In November of 2008, Rick Macy is seventeen and working at Roarton Auto Repair when a girl brings her car in with a broken radiator. Her name is Anna Livingston, and he is never going to forget her. He will carry his guilt over this girl with him for the rest of his life, which admittedly is not very long—but even later, when he is sitting perfectly still in his bedroom and mourning the boy he isn't supposed to mourn, he will remember this girl who deserved better and think, maybe it's good he never touched him after all.
Anna is not from Roarton: her grandfather is old Mr. Livingston who's dying of lung cancer, and she's taking a leave of absence from school to take care of him. She has long red hair and wears brightly-colored dresses. She is nineteen years old. Two weeks before her radiator breaks she introduces herself to the Macys at church, and his dad tells her she's going to turn the heads of every lad in this town and mentions her casually to Rick a few times after that. Rick knows why. He hung the posters of half-naked supermodels in his room and snogged girls at parties, but he's never brought home a girlfriend, and he's seventeen, it's past time, he knows it.
So when she comes into the garage, he rolls up his sleeves and messes with his hair and aims for the ruggedly handsome mechanic look and chats her up. He has no idea what he's saying, but she's playing with her hair and smiling encouragingly, and it's not that difficult: he hits the right beats, fixes her car, asks her out.
“Yeah, sure,” she says. “I'll pick you up at seven tomorrow. And no greasestains,” she adds with a cheeky grin. She's really very pretty and interesting, and Rick thinks maybe he could like her, maybe he could kiss her and like it, maybe he's been worrying about nothing for all this time.
He brings it up at home, and his dad gets excited, and Rick avoids looking at his mum. That night his father takes Rick aside to make sure he's going to use protection and presses a handful of condoms on him and slaps him on the back and gives him some pointers and laughs. Rick realizes he's going to have to have sex with Anna. His dad is going to ask about it, and he's going to have to do it.
At dinner, she tells him about college, where she reads history and acts in school plays, and about her mum and her younger brother, and he keeps the conversation focused on her and pays for dinner and tries to be a gentleman. They walk around Roarton for about an hour after that. “You know, Rick Macy,” she says at one point, “I get the feeling you're a really sweet guy, and I don't say that a lot.” He ducks his head and says something dumb about how everyone would be sweet to a great girl like her, and she kisses his cheek. Outside her front door, she kisses him on the mouth, chaste but lingering, and he feels like he's tearing off pieces of himself.
It takes three more dates for Anna to invite him in. She asks him to wait in her bedroom while she gets her grandfather ready for bed, and he perches on the edge of the mattress and folds his hands tightly in his lap and takes deep breaths. The condoms are in his back pocket. When she comes in, an eternity later, she smiles and stands over him and pulls him up into a kiss, her hand steady on the back of his head.
“All right if we lie down?” she says. He nods. She gets them on their sides on the bed and they snog, her hand running up and down his ribs, his left cheek, his hip. He rolls over so she's on her back beneath him, and she seems to like it, but she pulls away when he puts his hand on her breast.
“Ah, to be clear,” she says breathlessly, “I don't want to shag tonight. I'll take my top off if you like? But nothing below the waist.”
He stares at her. “Why'd you ask me up here, then?”
“Privacy,” she says. “I'm not about to take my top off in the woods.”
“Well, when are you gonna want to do it?”
“I don't know, later,” she says. “Does it matter?”
“I brought condoms.”
“Yeah, great, hang onto them.”
He doesn't want to hang onto them—he's in her bedroom, he's hard, he wants to get it over with. “Anna, please,” he says. “I really want to, I've been thinking about it for weeks, c'mon.” He starts sliding his hand up her bare thigh, under her skirt.
“Yeah, no, I'm saying no,” she says sharply, pushing his hand away. He slips his other hand under her shirt and up to her breast; she's not wearing a bra, and he rubs his thumb over the hard peak of her nipple.
“I just need to do it once,” he explains, grinding his hard-on against her leg. “I just need to be able to say that I've done it.” He leans down and kisses her neck, pinning her more firmly with his weight.
“What the hell, Rick, get off me,” she says, pushing at his shoulder.
“Why not?” he says. “Please, what do you think is wrong with me, why won't you, please, Anna, please,” and that's when she slaps him hard across the face.
He reels back from the shock of the blow; then he scrambles off the bed and stumbles away and ends up with his hands and forehead pressed against the wall, eyes shut tight. They're both panting, and their harsh breathing is the only sound he can hear. Rick starts pounding his fists on the wall, and Anna makes a frightened noise behind him, and he forces himself to stop it, stop it, bottle everything back up.
When he turns around, she's as far away from him as she can get, standing by the opposite wall with the bed between them. She's watching him warily. She looks honestly scared of him.
“I just—” he starts. He clears his throat. “I thought if I shagged a girl, I could—and you were from out of town, so you were supposed to be the one, because you didn't know.”
“Know what?—no, Christ, don't tell me,” she says. “Get out of my house and don't come near me again.”
“Could you tell?” he asks. He has to know. “Did you think there was something wrong with me, is that why you wouldn't?”
“Sometimes a girl just doesn't want to have sex, Rick!” She's struggling not to cry; he watches her lose the battle and swipe furiously at her cheeks. “God, I can't believe I thought you were different. I really thought there was something more to you. And instead you're just like every guy I've ever met. Just like all the rest of them.”
He stares at her; he doesn't have anything to say. “Get out,” she says again, so he does. Anna does, too, though Rick doesn't know it. She buries her grandfather and graduates from college and lives through the war; by the time Rick is receiving his first neurotriptyline injections she has stopped blaming herself for the things men have done to her, and while he is sitting perfectly still in his bedroom, she is starring in a local production of Arcadia. Anna Livingston cuts her hair and wears brightly colored dresses and learns to love well, and she thinks of Roarton, when she thinks of Roarton, with an old scabbed-over pain and a hard-won flash of sympathy for that boy who was so scared that there was something wrong with him. She would be sorry to hear that he was dead.
Rick Macy goes home convinced that everything is broken beyond repair. And his dad does ask him about it, so he says she took some convincing, but he knew she wanted it and he kept at it until she gave in, and his dad buys him a pint to celebrate, and Rick is just like all the rest of them now.