“The internet went out,” Oliver’s dad calls up the stairs, although it’s news Oliver already knows. The depressing drawing of a computer with X’s for eyes paired with the words “NO CONNECTION” illuminated his laptop’s screen told him so a minute earlier.
Sighing, Oliver closes the laptop and flops back against the comforter. Should I read? Should I text Palmer? It’s the latter he most wants to do, but he knows it’s the most consequential of the options. After all, wouldn’t texting her in front of all her friends defeat the purpose of them trying to keep their relationship a secret from them—particularly his brother, Will? Yes, it would.
From his end table, cluttered with an alarm clock, remotes, and water bottles, he pulls his copy of This is How You Lose the Time War, but only makes it all of 10 pages in the sci-fi novel before there’s a knock at his door. Over the top of his hardback, he sees his mom planted in the doorway, her expression a twist of annoyed and amused. “What’s up?” he asks.
“It looks like the internet in the whole area is out, and since apparently your age group can’t imagine functioning without it for even a few minutes, I’m forcing your brother and his friends to play a board game,” she says and takes a few steps in until she’s at the edge of his bed. “And I’m going to force you to play with them, too.”
“Mom—” he groans.
“No, no. I know you’re reading, but I think you should get out of this room and come down. It could be fun,” she says, her voice veering into sing-songy. Despite knowing her sons are twins in DNA only, she’s never stopped trying to get them to spend time with each other—or more accurately, Oliver to spend time with Will and his friends, as if doing it enough would finally get them to accept him into their group. It hasn’t worked so far, and he doubts this time will be any different.
No, this game is going to be tortuous on multiple levels. First, he wouldn’t be surprised if this turned into a real-life version of Operation, the group poking and prodding at Oliver, making sure to hit all of his sensitive spots and drive up his irritation as much as possible. Second, he’ll be in close proximity to Palmer and able to do… nothing. Of course, to an extent he’s used to it. He has to do it every day, but never for an extended period of time, or while sitting just inches from her.
He opens his mouth to object, but his mom shakes her head quickly, the words “No no no, I don’t think so,” coming out just as fast. She pivots towards the door and waves him along. “Come on, let’s go.”
With a quiet huff, he follows her down the stairs to the living room, where Will and his friends—Tony, Brayden, Nick, Harry, Jace, Mackenzie, and Palmer—are positioned around the table, each selecting their token: a dog for Nick, a thimble for Palmer, an iron for Jace.
“Guys, Oliver’s going to play, too,” his mom says as if she’s arranging a playdate between 7 year-olds and not the 17 year-olds they are. Will looks at him with the same disdain someone does the bee who continues to buzz around and disturb his otherwise pleasant day.
“We don’t have enough pieces for him,” Will says.
“Well, then double up,” their mom replies exasperatedly.
Will rolls his eyes—or half-rolls them, because his gaze just stays aimed at the ceiling. “Seriously?”
Two people down from him, a hand rises slowly like the Snoopy appearing in a pumpkin patch. Palmer’s. “He can be on my team.” He can hear an undercurrent of hesitancy in her words, but it almost gets overshadowed by her smile.
“There we go. Problem solved,” their mom says, and Oliver feels his mouth expand into a grin. His socked feet pad over to her side, and he drops onto the gray shag carpet beside her, crossing his legs beneath him.
“Thanks,” he says to her.
“She just did it because she feels bad for you,” Will says, shoving his racecar onto the start space, and into the thimble.
A wave of titters rolls through the friends, but dies out at Palmer. “No, I didn’t,” she says, the hesitance gone. “I did it because he’s smart, and he’s going to help me whip all your asses.” Her eyes flick towards him as she captures her blonde hair into a ponytail and ties it up on her head just like she does when they’re about to buckle down for homework or play a game of Super Mario Brothers. “Right?”
Oliver’s pretty damn sure he’d do anything for her at this point—well, other than something that would land him in jail for many years—and helping her dominate on a game board is part of that.
“You bet,” he nods.
The game kicks off with a roll from Mackenzie, who also buys the first space of many. There’s bartering and swearing when a Chance card takes a bad turn. Between Oliver and Palmer, glances are quick, and more than once, on the edge of his vision, he sees her send him a lopsided smile, which he always returns. When their hands bump, neither of them draws back—not right away. They let it linger for a few seconds, before grabbing for whatever they need: the paper dollars, a property card, or the dice.
Unsurprising to him, but maybe to all Palmer’s friends around the table, they make a good team, conspiring on property strategy and hotel placement, handing off whatever the other needs without uttering a word. If there’s one thing about dating in secret, they’ve become very familiar with each other’s nonverbal cues.
Scratching her nail against the pad of her thumb? Thinking. Raising and lowering his glasses by the temple tip? Relaxed. Staring at the board, straightening her shoulders, and leaning to the right? Wanting the Marvin Gardens property card.
“What’s going on with you two?” Will says after Oliver and Palmer had taken in another rent payment from their competitors.
“You mean us winning?” Palmer says, and when Oliver laughs, she does, too.
“No, I mean between you guys,” Will answers, gesturing first at Palmer with his Utility ownership card and then Oliver. “You have this weird flirty energy or something.” He tosses the card down, and it spins out on the table, only stopping when it becomes pinned under the board. “It’s like your dating.”
Despite all their efforts to keep there, Oliver and Palmer are unable to not look towards each other. Oliver can’t deny there is a small—okay, much larger than small—part of him that would like to tell his brother what’s going on between himself and his friend. Will thinks he has Palmer in a tight grip with the rest of their group, and they wouldn’t dare stray, especially not to Oliver’s side. Yet, she saw something worth straying for in him, and loves him for it, and, God, he loves her, too.
But, he also knows Palmer’s reservations are a substantial reason they’re still hiding in the shadows. She hasn’t said it directly, but he wonders if it isn’t as much how she likes the person she is with him without the peanut gallery chiming in, and is more because she’s embarrassed of him, or is scared of the social consequences of going against Will. While neither feels great, he doesn’t want to challenge her on it. Of course he wants to step into the light with her, but more than anything, he also just wants to be with her.
“Wait, are you guys?” Will asks, and Oliver prepares himself to tell his brother “no.” Palmer isn’t his first love, and also not, in a way, his first heartbreak. Because when he sees her hanging out with her friends, he doesn’t ache like he’s been sucker punched in the aorta, knowing he’ll only get minutes with her, versus her friends’ hours of time with her.
Palmer beats him to it, though.
“Yep, we are. Have been for six months,” she says unflinchingly, as she organizes their money into its respective piles. The group hushes. Oliver gapes at her. Will’s dice hits the board with a thump, and Palmer reaches her arm over the board to point at the dice. “If that’s your roll, you’re on our property. You owe us $300.”
This is the follow-up to Sarah’s previous short story, Mismatch. Twins, Cut from the Not-So-Same Cloth.