boys.

Derek had a split lip and blood was running from his nose. He spat and said, “Ask the asshole who was trying to take advantage of Sophie.”

My dad leveled his gaze at Tyler. If looks could kill, Tyler would be dead a thousand times over. Tyler was sitting on the ground and clutching his ribs. Now that he was in the better lit part of the yard I could tell he was going to have a serious black eye tomorrow.

“Mr. Jackson, I would never take advantage of Sophie, Sir.” Tyler said earnestly.

“That’s total bullshit. I caught the two of them by the fire pit and he was all over her.” Derek accused.

My dad looked back and forth between the two of them and then turned to me where I had been observing closely. Once my dad had pulled Derek off of Tyler and they couldn’t hurt each other any more, my fear had faded and my anger was rising. How dare my brother think that Tyler would do such a thing. And Tyler hadn’t even thought twice about fighting with Derek. The relationship between the two of them was exhausting and I was tired. I was really just an excuse for them to fight and that was going to stop.

Words were bubbling up in my throat. My mom arrived out on the back patio and surveyed the situation. Have I mentioned that my mom is the best? She looked to me and said, “I think Sophie has something to say to all of us.”

I took a deep breath and began.

“Mom, Dad, Derek. Tyler is over here in the middle of the night because when we first moved here I found him at our fire pit when I came out with my telescope. We meet here almost every Thursday night and look at the stars and chat about life. We’ve become friends over the past three and a half years. Best friends if I’m being honest. So that’s why he’s here.” I looked to my mom. She gave me a slight nod and a grin. She knew I’d been out here with Tyler and hadn’t said anything. Sneaky mom. Derek had a confused look on his face and who knew what my dad was thinking.

I continued, “Derek, I’m going to say this once and you can do what you want with it. I am not breakable, well, you know what I mean. I am not weak, I am not socially inept, and I am not a damsel in distress who needs rescuing. Your behavior has been demeaning at worst and patronizing at best. I am old enough, confident enough, intelligent enough, and strong enough to make my own decisions. What I need from you, as a brother, is your support and your love. That is all. Whatever’s happening between you and Tyler needs to stop. I love you, but I can’t support your anger and rage, and I hate what it’s doing to you and to our relationship. I know that it’s not really about me, but it’s affecting me. I can’t do it anymore and you need to fix it.”

I took another deep breath. “And Tyler.” I looked at him still sitting on the ground. “You’re my best friend and I care about you a ridiculous amount, but whatever is going on between you and Derek needs to stop. I can’t be your friend when you jump into fights and aren’t willing to try and make amends. You’re making my life too hard to be a part of it.”

I paused and looked towards my mom. She gave me an encouraging nod. “I don’t want to talk to either of you or see either of you until you fix whatever’s going on between the two of you. Stop fighting with each other and at least be civil to each other. Both of you mean a lot to me and I don’t want to lose either of you, but I’ve had enough. Fix it.”

I quietly went to grab my forgotten telescope equipment by the fire pit and walked into the house, my mom closely following me. As I went I heard my dad say, “You heard the lady. Fix it.” A minute later my dad came into the house and found me in the kitchen.

“Hey sweetheart.” He said. I looked up and he smiled at me. One of those sad and apologetic smiles. He held his arms out and I went and folded myself into the best dad hug ever. “I know it hurts, but that was masterful. I’m so proud of you.” He whispered into the top of my head.

Chapter 5

It’d been three weeks since “the incident” and I’d kept myself as busy as I could with schoolwork so I could avoid my brother and be too tired to think about Tyler. It wasn’t too difficult. The end of the school year was coming quickly and I had my final portfolio to submit. It was a collection of all the research I’d done in the past two years. I’d been working on it for months now and I was almost finished.

Tyler had texted me a bunch of times asking to talk and he’d left some wildflowers by the fire pit with a note saying he was sorry. I ignored him. I still hadn’t worked out the emotions swirling through my head. I hadn’t forgotten what Tyler said in my ear right before Derek had tackled him to the ground. And that kiss wouldn’t get out of my head either. It was too complicated and I just wanted to escape into my work. So that’s what I did.

It was a Saturday and my brother had Walker, Ashwin, and a couple of other friends over to enjoy our pool for the afternoon. I was hungry and needed a break from my portfolio, so I headed to the kitchen where I found Walker and Ashwin raiding the fridge. I giggled when they came across the tofu and couldn’t figure out what it was. They spun around and raced towards me. Ashwin picked me up and twirled me through the kitchen.

“It’s good to see you too.” I said, grinning like it was my birthday.

“Glad to see you up and about Sophie. Derek told us about your accident.” Walker said.

“We wanted to come over and see you once you got better but Derek said you were mad at him and might not want to see any of his friends. In fact, he’s been acting a little funky lately. Did something happen we don’t know about?” Ashwin added.

“I’d rather not re-hash it, but thanks for the concern. I would have loved to see you both.” I promised them.

It was nice to see them, but I did have work to do. I made my excuses, gave them each a hug and took a bowl of cereal up to my room. Halfway up the stairs I heard my brother come into the kitchen. I tried not to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help myself when I heard my name. The stairs were definitely my favorite spying spot, so I sank to sit on the top step.

“Hey D, Sophie was just here. She looks great.” It was Ashwin.

“Yeah, she seems to be getting around much better at this point and she’s only getting the occasional headache from her concussion.” Derek responded. It was true. I could only look at my laptop for a hour or so before my head started to hurt, but it was getting better every day.

“Hey, does that fancy school of hers have any end of year dance like prom?” Ashwin asked

“Nah, they’d rather write proofs or solve the world’s freshwater crisis.” Derek said.

“That sucks.” Ashwin said and then paused. “Would you mind if I invited her to our prom?” I held my breath. I hadn’t considered a prom or lack-there-of. I’d never been to a school dance. It just wasn’t part of the curriculum at TSST and Derek had never wanted to take his sister to a dance. I didn’t blame him.

Derek sighed and said, “I think you might have some competition Ash.” Ashwin must have given him some kind of questioning look because Derek said, “Remember that night at Andretti when Sophie had the panic attack and Tyler jumped in the car to calm her. I thought it was weird how he immediately knew how to calm her down, but apparently he’s been sneaking into our backyard for the last three years to help Sophie with her astronomy. They’re like legit besties, but I’ve seen the way he’s been looking at her recently and it’s definitely not a look from a best friend. I caught them out in the backyard a couple weeks ago and Tyler and I had a serious throw-down. Sophie was pretty upset and now she’s not talking to either of us.”

“Whoa, that’s intense. It definitely explains Tyler’s black eye and bruised ribs. I wasn’t buying the little brother wrestling story at all.” Said Walker.

“Yeah, I think I’ve been the world’s shittiest brother and she won’t even hear me out so I can apologize.” Derek lamented. I had been ignoring his knocks on my bedroom door. One night he even sat in the hallway waiting for me to come out so he could talk to me. I ignored him. I don’t know what it would take for me to forgive him, but I think it was going to take a grand gesture and not stalking me from the hallway.

“Wait, if Sophie’s not talking to you or Tyler, that means she’s available to go to prom, right?” Ashwin asked. I heard him get tackled and shoved back into the backyard.

The next morning I slept in. Sunday’s were always for sleeping in. I managed to pull my pijama’d self down to the kitchen around 11 to find my mom at the table with a plate of pancakes for me. There was an envelope next to the plate. “What’s this?” I asked.

“Don’t open it yet. Let’s chat while you eat your breakfast.” My mom said and I nodded warily and dug in. Pancakes were my favorite. She continued, “I think it’s time to figure this thing out between your brother and Tyler.”

I started to protest that it wasn’t my responsibility to fix things, but she shushed me with a hand. “I’m not telling you to fix the problem. I’m just saying that I think it’s time to hear what they have to say. You can do whatever you want with that information, but at least let them tell you how they feel.” She looked at me as I looked guiltily at my pancakes.

“What do you want me to do mom? It’s just too much to deal with both of them.” I said softly.

“I know Sophie, but can you imagine life without either of them?” She asked.

I looked at her then. “You knew Tyler was here every Thursday didn’t you?” I asked.

She smiled at me. “Mothers are very observant creatures Sophie. Jules and I are good friends and when we noticed our children with sleepy but happy and contented looks every Friday morning, we figured it out. We hoped that Tyler and Derek would work out whatever was going on between them after the fight at winter formal, but we hadn’t realized things were getting worse recently, nor did we quite realize how invested you were sweetheart or we would have jumped into the fray earlier. Parent’s aren’t always the best at everything.”

I was quiet for a long while.

“You should probably open that. A boy from the soccer team dropped it off this morning.” She pointed to the envelope.

“You mean it’s not from Derek or Tyler?” I asked.

“Open it and let’s find out.” My mom said excitedly. I slid my finger under the flap and pulled out a notecard that read:

Sophie – We figured out that we agree on at least one thing. You’re one of the most important people in our lives and we’re so sorry that our juvenile feuding has impacted you negatively. Please let us show you how sorry we are by spending the day with us. Yes us. There’s a catch though, you’ll have to find us 🙂 Here’s your first clue: Find the team and prove to them that you understand our favorite sport. Your favorites (hopefully), Derek and Tyler

I slid the card to my mom. Her smile got bigger and bigger as she read. She looked at me. “That was a pretty good start, right?” I asked my mom with a grin on my face. Derek and Tyler both knew how much I liked a good puzzle or scavenger hunt. Suddenly, I was excited about the day.

“Have fun sweetheart.” I head my mom yell after me as I ran up the stairs to put on some comfortable clothes. I threw on my comfy jeans. I was going to need them today. I donned a gray t-shirt with a picture of a rhino that said “Save the chubby unicorns” and I put on a pair of tennis shoes. I might need to do some running. I grabbed a small backpack and threw in my wallet, a hat, a water bottle, some granola bars, a first aid kit, and my Nikon camera. I would be prepared for anything.

I yelled goodbye to my mom as I ran out the front door and hopped on my bike. Despite my accident, and to my surprise, I wasn’t really scared of riding my bike around town. It was my only method of transport and I wasn’t going to let fear restrict my freedom.

I headed to Morningside park where I knew the soccer team met every Sunday midday to hangout and play a pickup game with anyone else from the community who wanted to join. Usually it turned into a mini-clinic to teach the kids in the neighborhood how to play. When I arrived, I didn’t see Derek or Tyler, but I did spot Ashwin and Walker who ran up to greet me.

“I found this near my pancakes. Do either of you happen to know how it got there?” I teased them.

“Trust in the scavenger hunt.” Walker said.

“Whose side are you on anyway?” I challenged.

“Yours Sophie. Always yours.” Ashwin said and gave me a hug. “Trust us, this is going to be awesome.”

“Okay, I’m game. What’s the challenge?”

“Well, as you can see, we’ve gathered the best of the best from the neighborhood. All you have to do is score and we’ll give you your next clue.” Walker gestured toward a hoard of little kids milling around in front of a small pop-up goal.

“Bring it on!” I said with more confidence than I actually felt. I’d never played soccer before. I’d figured out the rules and the strategy, but I wasn’t sure how much good that would do me when faced with 7 year olds. But I had to try, so I started towards the children milling about. As I ran past the teams’ gear I toed a ball. It shot way out ahead of me. Okay, less force. I also remembered that none of the boys ever kicked the ball with their toes. It was either the inside of the foot or the laces on their shoes. I adjusted that technique before I arrived at the kids and managed to keep the ball under control as I approached.

The kids saw me and seemed to already be aware of this particular challenge. They rushed me. I ran away. One against ten really wasn’t fair, but my legs were longer. I wasn’t fast, but as long as I could outrun them, maybe I could do this.

I circled, while maintaining control of the ball. I was super proud of myself for about 2 seconds. After that I was a jumble of limbs as I kicked the ball at the goal while simultaneously slipping on a wet patch of grass. I ended up on my back staring into the sky. I heard cheers and yelling and all of a sudden Walker was above me, phone in his hand.

“Are you video taping this? I’m gonna hurt you.” I growled as I shoved off the ground and started chasing him around the field. After about a minute I bent over with my hands on my knees. Walker sauntered back towards me. His phone was back in his pocket. Smart man.

“You scored ya know. It was very stylish.” He grinned and I swatted his arm.

“Where’s my next clue?” I demanded.

Walker handed me another envelope. This card just said: If you don’t win, you’ll never get your next clue. You’ll know which one.

I must have looked confused because Walker gestured to the envelope. I turned it upside down and a single Andretti game token fell out. Game on.

Walker and Ashwin had apparently been selected to chauffeur me through the game when biking would take too long. They gave me a ride to Andretti. We talked about school. I told them all about my research portfolio and they told me all about having to give Shakespeare monologues in english. It sounded awful.

We arrived at Andretti and I immediately spotted Bryce standing in front of the Mortal Kombat machine. This was going to be a piece of cake.

It took me 3 minutes to beat Bryce and he looked a little embarrassed. Walker just handed me the next card.

It read: There’s a whole world out front, but inside you can discover all the world has to offer. Find your friend and answer their questions. If you answer three correctly, you’ll get your next card. If not, you’ll have to walk through the insect room to get your card.

I thought for a minute.

“Got it. The Natural Sciences museum. They must mean I’m supposed to find Carey. He helped me with a project on ocean plastics a couple years ago.” I said to no one in particular. Walker headed to the car so I’d known I was right.

I loved the science museum, obviously. Even though I knew so much more than any of the signage, it was still relaxing to walk through the exhibits and look at so many cool things. Carey worked in one of the labs that was open to the public. The lab had glass walls so that visitors could see what real scientists did on a daily basis. It was a great way to get kids interested in science and to see that science was accessible.

I walked into the lab and found Carey looking through a microscope. He heard us come in and lifted his head with a smile. “Come check it out.” He urged me toward him. I put my eye to the scope. “Ooh, cool. It looks like some kind of isopod egg sack attached to a piece of purple microplastic?” I asked to confirm.

“Yep. We found it in the latest batch of samples sent from the Pacific Garbage Patch. The isopods are using the floating pieces to reproduce. They float near the surface so the egg sacks stay warmer and the smaller pieces of plastic aren’t mistaken for food by other organisms. Turns out they only pick pieces less than 10 mm wide.” Carey explained.

“That’s super cool Carey.” I replied.

“But I guess you’re not here to check out microplastics. I have questions for you. Ready?” Carey asked. I nodded. “Okay, first question. Write out the equation that describes ocean acidification.”

Really, they couldn’t have come up with more challenging questions. I scratched the equations on a sheet of paper that Carey slid across to me.

“Second question. Name three pollutants that end up in drinking water and what health impacts they could have on humans.”

I answered quickly, “Lead can get into drinking water from leaded pipes that have corroded, like what happened in Flint Michigan. Lead can cause neurological damage in people who drink contaminated water, especially in children whose systems aren’t fully developed yet. Arsenic can get into drinking water through natural deposits leaching into water sources or through industrial processes. If people drink water contaminated with arsenic it can cause cancer, high blood pressure, and heart disease. And my third contaminant will be the bacteria E. coli. If it doesn’t get killed during wastewater treatment processes it can get into the natural environment and contaminate drinking water. If ingested it can cause nausea, diarrhea, and headaches. People with compromised immune systems can have more severe symptoms.”

“Third question. What country uses the greatest proportion of geothermal energy?”


“Okay, that’s it. Here’s your next clue.” Carey handed me an envelope. “It was good to see you Sophie. If you want to come help out over the summer, we’d love to have you.”

“Thanks Carey, I’ll let you know when I figure out what my plans are.” I gave him a smile and read the note.

Sophie – we’re getting bored waiting for you and you’re probably getting hungry enough that the granola bars in your backpack aren’t going to satisfy you. There’s a bowl of ice cream waiting for you at your favorite spot if you can pay the price.

I turned to Walker. “Take me to Tivoli.”

When we walked into Tivoli the scent of freshly baked waffle cones and sugar hit my nose. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. Derek and Tyler knew me so well.

“Hello Mrs. Rossi.” I said when I walked up to the counter. “Why hello Sophie. I was wondering when I’d see you today. Your brother and friend were here earlier to drop this off.” She handed me a rubiks cube. She continued, “They said if you could solve it in less than 2 minutes you could get whatever you wanted. They already paid.”

I looked at her. “Mrs. Rossi, you said they were here together. How did they seem to you? Like, they were being nice to each other?” I asked hopefully.

“Well, they argued a bit over who was going to pay for your ice cream, but the friend won that argument pretty easily. They both got in your brother’s Prius when they were done. Does that help?” She said. They were actually getting along. I was confused.

“Yes ma’am. Thank you, it does.” I paused to glance at the rubiks cube and heard my stomach grumbling. “I’m ready,” I said.

Walker timed me. It only took a minute and 45 seconds. I walked outside to eat my strawberry ice cream and waffle cone in the afternoon sun. When I finished, feeling much better with some calories, Walker handed me another envelope and then went to get my bike out of his car.

The note read: Dear Sophie – hopefully with some sugar you feel better. We really are bored waiting for you. Come help us find some stars.

Walker strolled up balancing my bike. “Our adventure ends here friend.”

“Thanks for today Walker. I really appreciate it.” I told him.

“You know Sophie, you’re wonderful. Derek and Tyler have actually been getting along for the past couple of weeks. They really hate that you’re mad at them. I know that’s not a reason to forgive them, but just know that they’re both a little lost without you. Just hear what they have to say.” Walker said. I nodded and took my bike.

I arrived home and went to the backyard where I knew I’d find them in the Adirondack chairs near the fire pit. I stood on the patio watching them. Tyler sat in his usual chair with Derek across from him. They looked relaxed, happy even. Derek said something and Tyler laughed. Maybe they had worked stuff out.

They both stood up when they saw me walking towards them. I sunk into an open chair and said, “I think I’m going into sugar shock. That was your plan all along right. Get Sophie into sugar stupor and she’ll forgive everything?” I felt really tired all of a sudden.

They both sat down after me and Derek started. “We’re really sorry Sophie. We didn’t realize how much our fighting was affecting you and it’s not fair to make you face that burden alone. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks sorting through all of our shit and we realized that there were quite a few misunderstandings between us that fueled our competition and anger.” Tyler was nodding in agreement. Derek continued, “Sophie, you’re my sister and I’m so sorry that I wasn’t treating you with the respect you deserve. I guess I’ve always been a bit intimidated by your brain and felt like I needed to be better than you somehow. That’s not an excuse for my behavior, just a behavior that I promise I’ll rectify if you’ll give me the chance.”

It was a pretty good apology. He was right, we had things to work on in the “loving sibling” category. I stayed quiet, considering his words.

“I hope you’ll start talking to me again. I miss my sister and her gigantic brain.” He paused. “I love you Sophie. I love you so much that I’m going to go back in the house right now, because I know I’m not the only one around this fire pit who loves you, and you need to finally tell him that you love him too.” Derek popped up and strode toward the house. I could feel my face turn bright red as I processed what he said.

I looked at Tyler, surveying him. He held my gaze. Was this feeling of comfort and need and understanding what love was? I wanted his lips on mine again. I wanted him to hold me. I wanted him to tell me funny jokes and ask me about my day. I wanted to tell him about my research projects and brainstorm how to contact aliens while we looked at the stars. I wanted to hold him and hear his heart beat. I went through all the things I wanted that were Tyler related. The things I’d been purposefully avoiding thinking about.

I was in love with Tyler Williams. And he’d told me he loved me three weeks ago. And I’d ignored him for three weeks. I sucked.

“Okay, I heard Derek’s apology. It was pretty good. Can you top it?” I grinned at Tyler.

He grinned back, but took a deep breath before he spoke.

“Soph, I’m so sorry I hurt you. It was the very last thing I ever wanted to do. Derek’s right that we have stuff to work out, but life without you the past couple of weeks has been the worst. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to either one of us. Obviously for different reasons, but still.” He blushed. “I meant what I said three weeks ago. I love you Sophie. I even told Derek how much I loved you.” I choked in disbelief. “Yeah, that was the most terrifying conversation I think I’ve ever had with your brother. But he was actually pretty cool about it. I think he just wants you to be happy Soph. I just hope that I can be a part of your happiness.”

I was still looking at him. It was the best apology and it was time for a grand gesture of my own. I got up and walked the few steps to Tyler who was still sitting in his chair. I crawled into his lap, with my legs hanging over one of the arms. Tyler put his arms around my hips and I settled in.

“I love you too Tyler Williams.” I whispered before I drew his face to mine and kissed him.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Karen permalink
    May 4, 2021 11:16 pm

    I couldn’t stop reading until I’d finished! Love your characters!

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