The digital clock on the top of the State Bank flashed back and forth from 71° to 9:28 p.m. The crescent moon hung above the bank’s roofline in the southern sky, dividing the amber glow of sunset from the deeper shades of night.
Willow Perkins had picked me up from my violin lesson in her dad’s giant white Lincoln and we’d headed downtown to the one-way strip of quaint gift shops, overpriced boutiques, and award winning restaurants that made Traverse City the jewel of Northern Michigan. At a stop light, she pulled out a pack of cigarettes from the visor over her head and handed them to me.
I scrunched my brows together.
“They’re my dad’s. You want to try one?” she said.
The Surgeon General’s warning on the side cautioned me dutifully. Everybody knows smoking causes lung cancer, but I still wanted to try. I pulled one out and stared at it.
“The lighter’s in the glove box,” she said as she carefully parallel parked along Front Street.
I found the lighter and then flicked it a few times with my thumb bringing the little flame to the cigarette. I drew in a breath and the paper at the end glowed hot. Whatever I inhaled, burned my throat and tasted terrible. I handed the cigarette to Willow, and picked up my Slurpee from the cup holder. The semi-frozen Pina Colada iced my brain, but the nicotine nausea subsided.
Willow and I met freshman year and we’ve been inseparable ever since. She talks loud, draws attention to herself by doing the splits in the middle of the school hallways, and wears a stupid blue bow in her hair every day. She’d also started painting her nails bright red, which kind of added to the old-lady-smoking look I seriously doubt she was going for. She is the opposite of me, but somehow we find it easier to muddle along together.
Willow smoked the rest of the cigarette like she’d done it a thousand times before.
“You look like an idiot,” I said.
“Shut up, Bernie.”
I smiled and gave a short huff at her pet name for me before swinging open the passenger door, just missing hitting a guy riding his bike full speed down the sidewalk. I only caught a glimpse of his dark head, but when he turned to look back my heart skipped and I sucked in a little breath. The bike tires squealed as he spun around and headed back toward us. I could feel the flush rising in my face and the little pin-pricks of breathlessness as he shuffled the bike closer to the car.
“Brynn,” he said, out of breath. “Can you give me a ride?”
His eyes were desperate. I didn’t know what to say, but I couldn’t look away. I just stood there like a star-struck fangirl.
“Who are you?” Willow said as she rounded the back end of the Lincoln.
“Nikolai Ryskov,” he said, giving her a nod then setting his eyes back on me. Sweat gathered on his forehead, and his breaths came in deep draws. He’d been riding fast and hard for a while.
“From our school,” I added, noting how his hands gripped the bike’s handlebars.
Willow gave him a once over then shrugged her shoulder. “Yeah, I guess.”
Nikolai locked his bike at the nearest light pole. His hands trembled as he worked the padlock through the links.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
His eyes met mine, their blue truth speaking to that place deep inside me like it always had before. He ran the back of his hand over his mouth and then shook his head. “Nothing.”
He opened the front door of the Lincoln. I thought he was going to jump in, but he held the door open for me and then hurried into the back seat, pushing my violin case and a half-eaten bag of red licorice aside. I buckled my seatbelt and stole a glance at him. He chewed his thumbnail and watched out the window.
“So, where am I going?” Willow said. She started the engine and adjusted the mirrors before pulling out into traffic.
“I live on Sawyer road. You can drop me off at the gas station on the corner.”
“You ride your bike that far into town?” Willow asked.
I listened while Nikolai talked about his summer job at G’s Pizza. He rode his bike into town whenever his brother, Sergei, couldn’t give him a ride. He’d ditched the black hoodie I’d seen him wearing in school, in favor of khaki shorts and a green G’s uniform shirt for the summer, but there were still tiny gauge earrings in his ears. I wondered what he’d say if I showed up at school with dark lipstick and random piercings in the fall.
That’s when I heard him sniff. He was smiling that half smile of his.
“What?” I asked, looking over my shoulder.
“Nothing… I just…” He waved me off and went back to looking out the window. He seemed calmer now that he wasn’t racing through the night like he’d just robbed a convenience store.
“Why haven’t I ever seen you at school?” Willow asked.
“It’s a big school,” I answered for him. “We don’t know half the kids in our own class. He’ll be a junior.”
“Actually, I’ll be starting senior year next fall,” he corrected.
“You’re skipping eleventh grade?” I cast him a doubtful glare.
“Wait… You two know-each-other, know each other?” Willow asked, still trying to figure everything out.
“Yeah,” we both said. I looked back at him and he smiled at me again. The straight white line of his teeth and the rose-pink of his lips made my insides grow warm. I wanted to ask him a thousand questions. I wanted to know more about skipping a grade. I wanted to know what bothered him tonight. I wanted to know why he never came after me when I broke up with him three years ago.
“Sometimes, it’s best to walk away,” he said to Willow, but I knew it was meant for me.
Nikolai was the kind of guy every parent wants their daughter to date. Smart, courteous, and intentional. His serious, complex nature set him on a path few others our age could understand, but he also had a quiet sense of humor he shared with me and no one else. Some would say he seemed shy, but I knew he was really just a mix of highs and lows, the pressure building within him like a hurricane drawing energy from the warmth he found in me, and the cold he faced at home.
For Christmas, I knitted him a green scarf made from scrap yarn my mom hadn’t used for centuries, and he baked me a little piece of bread shaped like a heart along with two other pieces shaped like our initials. Nikolai loves Brynn. I still have the picture he took holding the piece of bread shaped like a B.
We didn’t see each other on Christmas day that year, or at all during winter break because neither of us could get up the nerve to ask our parents to pick the other up, and his older brother wasn’t about to escort a couple of junior high kids around. By the time I received the bread, it was rock hard and Nikolai made me throw it out, promising to make me a fresh loaf.
By the end of that school year, we’d broken up twice for stupid reasons. Once because I was going on spring break with my dad, and he was jealous, and a second time because I caught him flirting with Marcella Jones, and I was jealous.
I remember seeing him standing close to her, one arm leaning on the wall, giving her that look he’d given me so many times—his left brow arching higher than his right. It wasn’t mature of me, but I went into a fit and told him we were through, even though what I really wanted was for him to show me that I was more important than her. I wanted him to come after me like some prince on a white horse.
I stared out the car window. The moon was that Cheshire-Cat smile from Alice in Wonderland reminding me how things aren’t always as they seem. I wouldn’t have normally said anything in response to a statement like that, but it was summer and I was feeling brave. “Maybe you shouldn’t have walked away.”
Willow looked in the rearview mirror, probably trying to gauge what Nikolai would say next. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! You guys were a thing?”
“It was only eighth grade,” I said a little more harshly than I’d meant.
“Seventh for me,” Nikolai corrected.
“He was a terrible kisser,” I said, pushing the knife a little deeper. I heard him give a small laugh in the back seat. “What? You were.”
“Okay,” he said with a shrug that ticked me off.
Willow looked from the road to the rearview mirror over and over, her hands at ten and two on the steering wheel and her foot light on the gas pedal as we headed away from the downtown area.
The September after Nikolai and I broke up for keeps, I started high school, leaving Nikolai behind to suffer through Mr. Johnson’s math class alone. I didn’t see him very often that year.
When we approached his neighborhood, Nikolai leaned forward. I felt his hand press into the back of my seat. “Just drop me off here.” He pointed toward the artificial lights of the gas station on the corner.
Nikolai lived in a poor neighborhood but he never seemed to let it bother him. He never seemed to notice his clothes were out of style or his pant legs were too short when we were in middle school. He always just had this easy attitude when we were together. That’s how I knew something bothered him tonight, probably being in the same car with me. He must have been desperate to ask for a ride.
Willow pulled up to a gas pump and Nikolai handed her a ten dollar bill. She took the money apologetically. “Normally I wouldn’t accept this, but this beast really goes through the gas.” She patted the steering wheel and unbuckled, but Nikolai was already unscrewing the gas cap before she could open the door. When the pump started up she looked at me with wide eyes and brows raised. I knew what she was thinking. Why in heck did you break up with this guy? I rolled my eyes at her and then looked at him. He’d changed so much in the past few years. He was taller, more filled out than he’d been. He’d be seventeen in a few days, same as me. I jumped when he tapped on the window.
“How much you want me to put in?” he asked Willow with the slightest tint of his remaining Russian accent.
“Uh… fifteen?” she said sheepishly.
I got out of the car and went into the station to buy a drink, pretending the boy who’d broken my heart three years ago wasn’t even more intriguing to me now. When I came back, he was gone and I could feel myself wither with disappointment.
“He ran that way,” Willow said. She pointed down a dirt road on the other side of the railroad tracks.
I handed her a lemon-lime soda and unscrewed the cap of my cola.
“You want to follow him?”
“No,” I said, trying to sound disinterested. I looked at the dashboard clock: 10:08 p.m. “Let’s go back to your house and watch a movie.”
“I gave him your phone number,” Willow added, her face twisting apologetically.