“Brielle’s family put their tree up the day after Thanksgiving,” Kitty says.
“Let’s just do it, then,” I say. “Can we, Daddy?”
“Well, if Brielle’s family is doing it,” Daddy says.
We drive out to the Christmas tree farm an hour away, because that’s where the really nice ones are. Kitty insists on seeing each and every tree to make sure ours is the best one. I vote for a plump balsam fir because it smells the best, but Kitty doesn’t think it’s tall enough. We go for a Douglas fir instead, and the whole drive home the air smells like Christmas morning.
Josh runs out of his house when he sees us struggling to get the tree inside. He and my dad heft it up and take it inside the house. He holds the tree up straight as my dad screws the Christmas tree stand around it tight. I have a feeling like he’s going to want to stay and help decorate the tree. I can’t stop thinking about what Peter said. How Josh could maybe like me.
“A little to the left,” Kitty directs. “It’s not straight enough.”
I bring down the box with the twinkle lights and the ornaments and start sorting through them. My favorite is the painted blue star I made in kindergarten out of dough. It’s my favorite because there’s a bite taken out of it—I told Kitty it was a cookie and she chomped right into it like the Cookie Monster. And then she cried, and I got in trouble, but it was worth it. “Should we do colored lights or white lights this year?” I ask.
“White,” Kitty says. “It’s classier.”
“But colored lights are whimsical,” Josh argues. “I mean, they’re nostalgic.”
I roll my eyes. “Whimsical, Josh?” And then Josh proceeds to make a case for colored lights, and he and I argue back and forth until Daddy intercedes and says we should just do half and half. This is when things finally feel really and truly normal between us, now that we are bickering again like old times. Peter was wrong about Josh.
The tree is so tall it nearly touches the ceiling. We run out of lights, so Daddy goes to buy more at the store. Josh puts Kitty on his shoulders so she can put the star on the tippy top.
“I’m glad we got a big tree this year,” I say with a happy sigh, falling back onto the sofa and looking up at the top. There’s nothing cozier than a Christmas tree all lit up.
A little later, Daddy has to go in to the hospital, and Kitty goes over to our neighbor’s house because they’re making s’mores in the fireplace, so it’s just Josh and me cleaning up. I’m putting ornament hooks back into their different ziplock bags and Josh is loading up a cardboard box with the ornaments we didn’t have room for. He hoists the box in his arms and bumps into a branch on the tree, and a glass ornament slips off and breaks.
“Jo-osh,” I say. “I made that in home ec.”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t my best work anyway. I put in too many feathers.” It’s a clear glass ball with white feathers and white sequins inside.
I go get a broom, and when I come back, he says, “You act different around Kavinsky. Did you know that?”
I look up from sweeping the broken ornament. “No I don’t.”
“You don’t act like you. You act like . . . like how all girls act around him. That’s not you, Lara Jean.”
Annoyed, I say, “I act the same as I always do. What would you know about it, Josh? You’ve barely ever even been around us.” I crouch down and pick up a shard of glass.
“Be careful,” Josh says. “Here, I’ll do it.” He stoops down next to me and reaches for another shard. “Ow!”
“You be careful!” I lean close to him and try to get a closer look at his finger. “Are you bleeding?”
He shakes his head. “I’m fine.” And then he says, “You know what I don’t get?”
Josh stares at me, his cheeks a dull red. “Why you never said anything. If all that time you felt like that about me, why didn’t you say anything?”
My whole body goes stiff. I wasn’t expecting that. I’m not prepared. I swallow hard and say, “You were with Margot.”
“I wasn’t always with Margot. The stuff you wrote—you liked me before I ever liked her. Why didn’t you just tell me?”
I let out a breath. “What does that even matter now?”
“It matters. You should have told me. You should have at least given me a chance.”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference, Josh!”
“And I’m telling you it would have!” He steps toward me.
Jerkily I rise to my feet. Why is he bringing this up now, just when things are back to normal again? “You’re so full of it. You’ve never thought of me that way, not ever, so don’t go trying to reinvent history now when I have somebody.”
“Don’t tell me what I think,” he snaps. “You don’t know my every thought, Lara Jean.”
“Yes I do. I know you better than anyone. You know why? You’re predictable. Everything you do. It’s so predictable. The only reason you’re even saying this now is because you’re jealous. And it’s not even because of me. You don’t care about who I’m with. You’re just jealous that Peter took your spot. Kitty likes him better than you now too.”
His face darkens. He glares at me and I glare back. “Fine!” he yells. “I’m jealous! Are you happy now?”
And then he jerks his head toward mine, and he kisses me. On the lips. His eyes are closed, mine are wide open. And then mine close too, and for a second, just for a second, I kiss him back. Then I break away. I push him off.
Triumphantly he says, “Did you predict that, Lara Jean?”
My mouth opens and closes, but no words come out. I drop the broom and run up the stairs, as fast as I can. I run all the way to my room and lock my door behind me. Josh just kissed me. In my living room. My sister is coming back in a few weeks. And I have a fake boyfriend I just cheated on.
AFTER THIRD PERIOD, LUCAS IS waiting for me.
He’s wearing a skinny tie today with a V-neck and he has a full-size bag of Cheetos in his hand. He stuffs a handful of Cheetos into his mouth, and orange dust floats onto his white V-neck. The corners of his mouth look slightly orange too. With his mouth full he says, “Look, there’s something I need to tell you.”
I laugh. “I can’t believe I ever thought you were so refined,” I say, blowing Cheetos powder off his shirt. “What do you need to tell me?” I ask. I steal a few Cheetos out of the bag. When he hesitates, I say, “Lucas, I hate when people say that they have something to tell you and they don’t just say it. It’s like when people say they have a funny story—like, just hurry up and tell the story and I’ll decide for myself if I think it’s funny or not.”
Lucas licks cheese off his lips. “Well, you know I live in the same neighborhood as Genevieve, right?” I nod. “Last night I saw Kavinsky leaving her house.”
“Oh.” That’s all I say. Just “oh.”
“Normally I wouldn’t think it was that big of a deal, but there’s one other thing.” Lucas wipes his mouth off with the back of his hand. “Genevieve and her college guy broke up over the weekend. You know what that means, right?”
I’m nodding but I’m numb inside. “Yes. . . . Wait, what?”
Lucas gives me a look that’s half pitying, half impatient. “She’s going to try to get Peter back, Lara Jean!”
“Right,” I say, and I feel a pang even as I’m saying it. “Of course she will.”
“Don’t let her,” he warns.
“I won’t,” I say, and the words come out soft like jelly, without any conviction at all.
I didn’t know it until now but I think maybe I’ve been counting down to this moment all along. For Genevieve to want Peter back. For Peter to figure out this whole thing has been a zany little detour and now it’s time for him to go back where he belongs. To the person he belongs to.
I wasn’t planning on telling Peter a thing about Josh kissing me. I really wasn’t. But then, as Lucas and I are walking together, I see him and Genevieve walking down the hallway. Lucas gives me a meaningful look, which I pretend not to see.
In chemistry class I write Peter a note.
You were right about Josh.
I tap him on the back and slip the note in his hand. When he reads it, he sits up straight and immediately scrawls something back.
Be more specific.
He kissed me.
When Peter stiffens, I am ashamed to say that I feel a little bit vindicated. I wait for him to write back, but he doesn’t. As soon as the bell rings, he turns around and says, “What the hell? How did that even happen?”
“He came over to help us trim the tree.”
“And then what? He kissed you in front of Kitty?”
“No! It was just the two of us at the house.”
Peter looks really irritated, and I’m starting to regret mentioning it. “What the hell is he thinking, kissing my girlfriend? It’s fucking ridiculous. I’m gonna say something to him.”
“Wait, what? No!”
“I have to, Lara Jean. He can’t just get away with it.”
I stand up and start packing up my bag. “You’d better not say anything to him, Peter. I mean it.”
Peter watches me silently. And then he asks, “Did you kiss him back?”
“What does it matter?”
He looks taken aback. “Are you mad at me for something?”
“No,” I say. “But I will be if you say anything to Josh.”
“Fine,” he says.
“Fine,” I say back.
I HAVEN’T SEEN JOSH SINCE he kissed me, but when I get home that night from studying at the library, he is sitting on the front porch in his navy parka, waiting for me. The lights are on in the house; my dad is home. Kitty’s bedroom light is on. I’d rather go on avoiding Josh, but here he is, at my house.
“Hey,” he says. “Can I talk to you?”
I sit down next to him and look straight ahead, across the street. Ms. Rothschild’s put her Christmas tree up too. She always puts it by the window near the door so people can see it from the outside.
“We have to figure out what we’re going to do before Margot gets here. It was my fault what happened. I should be the one to tell her.”
I stare at him in disbelief. “Tell her? Are you nuts? We’re never telling Margot because there’s nothing to tell.”
He juts his chin out. “I don’t want to keep a secret from her.”
“You should have thought of that before you kissed me!” I hiss. “And for the record, if anybody was going to tell her, it would be me. I’m her sister. You were just her boyfriend. And you’re not even that anymore, so . . .”
Hurt flashes across his face and it stays there. “I was never just Margot’s boyfriend. This is weird for me, too, you know. It’s like, ever since I got that letter . . .” He hesitates. “Forget it.”
“Just say it,” I say.
“Ever since I got that letter, things have been messed up between us. It’s not fair. You got to say everything you wanted to say, and I’m the one who has to rearrange the way I think about you; I have to make sense of it in my head. You totally blindsided me, and then you just shut me out. You start dating Kavinsky, you stop being my friend.” He exhales. “Ever since I got your letter . . . I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you.”
Whatever I was expecting him to say, it wasn’t that. It definitely wasn’t that. “Josh . . .”
“I know you don’t want to hear it, but just let me say what I need to say, okay?”
“I hate that you’re with Kavinsky. I hate it. He’s not good enough for you. I’m sorry to say it, but he’s just not. In my opinion, no guy will ever be good enough for you. Least of all me.” Josh ducks his head, and then suddenly he looks up at me and says, “There was this one time, I guess it was a couple of summers ago. We were walking home from somebody’s house—I think it was Mike’s.”
It was hot, around dusk. I was mad because Mike’s older brother Jimmy had said he’d give us a ride home, and then he went somewhere and didn’t come back, so we had to walk. I was wearing espadrilles and my feet were hurting something terrible. Josh kept telling me to keep up with him.
Quietly he says, “It was just me and you. You had on that tan suede fringy shirt you used to wear, with the straps, and it showed your belly button.”
“My Pocahontas-meets-seventies-Cher-style shirt.” Oh, how I loved that shirt.
“I almost kissed you that day. I thought about it. It was this weird impulse I had. I just wanted to see what it would be like.”