“What are you thinking about?” Levi asked.
“Not nothing. You’ve seemed thinky and weird ever since I got to your room. Is this about me meeting your dad?”
“No,” Cath said quickly. “I kind of forgot about that.”
“Just … something that happened with a professor. I can tell you when we’re not in mortal peril.”
Levi felt on the seat for her hand, so she gave it to him. He clutched it. “You’re not in mortal peril.” He moved his hand back to the gearshift. “Maybe … stranded-in-a-ditch-for-a-few-hours peril. Tell me. I can’t really talk right now, but I can listen. I’d like to listen.”
Cath turned away from the window and faced him. It was nice to look at Levi when he couldn’t look back. She liked his profile. It was very … flat. A straight line from his long forehead into his longish nose—his nose veered out a bit at the tip, but not much—and another straight line from his nose to his chin. His chin went soft sometimes when he smiled or when he was feigning surprise, but it never quite mushed away. She was going to kiss him there someday, right at the edge of his jaw where his chin was most vulnerable.
“What happened in class?” he asked.
“After class, I went … Well, okay, so you know how last semester, I was taking Fiction-Writing?”
“Well, I didn’t turn in my final project. I was supposed to write a short story, and I didn’t.”
“What?” His chin tucked back in surprise. “Why?”
“I … lots of reasons.” This was more complicated than Cath thought. She didn’t want to tell Levi how unhappy she’d been last semester—how she hadn’t wanted to come back to school, how she hadn’t wanted to see him. She didn’t want him to think he had that much power over her.
“I didn’t want to write it,” she said. “I mean, there’s more to it than that, but … mostly I didn’t want to. I had writer’s block. And my dad, you know, I didn’t come back to school, finals week, after he had his breakdown.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well. It’s true. So I decided not to finish my final project. But my Fiction-Writing professor didn’t turn in my grade. She wants to give me a second chance—she said I could write the story this semester. And I sort of said that I would.”
“Wow. That’s awesome.”
“It’s not awesome?”
“No. It is. Just … it was nice to have it behind me. To feel like I was through with that whole idea. Fiction-Writing.”
“You write fiction all the time.”
“I write fanfiction.”
“Don’t be tricky with me right now. I’m driving through a blizzard.” A car materialized ahead of them, and Levi’s face tensed.
Cath waited until he relaxed again. “I don’t want to make up my own characters, my own world—I don’t have that inside of me.”
Neither of them spoke. They were moving so slowly.… Something caught Cath’s eye through Levi’s window; a semi truck had jackknifed in the median. She took a stuttering breath, and Levi found her hand again.
“Only fifteen miles,” he said.
“Does he need help?”
“There was a State Patrol car.”
“I didn’t see it.”
“I’m so sorry about this,” Levi said.
“Stop,” she said. “You didn’t make it snow.”
“Your dad’s going to hate me.”
She raised his hand to her mouth and kissed his knuckles. His forehead wrinkled, almost like it hurt.
Cath listened to the windshield wipers and watched the front window for whatever was coming next.
“Are you sure?” Levi asked after a few miles. “About the fiction-writing? Are you sure you don’t have that inside you? You’re fathomless when it comes to Simon and Baz—”
“They’re different. They already exist. I just move them around.”
He nodded. “Maybe you’re like Frank Sinatra. He didn’t write his own songs—but he was a genius interpreter.”
“I hate Frank Sinatra.”
“Come on, nobody hates Frank Sinatra.”
“He treated women like things.”
“Okay—” Levi adjusted himself in the seat, shaking his neck out. “—not Frank Sinatra, then … Aretha Franklin.”
Levi smiled, and it made Cath kiss his fingers again. He gave her a quick, questioning look.
“The point is…,” he said softly. Something about the storm made them both talk softly. “There are different kinds of talent. Maybe your talent is in interpretation. Maybe you’re a stylist.”
“And you think that counts?”
“Tim Burton didn’t come up with Batman. Peter Jackson didn’t write Lord of the Rings.”
“In the right light, you are such a nerd.”
His smile opened up. The truck hit a slick spot, and he pulled his hand away, but the smile lingered. A coffeepot-shaped water tower slowly moved past his window. They were on the edge of town now; there were more cars here, on the road and in the ditches.
“You still have to write that story,” Levi said.
“To bring your grade up. Don’t you need to keep your GPA up for your scholarship?”
She’d only just told him about the scholarship a few nights ago. (“I’m dating a genius,” he’d said, “and a scholar.”)
Of course she wanted to keep her GPA up. “Yeah—”
“So, write the story. It doesn’t have to be great. You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway. You’re lucky you’re getting a second chance.”
Cath sighed. “Yeah.”
“I don’t know where you live,” he said. “You’re going to have to give me instructions.”
“Just be careful,” Cath said, leaning in quickly to kiss his smooth cheek.
“You can’t shave your head. You’ll look mental.”
“I look worse than mental with this hair. I look evil.”
“There’s no such thing as evil hair,” Simon giggled. They were lying on the floor of the library between two rows of shelves. Baz on his back. Simon propped up on one shoulder.
“Look at me,” Baz said, pushing his chin-length hair back from his forehead. “Every famous vampire has a widow’s peak like this. I’m a cliché. It’s like I went to the barber and asked for ‘a Dracula.’”
Simon was laughing so hard, he nearly fell forward onto Baz. Baz shoved him up with his free hand.
“I mean, honestly,” Baz said, still holding back his hair, trying to keep a straight face. “It’s like an arrow on my face. This way to the vampire.”
Simon swatted Baz’s hand away and kissed the point of his hairline as gently as he could. “I like your hair,” Simon said against Baz’s forehead. “Really, really.”
When they pulled crunchily into Cath’s driveway, Cath exhaled, completely, for the first time in two hours.
Levi leaned back and let his head fall against the seat. He opened and closed his hands, stretching his fingers. “Let’s never do that again,” he said.
Cath unbuckled her seat belt and slid toward him, pushing her arms around his shoulders. Levi smiled so wide, she wished it hadn’t taken an adrenaline rush for her to feel like she could hug him like this. His arms moved around her waist, and she held him tightly, her face in his coat.
Levi’s mouth was close to her ear. “You shouldn’t reward me for endangering your life, you know. Think of the precedent you’re setting.”
Cath held him even tighter. He was good. He was good, and she didn’t want to lose him. Not that she felt like she was going to lose him on the interstate. Just, in general. In general, she didn’t want to lose him.
“I wouldn’t have thought twice of driving through this back home,” he said quietly, “by myself. But I shouldn’t have done this with you. I’m sorry.”
She shook her head.
The street was silent, and the cab of the truck was dark gray and white-bright, and after a few minutes, Levi’s hand trailed up her back and down again.
“Cather,” he whispered, “I really like you.…”
* * *
When they got out of the truck, the windshield was covered with snow. Levi carried her laundry. Cath let him. He was nervous about meeting her dad, and she was nervous about her dad, period. She’d talked to him every day since Christmas break, and she’d been home to visit—he seemed like he was doing fine, but you never knew with him.…
When Cath opened the door, he was right there in the living room. There were papers everywhere, onionskin taped to the curtains and walls, all his ideas sorted into buckets. And her dad was sitting on the coffee table, chewing on the end of a Sharpie.
“Cath,” he said, smiling. “Hey … is it Cath time already?” He looked at the windows, then down at his wrist; he wasn’t wearing a watch. Then he saw Levi and stopped. He took his glasses off his head and put them on, standing.
“Dad, this is Levi. He gave me a ride.” That hadn’t come out right. Cath tried again: “He’s, um … Levi.”
Levi held out his hand. “Mr. Avery, nice to meet you.” He was drawling. Maybe his accent was a nervous tic.
“It’s nice to meet you,” her dad said. And then—“Levi.”
“I’m really sorry about taking Cather out in this weather,” Levi said. “I didn’t realize how bad it was.”
Nothing registered on her dad’s face. He looked toward the windows. “Is it messy out? I guess I haven’t been paying attention.…”
Levi’s face went nearly blank. He smiled politely.
Her dad looked at Cath and remembered that he was going to hug her. “Are you hungry?” he said. “Is it dinnertime? I’ve been in a Franken-fog all day.”
“Did you guys get the Frankenbeans account?” she asked.
“Still pitching. Eternally pitching. So, Levi,” he said, “are you staying for dinner?”
“Oh,” Levi said. “Thank you, sir, but I better get back while there’s still some light.”
Cath wheeled around. “Are you kidding me? You’re not driving back to Lincoln in this.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Four-wheel drive. Snow tires. Cell phone.”
“No,” Cath said harshly. “Don’t be an idiot. We’re lucky that we got here okay—you’re not going back.”
Levi bit his lips and raised his eyebrows helplessly.
Her dad walked past them to the door. “Jesus,” he said from the porch. “She’s right, Levi—I’m just going to keep saying your name until I remember it, is that okay?”
Cath pulled on Levi’s sleeve. “You’re staying, all right?”
He licked his bottom lip nervously. She wasn’t used to seeing him nervous. “Yes, ma’am,” he whispered.
“Okay,” her dad said, walking back into the living room, “dinner…” He still looked like he was in a Franken-fog.
“I got it,” Cath said. “You keep working. You look like you’re on to something.”
He smiled at her gratefully. “Thanks, honey. Just give me another half hour to sort through this.” He turned back to his concepts. “Levi, take off your coat.”
Cath started taking off her boots and hung her coat on a hook. She pulled on Levi’s sleeve again. “Take off your coat.”
“Come on,” she said, walking into the kitchen. Everything seemed in order. She glanced into her dad’s room and into the bathroom. No toothpaste poetry.
“I’m sorry,” Levi said when they got into the kitchen.
“Shut up,” she said. “You’re making me nervous.”
“I should go.”
“Not as nervous as I’d be if you were driving home in a blizzard. Jesus. Sit down. It’s okay, okay?”
He smiled a Levi smile—“Okay”—and sat down on one of the stools.
“It’s weird to see you here,” she said. “Like, worlds colliding.”
Levi ran his fingers through his hair, shaking out a bit of snow. “Your dad seems unfazed.”
“He’s used to guys being around.”
Levi cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”
“My sister…,” Cath said, feeling her cheeks warm.
She opened the refrigerator. Her grandmother had obviously been here. All her dad’s crusty condiment bottles were gone, and there were Tupperware containers labeled with grease pencil. Plus fresh milk and eggs and yogurt. She opened the freezer.… Healthy Choice meals, probably the same Healthy Choice meals as the last time Cath was home.
She looked over at Levi. “How do you feel about eggs?”
“Awesome.” He smiled. “I feel awesome about eggs.”
One of the Tupperware containers had Italian sausage with red peppers. Cath emptied it into a pan and decided to make poached eggs. Just to show off. There was bread for toast. And butter. This wouldn’t be half bad.
“Can I help you?” Levi asked.
“No. I’ve got this.” She glanced over her shoulder at him, then smiled back down at the stove. “Let me do something for you for once.”
“Okay…,” he said. “What’s your dad doing in there?”