A few minutes later, we were riding up the escalator. Not surprising, Katie caught sight of Ryder first. As soon as she did, she squealed, pointing, “There he is!”
Ryder was sitting comfortably in a chair, wearing his usual bright sneakers, everything else dark shades. His hands were in his pockets as he sat slouched, looking away from us. He was watching people get in line for coffee and other drinks at a kiosk. As we approached the table Katie waved and yelled to get his attention “Ryder!”
He turned to us and a smile spread across his face at the sight of Katie. Moving quickly to stand, he bumped the table, nearly knocking it over in the process. He rushed to stabilize it and grab his small shopping bag before it fell. Katie laughed, causing him to nervously run his hand through his hair. The gesture made me think of his brother and I had a pang of disappointment that Hunter wasn’t here. Shaking the feeling off, I smiled and waved to Ryder.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Pretty good, how are you?” he responded, politely.
“As good as I can be, being forced outside today. But, apparently, we had people to see.” I narrowed my eyes accusingly at Katie.
Katie stuck her tongue out at me playfully. “You’ve enjoyed it.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
Ryder laughed and shook his head at both of us.
Katie reached out and took one of his hands, pulling him toward our destination. Ryder was busy smiling at her hand on his, letting her pull him along with minimal regard to where she was taking him.
“We’re getting Pizza,” I explained.
He looked back at me, still smiling. “That works for me.”
I returned his smile. “Good, I was going to have to call this whole thing off if you disapproved.”
Katie was beaming at him brighter than the sun as they strolled, hand-in-hand. I followed close behind, basking in the excess energy from Katie. I’d never met anyone who’s feelings so clearly radiated out of their soul. Usually, the person’s emotions were like an aftertaste on the back of your tongue. Katie’s feelings were the most potent and pure thing I had ever felt. I dreaded to think what a broken heart would do to her.
The thought made me worry. I know I shouldn’t have, but as I walked closely behind them, I pushed some energy out, touching gently along Ryder’s skin. I was being as delicate as possible, hoping Katie wouldn’t notice. Luckily, she was completely entranced in his presence, and seemed oblivious to what I was doing. As I reached out, I felt… nothing.
I couldn’t tell anything Ryder was feeling, or even find any energy coming off of him. I shook my head in frustration. It was probably just as well, as I had no business trying to spy on him that way. I sighed with disappointment.
Ryder looked over his shoulder at me. “Everything okay?” His face was blank and unassuming.
I nodded and smiled. “Peachy.”
He smiled then turned back to Katie, still glowing at his side.
“I think pepperoni is a must, but you have to get extra cheese, too. What do you both think? Should we order a whole pizza, or do you want to get individual slices? I guess it depends on what you both like…” She was chattering away as he watched her quietly, a small curve to his lips. I appraised his attendance of her. Maybe I didn’t need my powers to see he was just as enamored.
There was a line at the restaurant. Apparently, Katie wasn’t the only fan of their cuisine. Seeing the crowd, she turned to me. “We can go in and order. Do you want to sit at one of the tables over there and we’ll bring it back?” She pointed the corner where extra seating had been put out.
I nodded and pulled money from my wallet for her. Katie took it and headed toward the line. Ryder followed without any questions and left me to secure our seats. But when I scoured the area, all the tables were taken. Noticing my search, a blond man stood up from the table nearest to me.
“Need a seat?” he asked.
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “I’m finished, it’s all yours,” he said, waving a hand in offering.
“Thanks,” I replied.
He smiled. “No problem.”
I sat pensively in one of the chairs, as I waited for Katie and Ryder. Pulling my phone out for something to focus on, I opened Hunter’s text message. After several minutes I started to type a response to thank him for the invite, then deleted it before hitting send. I didn’t know how to respond to the earlier messages still, and I didn’t want to so obviously skip over them. I sat biting my lip staring at the blinking cursor, trying to think about what to say.
“We’re back!” Katie and Ryder had their hands full of trays, which they plopped down in front of me.
“Nice seating choice,” Ryder praised, as he surveyed our location.
“Thanks,” I said, as I reached for a plate and slice. Trying to not hover over Katie and Ryder like a chaperone, I took my plate and piece of pizza, and stood leaning on the railing while I ate. I looked over to the first floor and watched while small groups of teenagers slowly meandered by, chatting amongst themselves. Occasionally engaging with other groups they passed. The center of the mall was much busier than the outer stores, where Katie and I had been hiding out. As I watched the commotion below, I noticed one person sitting on the ledge of one of the water features. He sat alone and like me, watched everyone come and go, his gaze not lingering on any one person long. He raised his face then, looking up at me. I recognized the dirty-blond hair and brown eyes. It was Will, savior of drunken girls. I raised my plate to him, and he gave me a curt wave.
“Hey,” I called over my shoulder to Ryder, turning to beckon him. “Hunter’s friend Will is here.” Ryder stepped up behind me but as we looked down, he was gone.
“That’s weird, he was just here,” I said, continuing to scan the crowd for him.
“He does that.” Ryder shrugged and went back to his seat.
“Solitary type, I take it?” I asked. Still looking down for traces of him.
Ryder grunted in agreement, then took another bite of pizza.
“Sen, did you hear Hunter’s birthday is soon?” Katie asked around a bite of her own food.
I shook my head. “No, sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
Ryder took his seat and then dangled the sleek bag he’d been carrying, displaying the logo from an electronics store. “I came to pick up his present.”
“We should throw him a party!” Katie suggested. She was bouncing with excitement in her seat.
Ryder pressed his lips together and squinted. Gently, he said, “I think he gets enough of that hosting for Chris.”
“Right.” Katie bit her lip. “What do you think we should do, Sen?”
I stopped mid bite and stared at her. “I don’t think I know Hunter enough to make suggestions about what he wants.”
Ryder sputtered out a laugh, which turned into him coughing into his cup, spilling soda on himself. As Katie and I both looked at him, he waved his hand apologetically, still laughing as he wiped soda off his face and hand. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to compose himself.
Katie dragged out an, “Okay” then looked at me with wide eyes, her eyebrows pulled up in a question. I shrugged at her. I didn’t get what was so funny either.
“How about a movie? They opened the drive-in back up this summer,” he suggested.
Katie made a wide, open mouthed smile at me. “I’ve never been to a drive-in!” she exclaimed.
I looked back and forth between the two of them. I was still stumbling over how to get out of responding to Hunter’s texts, how did I end up on a double date to a movie? “I don’t think I should go. Why don’t you all go have fun without me?”
Ryder shook his head and laughed again. “If you don’t come, he won’t go. Taking the two of us out to the movies is absolutely not what he wants for his birthday.”
Katie looked at me, biting her lip nervously. She was pleading with her eyes, her shoulders hunched up in anticipation of my answer.
I wrinkled my nose at her. “You’re like the little sister I never wanted, you know that?”
Katie took my response as confirmation and jumped up to hug me. As she clung to me with joy, I looked over at Ryder. One corner of his mouth was up in an amused smirk, and he tilted his head at me.
“I’ll ask Nathan about borrowing his truck,” Ryder said, pulling his phone out to seal my fate.
I patted Katie’s arm. “Does this mean we can go home now?”
She laughed. “Yes, I think you earned your escape.”
After we cleaned up our plates, Ryder walked us out to my car. He and Katie hovered over his phone, examining our options and the best time to execute their plan. As I listened to them organize, I cringed at the idea of being trapped in a truck with Hunter. I had agreed to go, but I hoped they would find a way to convince him to take them without me. I didn’t imagine he was going to want to hang out with me, not after I called off our… whatever it was we were doing.
Once we reached the car and Katie got in, I leaned on the roof and called over to Ryder. “Hey, can you do me a favor?”
He shut her door then looked up at me. “Sure, what do you need?”
“Can you keep Katie busy tomorrow night? I don’t want her sneaking off to Chris’ party, and if you’re not there she has no reason to go.”
He smiled. “I think I can manage that.”
I smiled back. “Thanks.”
Nodding he stepped back from the vehicle, waving at Katie through the window. At least one good thing came out of this. I wasn’t going to have to worry about Katie tomorrow. Now I just had myself to stress about.
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