He scooted closer and took a sniff, nodding. “Yeah, it reminds me of Hawaii or something.”
“Thanks!” I said. I wasn’t positive it was a compliment, but it seemed like enough of one to say thanks. “I’ve been switching between this coconut one and my sister’s baby shampoo, to do an experiment on which makes my hair softer—”
Then Peter Kavinsky leaned right in and kissed me, and I was stunned.
I’d never thought of him any kind of way before that kiss. He was too pretty, too smooth. Not my type of boy at all. But after he kissed me, he was all I could think about for months after.
What if Peter is just the beginning? What if . . . what if my other letters somehow got sent too? To John Ambrose McClaren. Kenny from camp. Lucas Krapf.
Oh my God, Josh.
I leap up off the floor. I’ve got to find that hatbox. I’ve got to find those letters.
I go back outside to the track. I don’t see Chris anywhere, so I guess she is smoking behind the field house. I go straight over to Coach, who is sitting on the bleachers with his phone.
“I can’t stop throwing up,” I whimper. I double over and cradle my arms to my stomach. “Can I please go to the nurse’s office?”
Coach barely looks up from his phone. “Sure.”
As soon as I’m out of his eye line, I make a run for it. Gym’s my last period of the day, and my house is only a couple of miles from school. I run like the wind. I don’t think I’ve ever run so hard or so fast in my life, and I likely never will again. I run so hard, a couple of times I have to stop because I feel like I really am going to throw up. And then I remember the letters, and Josh, and Up close, your face wasn’t so much handsome as beautiful, and I’m off and running again.
As soon as I get home, I dash upstairs and go into my closet for my hatbox. It’s not sitting on the top shelf where it usually sits. It’s not on the floor, or behind my stack of board games. It’s not anywhere. I get on my hands and knees and start rifling through piles of sweaters, shoe boxes, craft supplies. I look in places it could not possibly be, because it’s a hatbox and it’s big, but I look anyway. My hatbox is nowhere.
I collapse onto the floor. This is a horror movie. My life has become a horror movie. Next to me my phone buzzes. It’s Josh. Where are you? Did you get a ride home with Chris?
I turn my phone off and go down to the kitchen and call Margot on the house phone. It’s still my first impulse, to go to her when things get bad. I’ll just leave out the Josh part of it and focus on the Peter part. She’ll know what to do; she always knows what to do. I’m all set to burst out, Gogo, I miss you so much and everything’s a mess without you, but when she picks up the phone, she sounds sleepy, and I can tell that I’ve woken her up. “Were you sleeping?” I ask.
“No, I was just lying down,” she lies.
“Yes you were sleeping! Gogo, it’s not even ten o’clock over there! Wait, is it? Did I calculate wrong again?”
“No, you’re right. I’m just so tired. I’ve been up since five, because . . .” Her voice trails off. “What’s wrong?”
I hesitate. Maybe it’s better not to burden Margot with all of this. I mean, she just got to college: this is what she’s worked for; this is her dream come true. She should be having fun and not worrying over how things are going back home without her. Besides, what would I even say? I wrote a bunch of love letters and they got sent out, including one I wrote to your boyfriend? “Nothing’s wrong,” I say. I’m doing what Margot would do, which is figure it out on my own.
“It definitely sounds like something’s wrong.” Margot yawns. “Tell me.”
“Go back to sleep, Gogo.”
“Okay,” she says, yawning again.
We hang up and I make myself an ice cream sundae right in the carton: chocolate sauce, whipped cream, chopped nuts. The works. I take it back up to my room and eat it lying down. I feed it to myself like medicine, until I’ve eaten the whole thing, every last bite.
A LITTLE WHILE LATER I wake up to kitty standing at the foot of my bed. “You’ve got ice cream on your sheets,” she informs me.
I groan and turn over to my side. “Kitty, that’s the least of my problems today.”
“Daddy wants to know if you want chicken for dinner or hamburgers. My vote is chicken.”
I sit straight up. Daddy’s home! Maybe he knows something. He was on that cleaning binge, throwing things away. Maybe he’s spirited my hatbox away somewhere safe, and the Peter letter was just an unfortunate fluke!
I jump out of bed and run downstairs, my heart thumping hard in my chest. My dad’s in his study, wearing his glasses and reading a thick book on Audubon paintings.
All in one breath I ask, “Daddy-have-you-seen-my-hatbox?”
He looks up; his face is hazy and I can tell he is still with Audubon’s birds and not at all focused on my frenzied state. “What box?”
“My teal hatbox Mommy gave me!”
“Oh, that . . . ,” he says, still looking confused. He takes off his glasses. “I don’t know. It might have gone the way of your roller skates.”
“What does that mean? What are you even saying?”
“Goodwill. There’s a slight possibility I took them to Goodwill.”
When I gasp, my dad says defensively, “Those roller skates don’t even fit you anymore. They were just taking up space!”
I sink to the floor. “They were pink and they were vintage and I was saving them for Kitty . . . and that’s not even the point. I don’t care about the roller skates. I care about my hatbox! Daddy, you don’t even know what you’ve done.” My dad gets up and tries to pull me off the floor. I resist him and flop onto my back like a goldfish.
“Lara Jean, I don’t even know that I got rid of it. Come on, let’s have a look around the house, all right? Don’t let’s panic yet.”
“There’s only one place it could be, and it’s not there. It’s gone.”
“Then I’ll check Goodwill tomorrow on my way to work,” he says, squatting down next to me. He’s giving me that look—sympathetic but also exasperated and mystified, like How is it possible that my sane and reasonable DNA created such a crazy daughter?
“It’s too late. It’s too late. There’s no point.”
“What was in that box that’s so important?”
I can feel my ice cream sundae curdling in my stomach. For the second time today I feel like I’m going to be sick. “Only everything.”
He grimaces. “I really didn’t realize your mother had given it to you or that it was so important.” As he retreats off to the kitchen, he says, “Hey, how about an ice cream sundae before dinner? Will that cheer you up?”
As if dessert before dinner would be the thing that cheers me up, as if I am Kitty’s age and not sixteen going on seventeen. I don’t even bother dignifying it with an answer. I just lie there on the floor, my cheek against the cool hardwood. Besides, there isn’t any ice cream left anyway, but he’ll find that out soon enough.
I don’t even want to think about Josh reading that letter. I don’t even want to think it. It’s too terrible.
After dinner (chicken, per Kitty’s request), I’m in the kitchen doing dishes when I hear the doorbell ring. Daddy opens the door, and I hear Josh’s voice. “Hey, Dr. Covey. Is Lara Jean around?”
Oh, no. No no no no. I can’t see Josh. I know I have to at some point, but not today. Not right this second. I can’t. I just can’t.
I drop the plate back into the sink and make a run for it, out the back door, down the porch steps, across the backyard to the Pearces’ yard. I scramble up the wooden ladder and into Carolyn Pearce’s old tree house. I haven’t been in this tree house since middle school. We used to hang out up here sometimes, at night—Chris and Genevieve and Allie and me, the boys a couple of times.
I peek through the wooden slats, crouched in a ball, waiting until I see Josh walk back to his house. When I’m sure he’s inside, I climb down the ladder and run back to mine. I sure have been doing a lot of running today. I’m exhausted, now that I think of it.
I WAKE UP THE NEXT morning renewed. I am a girl with a plan. I’m just going to have to avoid Josh forever. It’s as simple as that. And if not forever, then at least until this dies down and he forgets about my letter. There’s still the tiny chance he never even got it. Perhaps whoever mailed Peter’s only sent the one! You never know.
My mom always said optimism was my best trait. Both Chris and Margot have said it’s annoying, but to that I say looking on the bright side of life never killed anybody.
When I get downstairs, Daddy and Kitty are already at the table eating toast. I make myself a bowl of cereal and sit down with them.
“I’m going to stop by Goodwill on my way to work,” my dad says, crunching on his toast from behind his newspaper. “I’m sure the hatbox will turn up there.”
“Your hatbox is missing?” Kitty asks me. “The one Mommy gave you?”
I nod and shovel cereal into my mouth. I have to leave soon or else I’ll risk running into Josh on my way out.
“What was in the box, anyway?” Kitty asks.
“That’s private,” I say. “All you need to know is the contents are precious to me.”
“Will you be mad at Daddy if you never get the hatbox back?” Kitty answers her own question before I can. “I doubt it. You never stay mad for long.”
This is true. I never can stay mad for long.
Peering over his newspaper, he asks Kitty, “What in the world was in that hatbox?”
Kitty shrugs. Her mouth full of toast, she says, “Probably more French berets?”
“No, not more berets.” I give them both a mean look. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I don’t want to be late for school.”
“Aren’t you leaving a little early?”
“I’m taking the bus today,” I say. And probably every day until Margot’s car is fixed, but they don’t need to know that.
THE WAY IT HAPPENS IS a strange sort of serendipity. A slow-motion train wreck. For something to go this colossally wrong, everything must intersect and collide at the exact right, or in this case, wrong, moment.
If the bus driver hadn’t had trouble backing out of the cul-de-sac, taking four extra minutes to get to school, I never would have run into Josh.
If Josh’s car had started up and he hadn’t had to get a jump from his dad, he wouldn’t have been walking by my locker.
And if Peter hadn’t had to meet Ms. Wooten in the guidance office, he would not have been walking down the hallway ten seconds later. And maybe this whole thing would not have happened. But it did.
I’m at my locker; the door is jammed, and I’m trying to yank it open. I finally get the door loose and there’s Josh, standing right there.
“Lara Jean . . .” He has this shell-shocked, confused expression on his face. “I’ve been trying to talk to you since last night. I came by, and nobody could find you. . . .” He holds out my letter. “I don’t understand. What is this?”
“I don’t know . . . ,” I hear myself say. My voice feels far away. It’s like I’m floating above myself, watching it all unfold.
“I mean, it’s from you, right?”
“Oh, wow.” I take a breath and accept the letter. I fight the urge to tear it up. “Where did you even get this?”
“It got sent to me in the mail.” Josh jams his hands into his pockets. “When did you write this?”
“Like, a long time ago,” I say. I let out a fake little laugh. “I don’t even remember when. It might have been middle school.” Good job, Lara Jean. Keep it up.
Slowly he says, “Right . . . but you mention going to the movies with Margot and Mike and Ben that time. That was a couple of years ago.”
I bite my bottom lip. “Right. I mean, it was kind of a long time ago. In the grand scheme of things.” I can feel tears coming on so close that if I break concentration even for a second, if I waver, I will cry and that will make everything worse, if such a thing is possible. I must be cool and breezy and nonchalant now. Tears would ruin that.
Josh is staring at me so hard I have to look away. “So then . . . Do you . . . or did you have feelings for me or . . .??”
“I mean, yes, sure, I did have a crush on you at one point, before you and Margot ever started dating. A million years ago.”
“Why didn’t you ever say anything? Because, Lara Jean . . . God. I don’t know.” His eyes are on me, and they’re confused, but there’s something else, too. “This is crazy. I feel kind of blindsided.”
The way he’s looking at me now, I’m suddenly in a time warp back to a summer day when I was fourteen and he was fifteen, and we were walking home from somewhere. He was looking at me so intently I was sure he was going to try to kiss me. I got nervous, so I picked a fight with him and he never looked at me like that again.