“All of what?”
“Every place of interest in the state. As many as we can cram into the semester.”
“Only two. That’s the deal.”
He studies the map, shakes his head. His hand moves over the paper. By the time he’s done, he’s made pen marks across the entire state, circling every town he knows of where there’s a wonder—Dune State Park, the World’s Largest Egg, Home of Dan Patch the racehorse, the Market Street Catacombs, and the Seven Pillars, which are a series of enormous limestone columns, carved by nature, that overlook the Mississinewa River. Some of the circles are close to Bartlett, some are far away.
“That’s too many,” I say.
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Early evening. Finch’s driveway. I stand with Leroy as Finch shoves his bike into the garage. He opens the door to go inside, and when I don’t move, he says, “We have to get your bag.”
“I’ll wait here.”
He just laughs and goes away. While he’s gone, I text my mom to tell her I’ll be heading home soon. I picture her waiting at the window, watching for me, even though she would never let me catch her at it.
In a few minutes, Finch is back and standing too close, looking down at me with blue-blue eyes. With one hand, he brushes the hair out of them. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this close to a boy other than Ryan, and I suddenly remember what Suze said about Finch knowing what to do with a girl. Theodore “Freak” or no freak, he is lean and good-looking and trouble.
Like that, I feel myself pulling back in. I drop Eleanor’s glasses onto my face so that Finch looks warped and strange, like I’m seeing him in a fun-house mirror.
“Because you smiled at me.”
“You asked why I wanted to do this with you. It’s not because you were up on the ledge too, even though, okay, that’s part of it. It’s not because I feel this weird responsibility to keep an eye on you, which is also part of it. It’s because you smiled at me that day in class. A real smile, not the bullshit one I see you give everyone all the time where your eyes are doing one thing and your mouth is doing another.”
“It was just a smile.”
“Maybe to you.”
“You know I’m going out with Ryan Cross.”
“I thought you said he wasn’t your boyfriend.” Before I can recover, he laughs. “Relax. I don’t like you like that.”
Dinnertime. My house. My father makes chicken piccata, which means the kitchen is a mess. I set the table as Mom ties her hair back and takes the plates from Dad. In my house, eating is an event accompanied by the right music and the right wine.
My mom takes a bite of chicken, gives my dad a thumbs-up, and looks at me. “So tell me more about this project.”
“We’re supposed to wander Indiana, as if there’s anything interesting to see. We have to have partners, so I’m working with this boy in my class.”
My dad raises an eyebrow at my mother and then me. “You know, I was terrific at geography back in the day. If you need any help with that project—”
Mom and I cut him off at the same time, telling him how good the food is, asking if we can have more. He gets up, pleased and distracted, and my mother mouths to me, “Close one.” My dad lives to help with school projects. The problem is he ends up taking them over completely.
He comes back in saying, “So, this project …” just as my mom is saying, “So this boy …”
Except for wanting to know my every move, my parents act pretty much like they always did. It throws me when they’re the parents of Before, because nothing about me is like it used to be.
“Dad, I was just wondering,” I begin, my mouth full of chicken. “Where did this dish begin? I mean, how did they come up with it?”
If there’s anything my dad likes more than projects, it’s explaining the history of things. For the rest of the meal, he talks nonstop about ancient Italy and the Italians’ love for clean, simple cooking, which means my project and this boy are forgotten.
Upstairs, I scroll around Finch’s Facebook page. I’m still his only friend. Suddenly a new message appears. I feel like I just walked through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia.
I immediately research Narnia quotes. The one that stands out is: “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.… Come further up, come further in!”
But instead of copying it down and sending it, I get up and mark the day off on the calendar. I stand looking at the word “Graduation,” all the way in June, as I think about Hoosier Hill, Finch’s blue-blue eyes, and the way he made me feel. Like everything else that doesn’t last, today is gone now, but it was a pretty good day. The best I’ve had in months.
The night of the day my life changed
My mother stares at me over her plate. Decca, as usual, is eating like a small, ravenous horse, and for once I’m doing my share of shoveling it in.
Mom says, “Decca, tell me what you learned today.”
Before she can answer, I say, “Actually, I’d like to go first.”
Dec stops eating long enough to gape at me, her mouth full of partially chewed casserole. Mom smiles nervously and holds on to her glass and plate, as if I might get up and start throwing things.
“Of course, Theodore. Tell me what you learned.”
“I learned that there is good in this world, if you look hard enough for it. I learned that not everyone is disappointing, including me, and that a 1,257-foot bump in the ground can feel higher than a bell tower if you’re standing next to the right person.”
Mom waits politely, and when I don’t say anything else, she starts nodding. “This is great. That’s really good, Theodore. Isn’t that interesting, Decca?”
As we clear the plates, my mother looks as dazed and disconcerted as she always does, only more so because she doesn’t have the first clue what to do with my sisters and me.
Since I feel happy about my day and also bad for her because my father not only broke her heart, he pretty much shat all over her pride and self-worth, I tell her, “Mum, why don’t you let me do the dishes tonight? You should put your feet up.” When my dad left us this last and final time, my mom earned her Realtor’s license, but because the housing market is less than booming, she part-times at a bookstore. She is always tired.