My cell rang from within my bag, and I cowered. Holy crud, does the girl have ESP?
A worse possibility entered my mind: Maybe it’s Tegan.
And then a wildly unworse possibility, stubborn and fluttering: Or . . . maybe it’s Jeb?
I fumbled in my bag and snatched out my phone. The display screen said DAD, and I deflated. Why? I railed silently. Why couldn’t it have been—
And then I stopped. I cut that whiny voice off midsentence, because I was sick of it, and it wasn’t doing me any good, and anyway, shouldn’t I have some say over the endless thoughts running through my head?
In my brain—and in my heart—I experienced a sudden absence of static. Wow. I could get used to that.
I hit the ignore button on my phone and dropped it back into my bag. I’d call Dad later, after I’d made things right.
Eau de hamster hit me as I stepped inside Pet World, as well as the unmistakable scent of peanut butter. I paused, closed my eyes, and said a prayer for strength, because while eau de hamster was to be expected in a pet store, the smell of peanut butter could mean only one thing.
I approached the cash register, and Nathan Krugle glanced up midchew. His eyes widened, then narrowed. He swallowed and put down his peanut butter sandwich.
“Hello, Addie,” he said distastefully, á la Jerry Seinfeld greeting his nemesis, Newman.
No. Wait. That would make me Newman, and I was so not Newman. Nathan was Newman. Nathan was a super-skinny, acne-pocked Newman with a taste for shrunken T-shirts inscribed with Star Trek quotes. Today his shirt said, YOU WILL DIE OF SUFFOCATION IN THE ICY COLD OF SPACE.
“Hello, Nathan,” I replied. I pushed my hood off, and he took in my hair. He semi-snorted.
“Nice haircut,” he said.
I started to say something back, then restrained myself. “I’m here to pick up something for a friend,” I said. “For Tegan. You know Tegan.”
I’d thought the mention of Tegan, with her bottomless sweetness, might distract Nathan from his vendetta.
“Indeed I do,” he said, his eyes gleaming. “We go to the same school. The same small school. Surely it would be hard to ignore someone in a school that small?”
I groaned. Here it came, again, as if we hadn’t spoken for four years and still had to process that one regrettable incident. Which we didn’t. We had processed it many times, and yet apparently the processing was one-sided.
“But wait,” he said in the robotic voice of a bad infomercial host. “You ignored someone in a school that small!”
“Seventh gra-ade,” I said in a gritted-teeth, singsong voice. “Many many years ago.”
“Do you know what a Tribble is?” he demanded.
“Yes, Nathan, you’ve—”
“A Tribble is a harmless creature desperate for affection, native to the planet Iota Geminorum Four.”
“I thought it was Iota Gemi-blah-blah Five.”
“And not that many years ago”—he arched his brows to make sure I understood his emphasis—“I was such a Tribble.”
I slumped next to a rack of dog treats. “You were not a Tribble, Nathan.”
“And like a specially trained Klingon warrior—”
“Please don’t call me that. You know I really hate being called that.”
“—you obliterated me.” He noticed the location of my elbow, and his nostrils flared. “Hey,” he said, snapping his fingers repeatedly at the offending body part. “Don’t touch the Doggy de Lites.”
I jerked upright. “Sorry, I’m sorry,” I said. “Just as I am very sorry I hurt your feelings four years ago. But. And this is important. Are you listening?”
“In galactic terms, four years is but a nanosecond.”
I made a sound of exasperation. “I didn’t get the note! I swear to God, I never saw it!”
“Sure, sure. Only, know what I think? I think you read it, tossed it, and promptly forgot it, because if it has to do with anyone else’s woes, it doesn’t matter, right?”
“That’s not true. Listen, can we just—”
“Shall I recite the note’s contents?”
He gazed into the distance. “And I quote: ‘Dear Addie, will you go steady with me? Call me with your answer.’”
“I didn’t get the note, Nathan.”
“Even if you didn’t want to go steady, you should have called.”
“I would have! But I didn’t get the note!”
“The heart of a seventh-grade boy is a fragile thing,” he said tragically.
My hand itched toward the tidy rows of Doggy de Lites. I wanted to peg a pack at him.
“Okay, Nathan?” I said. “Even if I did get the note—which I didn’t—can’t you let it go? People move on. People grow. People change.”
“Oh, please,” he said coldly. The way he regarded me, as if I were lower than a straw wrapper, reminded me that he and Jeb were friends. “People like you don’t change.”
My throat closed. It was too much, that he would come down on me in the same way that everyone else on the planet had.
“But . . . ” It came out wavery. I tried again, and in a voice that wobbled despite my best intentions, I said, “Can’t anyone see I’m trying?”
After a long moment, he was the one who finally dropped his eyes.
“I’m here to pick up Tegan’s pig,” I said. “Can I just have him, please?”
Nathan’s brow furrowed. “What pig?”
“The pig that was dropped off last night.” I tried to read his expression. “Teeny-tiny? With a note that said, Do not sell to anyone but Tegan Shepherd?”
“We don’t ‘sell’ animals,” he informed me. “We adopt them out. And there was no note, just an invoice.”
“But there was a pig?”
“And it was really, really small?”
“Well, there should have been a note attached to the pet carrier, but it doesn’t matter. Can you just get him for me?”
“Nathan, oh my God.” I envisioned Gabriel alone through the cold night. “Please tell me he didn’t die.”
“Then where is he?”
Nathan didn’t reply.
“Nathan, come on,” I said. “This isn’t about me. It’s about Tegan. Do you honestly want to punish her because you’re pissed at me?”