Cross Country Hearts by Suzanne August
“What am I supposed to do?”
As far as information bombs go, my mother wins the award for the worst timing. For one, it’s eight in the morning, last night was a disaster, and maybe I’m feeling a little hungover. I groan, clutching my head with one hand while bringing the phone up to my ear with the other.
“Of course, you’re awake this early,” I say.
I don’t know the last time I was awake this early, and I always try not to be, but does that mean my mother waited to call at a better time? No, it doesn’t. Instead, I see she called my phone once already before I woke up and answered. The time is seven thirty-two in the morning, so it isn’t even eight o’clock yet. And as soon as I answer the phone, the information she drops on me is not welcome for a night owl who’s also hungover.
I clench the phone, pressing it closer to my ear. “What!”
Across the living room, my friend Georgia is still on the couch, trying to sleep. At my screech, she lifts her head and glares at me. I wave my hand and exit the living room for the kitchen, heading for the fridge, not that Georgia won’t be able to hear me in the kitchen. It’s too late, anyway, since she’s now awake.
“Shh, June!” my mother says. She sounds awake and not groggy like me. Only freaks like my mother get up before eight in the morning. She goes on, “I know, but Aunt Hanna isn’t able to fly up anymore—”
“But then no one will be here to drive down to Florida with me! What am I supposed to do?” After I yell, I mumble “shit” because I’ve dropped the milk carton I was reaching for in the fridge, and now the milk is all over the kitchen floor. Could the morning get any worse?
Yes, it can. My cat, named Adam, has already noticed the spill and is paws deep in the mess. I curse again, louder this time, and press the phone between my ear and shoulder, crouching over Adam. If my hangover gets any worse, with all the yelling and milk spilling, I’m not sure what I’ll do.
“There was an emergency at Hanna’s work, and she had to cover someone’s shift,” my mother says. There’s a pause. “June? Is everything okay?”
“Shoo, cat.” I push Adam away. He gives me a look that says he’s not above clawing me if I try to take him away from his milk.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” I pause, then remember what my mother was saying, and shout, “Wait, no! I’m not fine!”
“Stop yelling!” she shouts. “Jeez, why can’t you be calm like your sister?”
I glower, not amused with my mother’s statement, but on the inside, my stomach twists. I take a strand of my red hair and pull, trying to resist the anxiety creeping in.
“Look,” my mother says, moving on. “Bottom line is, Hanna can’t make it up to Boston to drive down to Jacksonville with you. But it’ll be okay. Don’t worry!”
If it wasn’t for April, whose wedding is in Florida next weekend to Carlisle, the love of her life, and who I love to death, I’d probably outright refuse to drive down to the Sunshine state if Hanna, my aunt, doesn’t come with me.
Yet, there’s not a lot of things I wouldn’t do for my sister. As far as siblings go, we’re close. That wasn’t always the case, especially because of our seven-year age gap. She’s twenty-five. I turned eighteen last week, during the first week of June and the day after my junior year of high school ended.
But… do I want to take a car trip by myself? No, I don’t. Would I if it was for April? Sure, except for the fact that our Aunt Hanna always makes me feel better when she’s by my side in the car. And my mother had been in Florida for the past week, leaving me at our home in Boston, so there’s no chance she’ll be driving with me, either.
“Mom,” I say now, my voice slower. “You’ve been in the car with me when I’m driving. Do you really think it’s safe for me to drive alone?”
There’s a momentary silence. “You’ve gotten so much better recently, June.”
“I hit a curb last week and almost rear-ended the car in front of me, remember?” I deadpan, and imagining the whole scenario again makes me tug harder on my hair. It was terrifying in the moment.
My mother sighs. “June, let me tell you everything before you start freaking out more.”
I feel bad, but on the inside, I know I’m a horrible, anxious driver when there’s no one with me. Even worse, my mother’s car, which I’ve been driving the last week, is a brand new, shiny, red Honda, and I don’t want to ruin her car.
“I’m not driving myself,” I say. “I can’t.”
There is no hesitancy in my voice and no sign that I’m going to relent. I’ll keep telling myself that, and it’ll be true. My mother can’t break me. Not this time. Nope.
“I’ve arranged for someone else to drive with you.”
I rake a hand through my hair, flabbergasted. I don’t care anymore that Adam has come back to the milk or that the milk has soaked into my socks and my feet feel gross. What if it’s a stranger I’ve never met?
“Who is it?” I ask, trying not to imagine that I’ll crash and pop another tire. It’s inevitable because I’m eighteen, and I suck at driving. It’s just how it is. And before my mother answers, I go on. “Why can’t Hanna come up later this week, and we’ll drive down?”
My mother huffs. “She can’t leave her job high and dry, June.”
“Okay, let’s go with renting a car idea.”
“It’s less expensive for you to drive the car to Florida than it is to rent one for a month and a half.”
Deep down, I know she’s right and remain silent. I don’t have to say anything because my mother knows she’s right, and she knows that I know she’s right. Today is Friday. I was meant to spend Saturday and Sunday driving to Florida with Hanna and be on time to start helping with last-minute wedding details from Monday. The wedding itself is next weekend, on Saturday.
“Isn’t there a way I don’t have to drive down?” I ask. I hear the defeat in my voice. Another tug and I know my hair is about to fall out.
“What’s wrong, June? When I first asked if you’d drive the car, you were happy with the chance to go on a two-day road trip, as you said.”
I stare at the empty milk carton on the kitchen tiles, thinking that my mother’s not wrong. I also know that if I had insisted, my mother would have bought me a plane ticket instead. But I’ve always wanted to travel, and besides a few trips with my parents, I haven’t spent much time outside the state of Massachusetts. Even knowing from the beginning that most of the two days would be driving, I was excited to see something new.
“Fine,” I grumble because, in the end, I guess I won’t be doing it alone, whoever it is that my mother found to drive with me.
“You’ll be fine. The car is brand new,” my mother reminds me. “Now, who I found to drive with you—”
“Please tell me it’s not Uncle Rob,” I say. It’s not that he’s not a good guy, but the man is the epitome of boring. He always wants to talk about inane things like how sidewalks are made or the history of concrete. Construction stuff, like his job. That no one else is interested in.
“Oh no, it’s not,” my mother says, and she sounds almost as horrified as I am at the suggestion it would be her brother to drive with me.
I sag in relief. “Thank you.”
“So,” my mother begins. “Carlisle’s cousin has a fear of airplanes, and he lives in Boston, too. He needs a ride down to Jacksonville because he doesn’t have a car. I think he’s perfect since he’s your age and someone the family knows well.”
I blink. The family knows well? I’ve met Carlisle more times than I can count, but I don’t know anyone in his family. Not personally, anyway. “I’ve never heard of Carlisle’s cousin.”
“It’s his cousin that his parents took in when they were kids? I’m sure you heard about him before.”
“No,” I say drily.
“Well, don’t worry. I’ve met him before, and he’s one of the sweetest boys I’ve ever met.” My mother sounds so sure as if she’s a genius for thinking of this alternative to Hanna, her sister-in-law.
“I’m nervous about giving a stranger a ride to Florida,” I tell her, aiming for honesty because that’s better than refusing.
“He might not be a stranger. He graduated last week from the same school you go to.”
No way. “Who?”
“His name is Jasper,” my mother says. “Jasper King.”
Immediately, I draw back. I recognize that name. It’s my rotten luck that Jasper King—Jasper King—is the cousin of my sister’s fiancé. How is that even possible in this huge world populated by seven billion people? I can’t believe it.
“No,” I say, finding my words after long seconds of silence. “I can’t. I am not giving Jasper King a ride to Jacksonville.”
“No, Mom. Don’t try to smooth-talk me. I’ve changed my mind, and I’m not doing it. I will not be in the same car as Jasper King.”
“I said no!”
“Judith!” My mother shouts, and this time I’m the one flinching away from the phone, cringing at my given first name. “Calm down. You’d think I’m asking you to give a ride to a serial killer. I’ve met Jasper. He’s a nice kid. What’s so wrong with him?”
Everything is wrong with Jasper King. Especially for me. Melanie, one of my closest friends, had had it out for him since before we started high school. Likewise, he’s had it out for us for just as long. He paints artwork that depicts us as monsters, and Melanie makes sure he knows he’s not welcome at our school.
And although I’ve never actually had a conversation with Jasper King before, I know our dislike is mutual. We hate each other. Just a month ago, Jasper posted on social media the painting he did of me. He made me out as a monster. Red, angry snakes twist from my head instead of hair, and sharp, ugly claws replace my hands. My skin is green, as if I’m sickly, and it’s a stark contrast against the bright auburn color of my snake hair.
The painting has been going around the school ever since. No one laughed in my face outright, but I heard the whispers and saw people look at me longer than usual as I walked by. It was humiliating.
And in retaliation, I spread the rumor that Jasper King got kicked off the swimming team. It probably wasn’t true, but with Melanie by my side to help me deflect the aftermath of the painting, the attention slowly shifted to Jasper.
“He’s just…” Now, I try to find the right words, but don’t think I can. “Mom, we don’t like each other. Just last week he…”
There’s a moment of silence. “He what, June?”
I press a hand against my forehead. How could I explain this to my mother? I mutter, “Never mind.”
“Have you ever even met him?” My mother asks. “Your school is big.”
“I’ve never personally spoken to him…” I admit, “… but you wouldn’t get it, Mom—”
“He’s one of Carlisle’s groomsmen, June,” my mother says, and something inside her must have erupted because her tone takes on an edge. “I don’t want to argue with you or have a fight. If you’ve never met Jasper in person, how do you know there’s something wrong with him? Please, be mature, June.”
“I am mature.”
“Prove it to me.”
This is blackmail, and aloud I say, “It’s bad enough Hanna can’t drive down to Florida with me anymore. Now you want me to bring a freak with me?”
“June,” my mother snaps. “What is wrong with you? Jasper isn’t a bad person. He’s a sweet guy, and I think you’d benefit from being around him.”
“That’s not true,” I say, and I’m miserable. By now, it feels like I’ve pulled half the hair from my head, and I untangle my fingers from the strands to wrap my arm around my stomach instead. Without Hanna, who has always been so reassuring and calm, I’m not sure if I can survive two days of driving.
What’s worse, I don’t know how to handle someone like Jasper cooped up with me in the car. We glare at each other in the hallways, our dislike mutual, so how can we both sit alone in proximity to one another? I don’t know if I can stomach it.
My mother says, “I don’t want to argue. Do you have a better reason for why you don’t want Jasper to drive with you?”
Besides the fact he painted that hideous painting of me and released it on social media?
I sigh and try to take a few calming breaths, telling myself that it’ll only be for two days. I’d be doing it for April. She’s important, it’s her wedding, and as her sister, I don’t want to ruin it. After two days, I wouldn’t ever have to see Jasper King again, right? It’s only two days of agony. That’s it, and I tell myself that I can do it.
For April, I can do it.
“Okay,” I say aloud. “Okay, fine. I’ll do this.”
I hear my mother’s sigh of relief loud and clear. She must’ve been holding her breath. “Thank you, June.”
“I mean it,” she says. “I appreciate it very much.”
I know she does.
“I have to go now,” she tells me. “April needs to do some more shopping for the wedding. It seems there will never be an end to it all.”
My mother and I hang up. Then it’s me alone, my phone in hand, standing in my kitchen, except for Adam, who is still licking at the milk on the tiles. I stare at the floor, knowing that after I’ve cleaned up the milk and have gone out to buy more, I’ll come home to my cat whining because his stomach hurts.
“So, you’re still driving, huh?”
I jerk. I forgot Georgia was still in the living room trying to sleep. Now, my friend is standing at the threshold that connects the living room to the kitchen, wide awake.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
Georgia shrugs and brings her palms to her eyes, rubbing them. “Is it just me, or are we all starting to get hangovers?”
“I think the days of being hangover-free are gone,” I agree.
She sighs. “All right. Tell me about the bombs your mom dropped on you, and then I’ll help you clean up your house.”
Not only did I have to talk to my mother at eight in the morning, but I also only got three hours of sleep. Now I have to clean up the house, which in its current messy state, makes me want to pull out my hair all over again. If my mother finds out I threw a party… well, it won’t go down well.
Today is already going downhill, and it hasn’t even started.