He had warned her about the book.
“If you take this, you’ll get much more than you bargained for.” His slow smile seemed shy; her eyes met his, and blushing, she felt the shy one. Mel looked down, tucking an errant strang of wind-teased hair behind her ear.
Now it was too late.
“I didn’t bargain for anything. You’ve got it wrapped up like a gift – that’s what it is, right?” She half shrugged, and smiled. Meeting his eyes, she squinted into the warm afternoon sun. “It’s just my birthday, Gabe – no need to be so mysterious.”
She tried to smile again, but something in the stillness of Gabe’s face broke the strength of her smile. It felt weakly pasted on her face – like a drooping handbill too many seasons out of date.
Too late for Mel. Too late for the rest of us, too. Too late for everyone everywhere everywhen.
“It’s not for your birthday,” Gabe insisted. In the sun, he looked paler than ever – like some carp dredged up from the reservoir, an off-white funky cream color.
“It’s not for anything. It’s for you.” He looked away for the first time, spots of color rising on his cheeks like chicken pox. It was almost like he was allergic to something. Maybe he was allergic to her.
And certainly too late for me.
Mel blushed again – part in response to his shyness, and part girlish art to tease even more embarrassment out of Gabe. She reached out with both of her freckle-stained hands, took the leather bound book, and hugged it against her chest. The green of the ribbon was rich against the black of the binding, and it felt comfortably cool in her arms.
Too late, too late.
Gabe looked up from the cracked pavement and shrugged without losing her gaze. “Listen – you – there’s something you need to do with the book.”
He paused, and Mel couldn’t help but smile again. There was something in the set of his shoulders, his feet, even his hands that tickled. Like a puppy that didn’t know it was the runt of the litter, or a gorse bush clinging with desperate arboreal stupidity to the clump of dirt on a cliff. An adorable insistency. She waited, secure again in that mature glow that girls develop long before their bumbling counterparts.
She frowned, flustered all over again; it was his damned intensity, the way Gabe said everything – everything – like it was the most important thing ever. Like it was his last words. Stupid things, trivial things, meaningless thing – she was sure, it was the way his eyes stayed unblinking, white and silvery. Like ash that was trying to hold onto fire long after it was cold. It’s what freaked out her friends, she knew; none of them really disliked Gabe. He was just a creep. Her creep.
“Don’t stop what?”