"You are welcome. Again," Carter said.
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Mary started picking at a stray thread on the seam of her bag. "Um, so, any news on your car?"
"Yeah. Is it going to be fixed?"
"Oh. No. My…dad…said it was totaled."
The way he said "dad" just then seemed like it was a foreign word to him.
"Your parents are back in town?" Mary asked. At the hospital, Mr. Romero had said they were out of the country.
Carter nodded. Again, deliberately.
"They came when they heard what happened."
Mary was glad for that. She could only imagine what a wreck Mom would have been if she were on the other side of the world and something had happened to Mary.
Then, she realized what he had said, and she felt even more miserable. Cars weren't cheap, and she knew that his red sportster was a big loss.
“I'm so sorry."
"For what?" he asked.
"It was just a car."
Did he say it was just a car? Sophomore year, Carter went ballistic when Katie Peterson accidentally nicked his back bumper with her Jeep. Mary normally ignored other people's drama, but Carter wouldn't shut up about it for days.
But now that his precious ride was beyond repair, he didn't seem to care at all.
He looked at the sketchbook in her hands. "What is that?"
"Oh," she said, coming back to the present. "Just some sketches. I was going to the computer lab to look something up."
"May I accompany you?"
"To the computer lab. If you do not mind."
She did, actually. But she didn't want to be ungrateful anymore, so she said, "Sure. I don't mind."
He didn't speak as they walked. (Or, she walked and he lunged.)
Mary cleared her throat lightly. "So, Carter."
"You got back to school kinda quick. Doesn't that seem a little rushed?"
"I wanted to come," he said. "Back. I chose to come back."
"My…dad…spoke with a specialist. She suggested to not change my routines. That it may help with my recov—oof!" One of Carter's lunges turned into a trip, and he fell forward.
Instinctively, Mary grabbed his arm to help him. He was surprisingly warm through his thick sweater. It was like holding a hot pan with oven mits.
“Are you all right?"
"I am, thank you.” He stood up again. "I am learning how to walk and talk at the same time. Again."
"Oh, I see." Mary let go of his arm. "Well, take it easy. We don't have to walk fast. Are you sure it’s okay for you to be at school?"
She waited for him to explain more, but he didn't.
They were quiet for a bit, since Mary didn't want him to trip and fall again. But the silence was also starting to make things more awkward, so she asked, "So, um, how's Laci doing?"
"Oh." He looked as if he was trying to remember who she was. Like when he said "dad" earlier.
At last, he said, "She is well."
"Have you been out since you left the hospital?"
He cocked his head to the side. "Out?"
"Yeah. You know. Out on a date?"
"Oh. A date. No. I have not been out on a date."
"And you? Have you been out on a date?"
"Have you been out on a date?" he repeated.
"Oh, no. I heard you the first time." What an odd question. "I don't date. I don't have a boyfriend."
"A boyfriend," he pondered aloud. "Like Laci is my…girlfriend."
This was getting weirder.
"Why do you not have a boyfriend?"
"I just don't, you know? Some people date, and I don't."
"What do you do?"
"Like in my free time? I don't know. I paint, I guess."
"Is painting the same as dating?"
What the heck?
Mary looked to see if he was messing with her. But he seemed like he genuinely didn't know the difference.
"No. But I prefer it.”
"I just do."
"Because paints and brushes don't have expectations of you,” she blurted out.
He was silent.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said it like that."
"It is all right."
They were both quiet for a moment. Then she said, "I wanna ask you something now."
"Why are you talking to me?"
"Is there a reason I should not?"
This answering her questions with more questions thing was starting to get on her nerves.
“Several, as a matter of fact.”
"Well, you've never spoken to me other than to insult me."
He looked at her, surprised. "I have insulted you?"
Apparently, he forgot about the time he called her a "damn chink." During freshman year, they were once in the lunch line together and she accidentally spilled apple juice on his Jordans. He should've known that wearing non-school shoes might mean they would get messed up.
Anyway, she started bringing lunch from home and eating in the Art room after that.
She answered, "You just haven't talked to me much before."
He looked like he was trying to remember something. At last, he said, "I apologize that I insulted you. There is no excuse for that. Will you forgive me?"
Mary stared at him. She wasn't expecting an apology, and she didn't really know how to respond.
"You do not have to answer if you do not want to.”
Good, she thought. Then, she stopped walking.
He stopped lunging. "Is there something wrong?"
"Not really. But people say you've been different since you came back. I can see what they mean."
His half-smile disappeared. "You can?"
She nodded. "You're polite. It's weird."
"Polite is weird?"
“No, no. It's not. It's just weird for you. You always seemed kinda rude before."
"Oh. Would you prefer that I were rude?"
"No! T-That's not what I meant. Polite is good. I like polite."
He smiled again. "I like polite, too."
Glad that's established, she thought.
They finally arrived at the computer lab, and Mary found the picture she wanted on NASA's website. When he asked what she was doing, she told him about her plans for the new painting.
"You like the celestial bodies?" he asked.
"The celestial bodies," he repeated. "Things in space. Like stars, moons, and planets."
"Oh, yeah. I guess I do."
She shrugged. "I think they're pretty. I like looking at the sky."
"The Earth is more interesting.”
"Why do you say that?"
"It is where all the life is.”
Mary waited for him to explain further, but he didn't.
Instead, he asked, "May I see your painting when you have finished it?"
She hesitated. Mary hardly showed anyone her unfinished work. She hardly showed her finished work, for that matter.
But she still felt like she owed him despite him saying that she didn't.
"Okay," she said. "It'll be a few days though."
The bell rang, marking the end of the lunch period.
"I will look forward to it."