Icing on the lake, p.14

Icing on the Lake, page 14

 

Icing on the Lake
 


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  “It’s okay. You don’t have to,” I said quickly. “Never mind. It was just a…you know. An idea.”

  “No, it’s not that I don’t want to.” Conor opened the fridge under the counter and started loading it with half-and-half. “I’m supposed to work at Zublansky’s tomorrow afternoon, but maybe I can get someone to cover for me. I was just wondering who, and how much I’d have to bribe them.”

  “I’ll pitch in a few bucks,” I offered.

  He seemed kind of taken aback by that. Too forward, I wondered? But we were just friends—what I was saying was exactly what I’d say to Jones.

  “Brett would have to come, too,” I said. “Is that okay?”

  “Sure. No problem,” Conor said. “Could you leave Bear at home though? I don’t necessarily think we should let him knock down any other people trying to check out the carnival.”

  “I’ll take Bear to the off-leash park so he can run as long as he wants. Then we can be gone for a while and he won’t miss us,” I said. “And I’ll make sure Gretchen can handle us all being gone. What am I talking about? I’m sure she can. It’s like her dream when Brett and I leave the house.”

  Conor laughed. “Really?”

  “Oh, yeah,” I said. “I don’t know what she’s going to do when I leave to go home, actually. She’s gotten really used to having me around.”

  “Me too,” Conor said. Then he cleared his throat loudly. “You’re, you know, kind of blending in here. With the furniture.”

  “Thanks. I guess.” I looked behind me at the tables and chairs. I didn’t see any similarities, but whatever.

  “Anyway, about Winter Carnival.” Conor crumpled the now-empty plastic bags. “Normally I don’t go to that kind of thing.”

  “You don’t? Why not?” I asked. “I love Winter Carnival.”

  “Well, I’m not really into mini-donuts and pork chops on sticks.” Conor made a face. “Ever since I ate too many one summer at the State Unfair.”

  I laughed. “That sounds like a radical political group.”

  “No, it’s just what I call the ‘big get-together,’” Conor said, making a reference to the ad campaign for the Minnesota State Fair. “I definitely haven’t liked it since I lost in the pie-eating competition, actually. Though I do like the milk bar and the butter sculptures.”

  “Pie-eating? Don’t tell me about it. And don’t tell me about racing to eat any butter sculptures, either. But who did you lose to?” I asked.

  “I don’t know. Some guy from Roseville. Why?”

  “Just wondering,” I said. I’d figured that he must have lost to Sean, since it seemed like all they did was compete against each other, and gloat over who was better.

  “You know something? You have a lot of emotional baggage when it comes to the State Fair. What, do you just have to leave the state every August, so you don’t have flashbacks?” I teased him. “What’s the clinical term for that? Post-traumatic fair disorder?”

  “Yeah, well, anyway. I normally avoid these kinds of organized-fun-slash-torture events, but Winter Carnival can be kind of fun. Sure. I’ll go,” he said.

  “Great.” I smiled at him.

  Chapter 15

  “Don’t fall,” Conor warned as I stepped out of the minivan. “It’s really icy right here.”

  “And I have a history of falling. Is that what you’re saying?” I opened the side door and unclipped Brett from his car seat. He looked a little drowsy, but I had no doubt he would perk up once he saw the crowds of people milling around downtown St. Paul.

  Fortunately, we had a stroller with us, and it was one that Brett even liked.

  “Just be careful.” Conor tapped the ice with his boot. “They could use a little more sand here.”

  “That’s right—I forgot I was traveling with Mr. Snow Removal,” I teased him.

  “Hey, did you or did you not whack your head on the ice? Speaking of which, you feeling any after-effects?”

  I shook my head. “No, but Gretchen made me go to the doctor with her yesterday just to make sure.”

  “And? What did the doctor say?”

  “She said Gretchen’s leg is healing. Slowly.” I unfolded the stroller, helped Brett climb into it, then slipped the necessity bag into its bottom basket. “And then Gretchen and I went to the spa to get manicures and look at possible new hairstyles. She has this habit of trying to give me makeovers whenever she’s stressed. Her coping mechanism is to try changing me.”

  Conor laughed. “You’re not really going to cut your hair, though,” he said. “Are you?”

  “No.” I blushed.

  “Cool.”

  As we started walking out of the RiverCentre parking ramp, Conor pointed to the huge brick buildings around us. “That’s the Science Museum, but you probably knew that. And here’s the Xcel Energy Center, where the Minnesota Wild plays. The NHL team.”

  “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could go to a game?” I asked. “I mean, a bunch of us.”

  “Yeah. It’s fun—I’ve been to a few,” Conor said. “I used to think I could play hockey that well. Ha!”

  “Maybe you can,” I said. “Just because you got cut from the school team that doesn’t mean you have to give up.”

  “Yeah. Or I could transfer to a school with a bad team,” Conor said. “Not that I know of too many around here. Maybe I could transfer to somewhere in Hawaii.” He laughed. “Anyway, the state high school hockey tournament is at the Xcel, too. Have you ever been?” he asked.

  “Two years ago,” I said. “Our school made it to the quarterfinals. Even that was a huge deal.”

  “Oh, yeah. That’s nothing. When Sean was a sophomore he scored a hat trick. The place went wild.” Conor rolled his eyes. “I was proud of him, but it was a little disgusting.”

  I decided to change the subject. “Is that like a miniature ice palace?” I pointed to a structure made of ice blocks in the park we were heading toward.

  “That’s not an ice palace. That looks more like an ice fishing shack,” Conor commented.

  As we got closer, we saw that it was intentional: The piece was titled “Ice Fishing Palace.” Conor smiled. “Well, we were both right.”

  We walked around and checked out the other sculptures: a huge one of the State Capitol, an eagle, and a big wedge of Swiss cheese with holes carved into it, and tiny ice mice running on top of it. In the center of the park, a carver was working with a chainsaw on a plain large ice block, making a silhouette of a woman’s face, who was modeling for him.

  As we walked over to another plaza to look at the snow sculptures, Brett suddenly decided it was time for him to start playing hide and seek. He hopped out of the stroller and sprinted right past the chains protecting a giant sculpture of a lion. “Roarrrr!” he yelled as he ran toward it.

  “Sorry,” I said to the women working, as I scooped up Brett and retrieved him before he could do any major damage. He started crying right away, and nothing I could say made him feel better. I showed him the train made of snow, and the Santa Claus, and the dog…. Still, hekept crying.

  “Hey, Brett. I have an idea,” Conor said.

  “Wh—wh—what,” Brett sniffled.

  “I heard there’s a snowman-making contest here. Do you want to help me build a snowman?”

  Brett wiped his eyes and looked up at Conor. “A snowman?”

  Conor nodded. “A snowman. You and me. We’ll win a ribbon, I promise.”

  “God, you’re competitive,” I commented. “Do you ever stop?”

  “Everyone gets a ribbon just for trying,” he said under his breath to me. “I used to do this when I was a kid. Okay? Come on, Brett.” He took Brett’s hand and they started skipping toward the area where giant mounds of fresh snow had been dumped, and small, very round stacked figures rose in the distance. “Let’s build!”

  “Told you we’d get a ribbon.” Conor dangled the blue ribbon with a Winter Carnival button hanging from it in front of my face.

  “You bought that,”
I said. Buttons were used to gain entrance to different carnival events; they cost five bucks, and the design changed each year, so they made cool collectibles when the events were all over.

  “Well, the button, yeah, I did buy that. But we earned the ribbon. Right, Brett?”

  “We won, Aunt Kirsten!” Brett cried happily.

  “Well, good for you. I’m very proud of you.” I pulled Brett’s hat down a little, because he was about to lose it. “Are you hungry? You want a snack?”

  He nodded eagerly, so we headed over to a couple of ice blocks to sit down. While I was getting a handful of peanut butter crackers out of the “everything” bag, I noticed a bus pull up, and suddenly girl after girl after girl was stepping off the bus, each one wearing a little tiara—like my Snow White one!—and a sash bearing the name of a town or suburb. Miss Owatonna, Miss Robbinsdale, Miss Stillwater, Miss Congeniality….

  Where had they come from? What were they doing here? I knew the Winter Carnival crowned King Boreas and a Snow Queen every year, but this wasn’t the same thing. They started checking out the giant star-shaped ice sculptures where Conor was standing.

  “See this? I won this.” He held the ribbon and button up in front of Miss Eden Prairie.

  She laughed at him. “Yeah, whatever.”

  “Oh! Harsh.” He put his hand over his heart. “You guys want me to take your picture?” he asked as the mob of girls circulated around the giant stars.

  I took out my camera phone and started taking Conor’s picture, as he posed with Miss Winona and the others.

  “What can I say, I’ve always had a thing for princesses,” he said as he walked over to me. “Ah, royalty.”

  I raised my eyebrow and glared at him.

  “Kidding. Kidding!” he said. “I was doing my best imitation of Sean. He was junior prom king, you know.”

  “Ew. My sister was prom queen. Me, on the other hand, I’ve never actually worn a sash.”

  “I’ll go borrow one for you,” Conor offered.

  “No! Don’t!” I called as he headed back to the group of girls.

  He stopped and turned around. “Why not?”

  “Because. I—I don’t know what size I take.”

  “Um, I don’t think they come in sizes.” He started talking to different girls, and pointing over at me and Brett. Most of them looked at him as if he were insane, but a couple of them seemed to be considering it. Finally he came jogging over to me carrying a white sash with blue letters that said: Miss Midwest. I stood up and Conor draped the sash over my head.

  “Wow, I get to be the whole Midwest? I must have some sort of hidden talent,” I said.

  “Classical piano,” the girl said with a smile as she walked over to me. She held out her hand. “I’m Christie.”

  “Kirsten,” I said, being careful to shake her hand gently, given that she was a piano-playing virtuoso. “You sure it’s okay if I wear this for a second?”

  “You can take one picture,” she said. “Then I have to get back to the bus—we’re on a schedule. Also I think it’s against policy, so be quick about it.”

  “Thanks!”

  “And who are you?” Christie asked Brett, keeping him busy while Conor snapped a quick photo of me.

  “You’ll always be Miss Midwest to me,” he said.

  “Gee. Thanks,” I said.

  We drove from downtown St. Paul over to Como Park, for the Frosty Fingers kite fly.

  “Why are we doing this again?” Conor said as we trudged across the snow to Lake Como, where kites danced in the air. The wind had begun to howl a little, and some freezing rain was falling.

  Brett was riding on Conor’s shoulders, and for that reason maybe the wind chill at that height was hitting him a little harder than usual. When I glanced up to check on him, I could have sworn his lips were turning blue.

  Then I remembered the fruit-flavored snow-cone he’d insisted on having earlier. That was syrup stain on his mouth, not frostbite.

  Still, I suggested we blow off the kite flying and head to the other side of Como Park, to visit the conservatory. We regrouped and headed indoors to look at plants and enjoy warm, humid air. Afterward, we took Brett over to the historic carousel, and I took pictures of him and Conor going around on a wooden horse, making faces at me each time the carousel circled past.

  All in all, it was a totally fun, totally exhausting afternoon.

  “What next?” I asked as we walked away from the carousel, after I’d somehow managed to convince Brett that the Como Zoo was closed because it was too cold for the animals. It wasn’t closed, but I was too cold, and technically I am an animal of some sort, so it wasn’t a total lie.

  Fifteen minutes later, Brett was sound asleep. We gently put him into his car seat and started the engine so the minivan would warm up.

  We stood outside the car for a minute, and I felt Conor looking at me, out of the corner of my eye.

  “What?” I asked as I turned to him.

  “Oh, nothing. I was just thinking. You must be freezing.” Conor moved closer to me, practically snuggling against my side.

  All I could think was, He’s about to kiss me, this is a move, he’s totally about to kiss me.

  Chapter 16

  “So, let’s see how all those pictures we took turned out,” I said, backing away from Conor. “I can’t wait to see them!”

  “Oh. Okay.” Conor shrugged.

  I resisted the urge to ask him, What were you thinking?

  Or maybe the better question was: What was I thinking? Because I’d had to drag myself away, because I was pretty sure that if he didn’t kiss me, I would kiss him.

  Maybe the cold was getting to us and our survival instincts were kicking in, I thought. Not that kissing has ever saved anyone from frostbite, but you never knew.

  We leaned against the minivan and let it shield us from the strong wind. I got out my camera phone and we started clicking through all the images we’d taken during the day, laughing at the goofy ones, deleting the embarrassingly bad ones. I decided to send one of me, Conor and Brett posing in front of the ice fishing palace to Jones.

  A minute or two later, there was a little bell chime, and the icon for a text message popped up on my phone screen. Without thinking, I clicked on the button to open it.

  You and Sean = cute! it said.

  I smiled nervously at Conor. “Oops. Maybe I should use captions from now on.”

  That’s not Sean, I typed back to her.

  “She has a point, you know.” Conor adjusted his gloves, pulling them up higher on his wrists.

  “What?”

  “You and I do look good together. Not that I care about superficial things like that, but it’s true.” He pointed to another photo. “I mean, you have to admit we make a cool couple.”

  A cool couple? What was he talking about? I flipped my phone closed. “Well, we should probably get going, don’t you think? Brett’s asleep, and it’s getting even colder—”

  “Okay, but first, can I ask you something?” Conor turned sideways and leaned against the minivan.

  “That depends.” I smiled at him. “What is it? Is it whether I’m going to use Jones’s line in my project?”

  “No. It’s…” He peered into the minivan at Brett to check on him. “Why are you going out with Sean?”

  I’m sorry, I thought. But isn’t that really, really personal? And also: I’m not really ready for this. “Um…what do you mean?” I asked.

  “Why are you going to the party with him, when you and I obviously have more in common, and have more fun together?” Conor finally turned away from the window to look at me. “Why don’t you go with me instead?”

  I didn’t know what to say. He had a point. Lately whenever I spent time with Conor, I noticed that we had more to talk about, that we never struggled for things to say.

  “I’m really flattered,” I said.

  “Oh God. That’s the kiss of death,” Conor muttered. “Whenever someone says that, it means,
I don’t actually think of you that way.”

  “But I can’t…I can’t change things and go to the dance with you,” I said.

  “I don’t get it. Why not?”

  “Well, first of all, I’d have to break my date with Sean.”

  “He’d get over it. Believe me.”

  That wasn’t exactly a compliment. “See, uh, we made a deal. Sort of.” This was sounding pathetic; it wasn’t about the fact we had a deal. It was that I was sort of stunned by what Conor just said. Maybe I was more interested in him than Sean. Only what was I supposed to do about it now?

  “A deal?” Conor sounded suspicious.

  “It’s this big Groundhog Day weekend thing…with my friends—skiing and going to a cabin up north,” I said. “They made me get a date, they insisted I bring someone. I mean, they only want me to be happy and everything—it’s not like if I showed up alone, they wouldn’t let me in the door or something.” I laughed nervously. “So anyway, the day we went to Buck Hill, Sean asked me to the Snow Ball, and I said I’d go with him if he came on this long weekend trip with me—”

  “Wait a second. You’re going away with him for a whole weekend? Are you serious?” Conor asked.

  I nodded.

  “I mean…are you that serious about Sean? I didn’t realize,” Conor said.

  “Really?” I asked.

  “Well, yeah. If I knew about it, I wouldn’t have been spending so much time with you.”

  What did he mean by that? Did he think it was bad manners? Was it? And why hadn’t Sean told him that the two of us were going away? Was he planning to come, or wasn’t he? Wouldn’t he have had to ask permission from his parents, and wouldn’t Conor know about that?

  Anyway, was I serious about Sean, like Conor said? Not really, I had to admit. I liked him, but did I see us going out, long-term? I hadn’t gotten that far yet.

 
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