Falling for Shakespeare by Erin Butler
Published by: Swoon Romance
Publication date: September 8th 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Romance, Young Adult
Katie thought she knew where her life was going. She was dating the captain of the football team, had a BFF for life, and everyone at school wanted to be her. But then her pregnant teen sister’s pregnancy changes all that. Everyone dumps her, including her friends and boyfriend.
Hey, Katie, welcome to life at the bottom of the high school food chain. This is how the other half lives.
Then there’s Nick. He’s a straight-A student and self-professed geek who’s had a thing for her since middle school. He needs a date for the winter formal, and Katie needs something to keep her busy. Nick’s plight becomes her personal pet project. She will help him get over his insecurities and get a date. Besides, she was popular once. She knows how to get dates.
But Nick has other plans. He’s going to use these “dating” lessons as a way to win Katie’s heart.
Erin Butler is lucky enough to have two jobs she truly loves. As a librarian, she gets to work with books all day long, and as an author, Erin uses her active imagination to write the kinds of books she loves to read. Young Adult and New Adult books are her favorites, but she especially fangirls over a sigh-worthy romance.
She lives in Central New York with her very understanding husband, a stepson, and doggie BFF, Maxie. Preferring to spend her time indoors reading or writing, she’ll only willingly go outside for chocolate and sunshine–in that order.
Erin is the author of BLOOD HEX, a YA paranormal novel, HOW WE LIVED, a contemporary NA novel, and the forthcoming YA contemporary romance title, FINDING MR. DARCY: HIGH SCHOOL EDITION. Find out more about her at www.erinbutlerbooks.com or @ErinButler on Twitter!
Book Excerpt Chapters 1-5:
A cry pierced the five-second silence that could’ve raised the hackles on a cute baby seal. If cute baby seals had hackles … I didn’t know. Pulling the worthless, spongy ear plugs from my ears, I jotted down a note on an empty page in the notebook I’d left open the night before. To Google: Do baby seals have hackles? What exactly are hackles anyways?
The lined notebook paper was hard to see in the dim light of my room, let alone the soft pencil marks I was scribbling. Hoping I’d be able to read the quick, exhausted lines in the morning when the world stopped punishing me, I pushed it aside and sat up.
Fluorescent teeth glared at me like a lighthouse beam from the corner of the room. As the peacefulness of sleep retreated further, a ghost of a face appeared around the mouth along with the rest of the lanky but fit, and relaxed yet somehow staged form. More bodies came into focus next to him with equally radiant, ten-minute, glow-in-the-dark smiles.
It was a poster of a boy-band I couldn’t even remember the name of anymore. Pretty sure I was in love with the boy in the middle once upon a time, but that had to have been at least two years ago. His name started with an H. Henry, maybe? No. Harry. No. Horny? Yes. That was it. Had to have been Horny.
The poster was a pre-niece poster. Pre-sixteen-and-pregnant episode going on right in my own house. The only thing I’d never have to write down in my musings notebook: Should I have a kid?
Second of all, my mom would probably disown me, but first of all—the biggest first ever—I would never find out if my mom was that heartless because I’d never let it get that far. I was never getting pregnant. Like never. Because what came from a pregnancy? Babies. Or hell spawn. Or schizoid minions, if you wanted to be exact about it.
Sure, babies could be cute at times. However, I was convinced my niece had horns that slid out of her blond curls in the middle of the night. Hanna had this thing where she liked to scream her head off at the most inappropriate times. Mostly sleeping times. Like right now. The clock confirmed it was only four thirty in the morning. Four thirty! Alicia wasn’t even home from work yet, which meant Mom was most likely trying to calm the baby down in the baby/Alicia’s room. My sister gave up all rights to her own room when she allowed herself to get knocked up.
I picked up a rolled sock at my feet and threw it at Horny’s happy-go-lucky face. I’d be happy too if I was rich and hung up in every adolescents’ bedroom for them to fawn over … and didn’t have a sister who couldn’t keep her legs closed … and could ace school without the necessary hours of sleep.
A shrill scream from the other room punctuated my thoughts with a gigantic exclamation point. My own house was a sideshow. No need to travel to Nowhere, Ohio to see oddities like the Biggest Ball of Yarn. A quick drive down Clamberry Lane would do.
Untangling my legs from the sheets, I stood and tiptoe-ran from the room. The soles of my bare feet allowed the cold from the hardwood floors to seep through my skin and ice its way from my chipped toe nail polish all the way to my mousy brown hair. There was no time to put slippers on even if I could remember where my puppy ones were, or remember where anything was lately. If Mom and I wanted any more sleep tonight, we had to put Hanna back to bed. Immediately.
The door to Alicia/Hanna’s room was slightly ajar. Before pushing it open, I took a huge breath. What was supposed to calm me did the exact opposite. The smell of baby powder only served as a reminder that I wouldn’t get a full night’s sleep until I left for college in another year and a half. Distracted, and now thoroughly annoyed, I pushed the bedroom door open.
Mom stood in the middle of the room doing this bopping up and down swinging thing she thought Hanna liked, never once realizing it hadn’t ever put her to sleep since day one. She turned, her wild, snaky hair knotted around her face, her eyes a mix between sadness, exhaustion, and relief. It was always the relief that bothered me.
“I got her,” I said.
She plopped the devil-crier into my arms. Hanna looked up for a brief second and I thought her wails might subside, but no, she was just gearing up for another ear-piercer. Why was it she always looked so good, even when she was ensuring I’d need hearing aids when I was sixty? Sure, she was red from screaming and snot was dripping from her nose, but it was always Mom and me who looked like we were dragged through thorny bushes and tossed into a manure patch to wilt. Hanna always looked adorable. Angelic. Her tousled curls perfectly framing her face.
I made soothing noises and leaned down to sniff her head. She smelled awesome too. Not fair. I wanted to be mad at her but it was just so dang hard when she was so perfect.
Mom put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “Thanks—”
I flinched away. “Just go to bed, Mom. Get some sleep.”
She dropped her head to the side. A flicker of wanting to say more shone in her eyes. I’d noticed the look more often lately. Thoughts were rising to the surface and threatening to spew out. They were practically on her lips, but I didn’t want to get into it. Not right now. Not ever.
“Go to bed.” I said, patting Hanna’s back. “You’re going to make her start crying again.”
Her eyes widened, more from hurt than surprise. Slowly, she turned and I watched numbly as she walked away, her plaid pajama pants twisted oddly around her waist. She must have been too tired to balk at my attitude. Though we did kind of have this unspoken agreement that when we were woken up in the wee hours of the morning, we were allowed to be moody.
Alicia and Hanna’s room matched the décor of the rest of the house, which could only be described as baby dump. It was like a parenting magazine threw up in every room. Except mine. Never mine. I barred anything baby from being in my room except the actual baby.
Several Sippy cups sat on the dresser and toys dotted every available horizontal surface, and some vertical ones too. They were everywhere. Just everywhere. Unbelievable places I wasn’t even sure Hanna could get at. A pink-tongued snake half slithered its way from behind the dresser mirror. Hanna was too small to put that there, she couldn’t even reach the top of the dresser let alone the dresser mirror.
The cooing noised I’d been making seemed to work. Her lungs stopped expelling bloody murder and turned to soft cries. But her tiny little fists? They still gripped my tank top and wouldn’t let go.
There was a time when I wanted to be just like my sister. Up until she got pregnant, I tried to follow in her high school footsteps. That seemed like eons ago now. Plush snake heads and baby alarm clocks were not my idea of a good time.
Apparently, the baby in my hands never got the message. When Alicia started working nights, I was the only one who could calm Hanna down. I basically took over all Mommy functions when my sister wasn’t around, which was at opposites with still trying to have a normal life and bringing my grades up.
Good grades and a decent SAT score were essential to me getting into college. Unfortunately, my pre-niece self had been more interested in boys and parties and best friends than thinking about college. I needed good grades so I could get out of here. This lack of sleep thing wasn’t helping, though.
I lifted Hanna from my shoulder to stare at her. Her eyelashes were wet and spiky. They fluttered and then, bam, she was out again.
Just call me the baby whisperer.
I laid her down, zombie-walked back to my room, and threw myself in bed again. A half hour later, Alicia came home. Her car thrummed in the driveway, her key clicked in the lock, and her exhausted feet stomped to her now-cohabitated bedroom. With her arrival, a heavy, acrid, black cloud fell over our house.
I was a miniscule white dot in a sea of dark, and, not for the first time, wished my sister would take her poor decisions and wasted dreams and leave.
The alarm clock clicked on at six a.m. and belted out the tune to that new soul-revolting pop song, I’ll love you for the rest of my life. It’s you or die, baby.
Gag. Me. Now. That wasn’t real life. Real life was the fact that my eyes were stinging and tired from being painted wide open, staring at the ceiling, and listening to Hanna get fussier and fussier in the room on the other side of Horny’s smile. Alicia would have a fit if neither one of us got Hannah from the room so she could sleep her night shift away.
When she’d first got the job, she’d tried to lobby for Hanna and I to share a room because we were on the same sleep schedule. Yeah. Nope. Hanna, okay, but Hanna sleeping in my room would require her bed, her bottles, her toys, and pretty soon my room would look like Alicia’s and that sure as hell wasn’t happening.
The baby powder smell hit me again when I walked into Alicia’s room. It used to smell like Tommy Girl perfume and nail polish remover. Hanna stood in her crib, her little fists outstretched, opening and closing toward me. I swung her onto my hip and didn’t bother being quiet as I shut the door. I was pretty sure Alicia mumbled something that sounded like “itch,” but I didn’t care. My being crabby toward her was yet another side effect of her being a teenage mother.
I changed Hanna out of her nighttime diaper, then watched as she clumsily walked around the living room looking for something to do. Finally, she pointed at the television and said, “Tee?”
I turned cartoons on and watched along with her as the writers and illustrators of today turned the perfectly awesome cartoons I’d grown up on into travesties of nature. No wonder why the youth of today were screwed up. What Hanna needed was a good old-fashioned cartoon, not this crap. She needed the antics of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, not this metaphorical nonsense.
When Mom got out of the shower, we switched places wordlessly. This had been our morning routine for about a year and it always felt like a personal victory when I actually made it to the curb on time, with clothes on the right way, my book bag in my hand, and a fake smile on my face to see Nic pull up. The thing about Nic though, what always started out as me faking a smile, turned into a real one when he was around.
Nic was a juxtaposition.
Hmm. Note to self to make note in notebook: Am I using the word juxtaposition correctly?
He dressed like he could never quite make out who he wanted to be and therefore ended up making himself new every day. He wore punk rock T-shirts under Einstein button-up sweaters. He wore loafers with jeans and Nikes with khakis. The only constant about him was his glasses.
As the door swung open, Nic held out a white Styrofoam cup. “Full many a glorious morning have I seen …”
I took it, smiling, and then after taking a long, wonderful sip, I said, “And blessed is thee who brings me coffee made from bean?”
His face screwed up and the glasses slipped a little down his nose. He had on a red and black plaid collared shirt over a Call of Duty T. He fixed his glasses, still squinting. “Made from bean?”
“…sss? Made from beanssss? Would that have made more sense?”
He cracked a smile. “You never make sense. Did they have coffee back in Shakespeare’s day?”
Of course I never made sense. He should try getting interrupted sleep day in and day out. Wait … night in and night out?
See? Proved my case.
I leaned my book bag against my shins and took another long sip of the steaming cup, squelching the need to say what I’d just thought out loud. It upset Nic when I said things like that. He didn’t get mad, only troubled, as if it made him sad to know I wasn’t happy.
I pointed to the cup in my hand. “Thank you. For this.”
He shrugged. “I know you need it to function.”
The word “now” was carelessly left off the end of his sentence. He knew I needed it to function now. I never needed it before. Didn’t even drink coffee pre-niece. I was good with OJ, or milk, or any of the other breakfast drinks. Just not now. I needed caffeine.
“I take it you did the Shakespeare reading we were supposed to do?” I asked. Stupid question. He always did. We were taking the same English lit course. Unfortunately for us though, we’d been put in different classes. It sucked. Big time. “What sonnet is that from?”
“One of the thirties I think. Did you read them?”
Shaking my head, I said, “No. Not yet. I’ve got study hall today first period, though. It’s on my agenda. Do you remember it? The sonnet?”
“The beginning,” he said. He paused and rubbed his chin. “It reminded me of you.”
It didn’t surprise me he’d remembered it. Nic had one of those carbon copy memories when it came to literature. Words just stuck inside him like fly paper. As he recited the poem, I pictured the words catching to the paper and hanging on for dear life. I wished the inside of me looked like the inside of Nic.
I brought out the notebook I’d slipped in the front pocket of my book bag earlier that morning and jotted down: Juxtaposition. Then, I wrote: 30’s. Poem with glorious morning.
I wanted to see what poem Nic thought was like me. Did he see me like I saw me? If he did, the sonnet would be written in a tornado of words and I doubted Shakespeare would have written something so hideous and disorganized.
Nic’s laughter penetrated my thoughts. “Are you even listening?”
I didn’t even have the decency to get embarrassed. He knew me too well.
“Sorry. Say it again?”
He took another breath and, like usual, the words flowed from him like a trickling stream. Though Nic was considered a science geek at our school, his true calling was something artistic. He could be an actor or a writer or something where emotions ruled and not the brain. He felt things more than normal people. At least, the way he said things was as if feelings were pouring from every crevice.
“Full many a glorious morning have I seen, flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye, kissing with golden face the meadows green, gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy; anon permit the basest clouds to ride.”
Right after glorious morning in my notebook, I wrote down: Anon permit the basest clouds to ride???
What the hell did that even mean? Mentally shrugging, I decided it didn’t really matter. It sounded beautiful coming from Nic.
Katie was an anomaly of nature. Always had been, but not in this way.
She used to shine like the dawning of a new sun over the depleted and war-torn dystopian societies I liked to read about in my sci-fi books. Now it was as if she were one of the down-trodden, the hindered, the fighting masses she’d reigned over. It gutted me to see the curve in her back from all the weight when she’d always been a pillar.
Craning my neck to get a better look, the quick slashes of her pen over the lined notebook paper were still impossible to see. She was biting down on her lip again, a look of concentration draining her face of all else. But then, just as quickly as she’d brought it out, she stuffed the notebook away.
I’d been wanting to ask her what she was always writing down, but figured she’d tell me if she wanted me to know. If it was five years ago, when we were still close friends, I would’ve just asked her. If it were two years ago, back in the dark days, I wouldn’t have even known she carried the notebook. Currently, our friendship level was teetering on the edge of skin deep. I wanted to be bone deep. Screw that, I wanted to be marrow deep.
Marrow deep? I liked that. I’d have to file that away.
She pinched me and I yelped. “Ow. What was that for?”
She half-smiled around the Styrofoam cup. “You were gone for a couple seconds.”
“A simple wave of your hand in front of my face would suffice, thank you.”
“You’re driving. I was worried. People do crazy things when they’re scared for their lives.”
The curve of her lips wilted almost as soon as it bloomed and a wistful look blew into her face as she looked out the car window. The leaves were changing early this year. It happened so quick I’d barely noticed, but now that more and more trees were showing off their colors, they were impossible to ignore.
Mrs. Barnes’ fire bush stood out like a road sign as I took a left onto Maple and headed toward the school. Funny how things changed. That bush had always been home base for any game we’d ever played at she-who-must-not-be-named’s house and now I used it as a visual to remind me to turn left to go to school. “You sure you’re going to be able to read all the assigned sonnets in study hall?”
She shook her head and a tiny smile returned to her face. “Don’t worry about me.”
The determination in her face said everything. Sometimes it still shocked me. I didn’t know how far behind she’d gotten herself before, but the fact that she was trying to make it up now awed me. She wasn’t always Miss Gotta Get Into College. She was more like Miss Carefree.
“I think Mr. Henkel is going to give us the big Shakespeare project today. Can’t wait.”
She tapped a finger to her lips. “If we get to decide what to do, you should perform a soliloquy or something. Or get a bunch of people in your class to act out a scene with you.”
My eyebrows crawled up my forehead. Did we somehow beam into another dimension? She knew the dork sign I carried. She helped put it there. No one in class would decide to work with me unless they were made to. “Are you insane? Did Hanna keep you up all night?”
She rolled her eyes. “She keeps me up every night, but no, I’m not insane. I think you’d be great.”
Because she suggested it, I thought about it briefly. Very briefly. Didn’t actors have to hide their true selves and take over someone else completely? Half the time I felt like the me knob was turned on full blast with no power-down button. It’d be impossible to pretend to be someone else.
Katie swirled her cup, peered into the little hole in the cover and frowned like she always did when she noticed how little coffee was left. If I could find a way, I’d make her a never ending cup.
We pulled into the school and as soon as I put the car into park, a knock came on my window. Katie jumped and I reached my hand over her. To protect her? To what? Didn’t know. When I saw who it was, I rolled my eyes and turned the ignition off.
My friend Jackson stared in at us. He had that look on his face that pissed me off. I started to open my door into him when he mouthed, you’re pathetic.
Drawing on Katie’s inclination that I should be an actor, I gave him a you-suck look and hoped the translation was clear. If his laugh and prompt exit were anything to go by, I nailed it.
Katie was smiling out the window, watching Jackson’s tall, lean frame walk away in a shirt that, like usual, looked like it was just a little too small for his long torso. “I think he’s funny.”
I shot her a look and she laughed.
“What? I mean, he’s a weird kind of funny, but aren’t we all?”
Considering she used to make fun of him on a daily basis for his videogame t-shirts, this was quite an upgrade. I studied her softening face. The hard lines I noticed this morning were already relaxing. At home, she was a tight, nervous ball of energy. Away, she could let herself relax. Her comment about Jackson was one-hundred percent proof of it. The way her laughs came more easily and more frequent. What I wouldn’t give for her to smile all the time. “I’d keep that praise of Jackson to yourself. He’d probably die if he heard you say that.”
She shot me a funny look this time. “No one cares what I think anymore.”
I was about to tell her how wrong she was when she did a double take out the window, her face paling.
Reese Barnes walked with Katie’s old friends toward the school. It had always been hard for me to place Katie in the same group as the mean girls. She never quite belonged. It wasn’t really her who called Jackson a “disillusioned gamer hack dork” in ninth grade. Or in eighth, when she taped a feminine pad to Roseanne Gurtle’s bookbag, it must have been her evil twin.
The not-too-distant memories hardened my insides. I hoped she never went back to that clique again.
Reese looked over. When she saw we stared back at her, she curled her lip into a snarl that would’ve wilted a butterfly in three-point-five seconds.
Internally, I shrunk back. I had years’ worth of experience of avoiding Reese. However, fearless Katie flipped her off.
And she thought Jackson wouldn’t die if she paid him a compliment. Who wouldn’t? No one thought of standing up to Reese Barnes and the Skeletal Crew, except Katie. Except the one who had stood with them.
Reese’s eyes flared and, like Cyclops, a red beam lasered through the space between them and hit Katie square in the chest. Katie put the empty coffee cup in the cup holder between us and brought up another unwavering middle finger, all the while a tiny smile crept over her face.
I guessed we weren’t on the subtlety train today.
Reese stopped and about-faced, her hand landing on her hip. Katie was up and out of the car before I could grab her. I’d done some slight research over the past year and her bitch barometer never made it past a point-five on days she had bad nights with Hanna. She usually handled the backlash of being ostracized from the popular clique pretty well by ignoring it, but last night must have been a doozy.
It was weird to see them like this. Enemies. Reese, the mirror image of Katie from two years ago. Katie, a bystander, like me. Back then, they would’ve been on the same side of the pathway, scorching down some guy who happened to like school, or D&D, or anything else that made people uncool. Katie belonged on the other side of that path. Not to be bitch cohorts again, but because she was born to be noticed. She couldn’t be noticed on this side of the path with me. Things just didn’t work like that.
They were already exchanging words, Reese flanked by her crew and an unflinching Katie staring them all down, when I got out of the car. The door banged shut and everybody jumped, even me. I guessed I’d shut it harder than I’d meant to. Reese tried her butterfly-kill stare but when I was next to Katie, I sometimes thought I might be able to stand up to them too. Like her force field automatically expanded to shield me as well as her.
Just like with Jackson, I shot Reese my new you-suck look. But instead of running away, she threw her head back and laughed. It was so Wizard of Oz witchy, but worked for her somehow. My new and obviously faked confidence waned until Katie’s hand grabbed my arm.
This cut Reese short as her bitch radar zeroed in on Katie’s delicate fingers. I knew what was going to come out of her mouth the second her eyes twinkled and her lips curled into a smirk.
“Congratulations, Katie. I’m so happy for you.”
It was the sickeningly sweet voice that threw Katie off for a second, stunning her. I’d swear in front of Congress Reese Barnes was bipolar.
“I think it’s great you two are finally together. It’s been a long time coming.” Reese looked around and saddled up to Katie like they were co-conspirators again. The semi-whisper that came from her was dual-edged. It was supposed to be a whisper, but the kind of whisper that she hoped everyone around us could hear. “I know how much you always talked about it before. Your deepest darkest secret.”
Hope surged inside my chest. Reese wasn’t someone you wanted to trust, but I’d take scraps from anyone.
The thickening crowd around us snickered and everyone switched their gazes between Katie and me that read, She wanted him? How is that possible?
Katie had fallen from the very top of the social ladder rung, but for someone like her, it was impossible to fall as far down as I was.
Reese winked at me. My stomach knotted. She used to do that when we were little, but back then, I was in on the joke. Now I was the joke.
“Careful, Nic,” she said, her voice louder now, “When you do your research about how to have sex, pay close attention to the section on protection. Katie comes from a fertile family and the last thing the school administrators need is another teenage pregnancy statistic to pass on to the state. Disgusting how they’re all from the same family too.”
Katie stepped forward but I clasped my hand around her fingers still circling my arm. Reese wasn’t in front of us still anyway. Once she delivered the final blow, she left. That was her MO. And a good one too. It ensured she always got the last word and, with Reese, it was most likely the last laugh too.
Katie’s eyes were closed when I looked at her. I uncurled her fingers from my arm and brought our hands down between us and squeezed her small fingers. Her eyes fluttered open and her lips curled into a half smile.
Squeezing her fingers again, I said, “Did she just insinuate I wouldn’t know how to have sex unless I looked it up first? She does realize I’m far smarter than her, right? My IQ is probably double.”
Her face broke into a smile that warmed my insides. The first real smile all day. If I had balls instead of brains, I’d pull her toward me and show everyone, including Reese’s crew, just what I really thought of Katie Ross. If she kissed me back, the scene would probably turn into X territory really quick because I’d combust inside.
But I couldn’t shut my brain off and my brain was always telling me what everyone else’s looks confirmed. It was impossible for Katie to feel the same way about me. It would bend the rules of physics and everyone knows physics can’t be bent. Facts were facts. And fact was, girls like Katie didn’t like guys like me. Guys like me were quarantined to the friend zone.
Right on cue, Katie said, “You’re a good friend.”
And though I smiled and nodded, deep, deep down, I wanted to maim the person who invented the word friend. That guy was probably never stuck in the friend zone with someone for years. I wanted outside the zone. I wanted to be so far outside the zone I couldn’t see the property line.
Katie was quiet as we walked toward the front entrance to the school. Somewhere between the showdown and here, she’d dropped my hand, and it was currently wallowing in the empty space between us.
When we walked through the double doors, it was like any other day. Reese and Jer, Katie’s ex-boyfriend, made out near the hallway that led into the cafeteria. The rest of the Skeletal Crew left the first lunch table one-by-one on the arms of guys in letter jackets. Soon, most everyone was cleared from the hallway except for the group around Jackson’s locker. My group.
Katie was an implant to the group since Reese dumped her at the beginning of last year. She still didn’t quite fit in fully, but I got the sense it didn’t bother her that much.
As we walked toward them, Katie said, “Do you have any Shakespeare revenge quotes in your arsenal?”
I waved to Jackson who’d just spotted us. “I don’t know, but it’d probably come from Hamlet. He’s one pissed off character.”
Thoughts seemingly somewhere else, she pulled on my sleeve before we reached my friends. “I’m going to go to the computer lab before homeroom. I’ll see you later?”
I couldn’t keep myself from frowning. “Yeah. Yeah, sure. See you later.”
She pulled her book bag up higher on her shoulder and walked away.
When I turned back, Jackson was smirking. My brain started firing scenarios to me all at once and not one of them left me feeling easy. Jackson would say something about Katie. I would get pissed off. It wouldn’t end well.
Instead of walking up to them, I raised a hand and said, “Check you guys later,” then walked in the opposite direction Katie had gone.
The hallway was thinning out, which meant I had very little time to make it to Mr. Henkel’s class. Only my favorite class of the entire day. Mr. Henkel was one of those weird teachers that actually made school fun, so I booked it down the hallway. The bell rang just as I stepped over the threshold. Mr. Henkel looked up from his desk, smiled, and winked at me.
I took a seat in the front row opposite a life-sized cutout of our literary hero for October. The cutout had one of those quote bubbles floating from his mouth that said, “To be or not to be …”
We’d started Shakespeare last week. Mr. Henkel was a big believer in learning about the person behind the stories. He’d said, “Authors put so much of their personal lives into their prose, and to truly understand their work, readers must first understand them.” Last week, we’d taken a Google Earth visit to Stratford-Upon-Avon and watched a 1980’s made-for-TV video about the life of the Bard. Today, we’d get instructions on the main project due at the end of the month. I knew that because Nic already gave me a heads up at lunch. Like clockwork, Mr. Henkel walked out from behind his desk and started handing out a packet of paper to each student.
“As you can see, the project will be due—”
The door to the classroom creaked open like an insufferable groan and my eyes immediately darted to the side of the room and fell on him. Jer Davis. If I hadn’t loved this class so much, I would’ve asked to transfer out of it the first day of school. My heart simultaneously sped up and lurched, making for this weird stuttering thing going on in my chest. I hated the way he still made me react. It was half disgust, half … memories.
Mr. Henkel leaned back on his desk and crossed his arms, the packets in his hand brushing his shoulder. “Mr. Davis. How nice of you to make it.”
I looked down and tried to rub out a stray pen mark on my desk.
“Sorry, Mr. Henkel. I got caught up.” No doubt his face matched the cockiness in his voice. He didn’t always sound like that.
A boy in the back snickered. “Yeah, caught up in Reese.”
I tried to act as if a shot of venom didn’t just rocket through my body, but when I saw him sit next to me out of the corner of my eye, I sighed. It was a heavy sigh filled with revulsion and disgust because I was completely filled with revulsion and disgust.
“Sorry, Princess,” he whispered. “Only available seat.”
I tapped my middle finger against my cheek, showing Jer what I really thought of him being late so he had to take the only available seat next to me.
Jeez. Three flip-offs in one day. That wasn’t a good sign. I’d go as far as to say this day was unrecoverable. Except, I had found out this morning during my trip to the computer lab that I was using the word juxtaposition correctly. Bring it on SAT’s. I was so ready.
Jer chuckled at my hand gesture and leaned back in his chair with all the indifference of … well, all the indifference of someone who knew I didn’t matter anymore.
Freshman year, the kid worshipped me. He’d just transferred in and was so cute in this adorably dorky way. No, he didn’t dress like Nic or anything like that, but he was so unbelievably shy. If that kid from two years ago was sitting right next to him now, they would look nothing alike. They probably wouldn’t even recognize each other in themselves. Reese had made sure of that. And me, too. I’d helped. As unbelievable as it was to me now, I’d helped him be this aloof asshole of a guy.
Mr. Henkel continued handing out packets. “As I was saying class, your projects are due at the end of the month. The rest of the class time is for you to get with your partner, which I’ve arranged for you all at the back of the packet, and settle on a topic.”
I turned the packet over already not liking the idea of assigned partners. One of Jer’s friends was in this class and if Mr. Henkel had any humanity, he’d pair me with him. My mouth dropped at the name scribbled on the back.
I looked over at Jerome Davis who was still reading the first page and then over to Mr. Henkel.
As if sensing what I was about to ask, Mr. Henkel said, “No, you cannot switch partners.”
I waited for Jer to look, to acknowledge me, to read faster than at a fourth grade level.
Finally, he flipped his packet over. The pencil he’d been bouncing off the desk ceased moving. He shut his eyes and shook his head slowly from side-to-side. When he finally looked over, he grinned. “Katie.”
I briefly snuck a glance at Mr. Henkel and contemplated asking if he’d reconsider his whole not-switching-partner ruling, but Jer was already moving his desk closer to mine.
I read through the instructions again, keeping my head down in an attempt to put off talking to him for as long as possible. The directions stated we were to pick one of Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets and research why Shakespeare might have wrote it, how it related to our lives, along with an analysis of the actual piece of literature. We knew the drill. This was the same as it had been when we did Ernest Hemingway in September.
Jer broke the silence. “So, what are you thinking? Plays or sonnets? Sonnets?”
Sonnets would be tough. They were so personal. Seeing as how my ex-boyfriend, who was currently dating my ex-best friend, was now my partner, I really didn’t feel like relating a sonnet to my personal life. “I think we should do a play.”
“Okay …” Exasperation laced his voice.
I squeezed my eyes shut and tried not to imagine stabbing him with my pen. “Are you sure that’s okay. We can do sonnets—”
“No. Play’s fine.” He rolled his eyes. “Which one?”
I scanned down the list Mr. Henkel had typed out for us. “I’m thinking Macbeth. I do love a good ‘ol revenge plot.”
His eyes leveled on me. “You do know Macbeth gets it in the end, right?”
I sneered his way. “Oh, and which play do you want to do? Romeo and Juliet because you’re so in love?” I batted my eyes for good measure.
Red blotches crept up Jer’s neck. “Actually, how about Taming of the Shrew? You know a thing or two about being a grumpy, sarcastic bitch.”
This was the most we’d spoken in two years. It wasn’t going well at all. “Not sure grumpy, sarcastic bitch would be Webster’s definition of the word shrew but hmm, Taming of the Shrew?” I pretended to think about it. Jer Davis was not about to get the best of me again. No way. “Fantastic idea. Let’s do it.”
He sighed, almost as if he’d regretted what he’d said. “We don’t have to.”
I ignored him and brought out a fresh piece of paper. “We’re obviously going to have to work on this outside of school. You’re still in football, right?”
Admittedly, this was petty of me. Jer had been playing football since Peewee and I’d have to be a complete idiot, blind, and deaf to not know Jer was still in football. The Monday morning announcements were a highlight reel in his honor.
He just stared, so I shrugged. “What time do you get out?”
He stared me down harder.
“Listen, I don’t keep up with your schedule anymore. Are you going to help me out a little bit or do I have to ask Coach when you’ll be free?”
His grip tightened around his pen and I wondered if he was having the same stabby thoughts I had. Not that he’d have a reason to. I was being as nice as could be expected. “About six every night. Unless we have a game Friday.”
I pulled out my agenda and flipped to the calendar page.
He peered over my shoulder. “You’re in Volleyball again, right?”
I pointed out the places on the calendar where, in big block letters, it said, Home 4:30. Or Away 6:00.
“You can use your words, you know.”
“Yes, I am in volleyball again. It looks like the best time for us to get together is Mondays and Wednesdays after six. Sound good to you?”
He nodded and fake smiled. “Looking forward to it.”
Wonderful. Sarcasm. Pretty sure I taught him and his boy band perfect teeth that, too.
I’d just written Marrow Deep on the top of a blank, inconspicuous, white piece of unlined paper when Jackson sat next to me. My whole body sighed. I’d been working on the poem all day in my head and that fresh piece of paper begged me to fill it with the perfect words. Instead, I pretended I’d been taking notes and stuffed the paper inside my spiral notebook before Jackson noticed. “Yeah?”
The corners of his lips tipped up in that casual way he always did things. Jackson was a total live-in-the-moment type of person. He was the guy that would run into the mayhem of war in Call of Duty and yell something cheesy like, “YOLO.”
“Dude, you’ve been avoiding me all day.”
I shuffled papers haphazardly around the small library table where we sat. It was best not to look him directly in the eyes. He didn’t get that I wasn’t like him. Half the time I didn’t think he truly understood that we were the outsiders, not everybody else. “That’s because you’ve been looking at me like that all day,” I said.
“It’s not just me. Everyone can see it. It’s practically blasting off you all the time. Just ask Katie out already. At least then you’ll know where you stand.”
Totally not like me. He was from Mars, I was from Saturn.
I wished he didn’t know anything about my feelings for Katie. One of these days, he’d probably walk into the lunchroom, get on top of a table, and yell it at the top of his lungs. Besides, I was quite content to never know what Katie thought of me. If that friend word were to show up, I’d be wishing I had Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, mustering as much nonchalance as I could.
The lie filled me with an ugly, prickly sensation. Jackson and his group had pretty much kept me afloat in middle school after Katie and Reese dropped me for telling on them for shoplifting. It was Jackson’s group that made sure I didn’t turn into a creepy loner kid. They’d asked me to sit at their lunch table when no one had wanted anything to do with the “narc”. Then, lunch table friends had turned into hanging out after school. I was thrilled they befriended me. Jackson turned out to be a great friend. He was my best friend so lying to him didn’t feel right.
But this feeling for Katie was bigger than that. I could barely even admit my feelings to myself without turning right around and trying to squash any hope. I didn’t need Jackson filling my head with ideas. And possibilities. It was good to have dreams, but they also meant you would never be normal.
Me? I was practically pegged as average at birth. I came when I was supposed to, was a normal weight, a normal height, nothing extraordinary about me.
I scanned the library and noticed no less than three girls. The three girls were cute and they were at a library so their intelligence levels were most likely higher than most. Why couldn’t I like them? Someone attainable, someone who might look past the “dork” part of me?
I shook my head. By liking Katie, I’d doomed myself to knowing the hurt that came when you could never accomplish what you wanted deep down inside—marrow deep.
That was why I didn’t want to talk about Katie with Jackson. That was why I never really wanted to talk to myself about Katie. It would only suck more when the eventual heart sickness began. She’d reject me and she’d probably even do it nicely, which would make it suck all that much more. Then I couldn’t even be pissed off at her for it. I’d probably feel bad that she felt bad for letting me down.
Jackson peeked down at my notebook and then back up at me. His eyes lost the earlier teasing. “You keep saying you don’t know what I’m talking about and that’s fine. Warning, though. If you keep saying it long enough, someone else will figure out what I’m talking about and will actually act on it.”
Cringing, I shuffled my papers together again. I tried to cover it up, but his words were like a blow to my stomach. Could I stand to see Katie with anyone else? I’d seen her with Jer of course, but that was a little different. We weren’t friends then.
Jackson clapped me on the back. “Think about it, Nic. I’m only trying to look out for you.”
When Jer and Katie were together, it was as if I were watching a movie. They were just some actors acting out the typical jock gets the cheerleader romantic comedy flick. He’d make the winning touchdown, she’d throw her pom-pom’d arms around him, and I watched from the bleachers. As one of Katie’s only friends, I’d be in the movie now. I’d be the third wheel and the third wheel wasn’t a position I wanted at all.
I wanted the lead.
Jackson left and I was finally left with paper and my own thoughts. Slipping the poem I’d been working on out of my notebook, I switched around the last two lines to two new perfect lines, signed it Romeo—totally corny, I know—and enclosed it in an envelope.
This time, on my way out of the library, I dropped it in the book return slot and walked away casually.
“Excuse me, Mr. Henkel?”
Reese walked in dressed in angel wings alongside Trish, my replacement, who dressed in the exact same outfit. It made me sick to think I used to do the same stuff. For all the talk we always did about being ourselves and ragging on others when we thought they were being joiners or followers, we were the biggest hypocrites.
Since middle school, Reese and I had dressed in the same Halloween costume. We were both witches, or vampires, or sexy cowgirls (only when we got a little older). Whatever it was, we were it together. And I’m not just talking about being the same thing, we wore the exact same costume. We were clones of each other. Actually, I was more like her clone. She said, “Let’s be Indian princesses” and I said, “Sure.”
She strutted up to Mr. Henkel’s desk, her translucent, sparkling white wings flowing behind her. “The Halloween grams are here.”
“Oh joy.” He sat at his desk in front of the class and clasped his hands behind his head. “I do so enjoy when education is interrupted for frivolity.”
He waved them forward but there was such disdain in his gesture I had to hide the smile that slipped onto my face by burying my head in my notes. I’d tried to start reading Taming of the Shrew yesterday when I got home from school but it was difficult. Even with the little notes in the margins of the textbook, it was hard to grasp every little nuance of the prose. I knew I’d have to ask Nic for help, which I hated doing.
Nic was a true Einstein, while I was the dumb assistant. Sure, he never acted put out when I asked him, but I hated showing my weakness, even if it was just in front of him. If I could understand things like him, I wouldn’t need his help. Not for the first time, I wished I was as smart as Nic or Jackson. Basically anyone in their group. I was surprised they’d even let me in, considering I had to be the dumbest member.
I tried to keep my head down, but every time one of Reese or Trish’s angel wings fluttered in my peripheral, I couldn’t help but get a spark of hope. There once was a time when I expected to get a handful of grams. Not so much anymore. It was stupid to think anyone would send me one.
Reese and Trish glided past me again, dropping off notes attached to big huge lips on desks in the aisle next to mine. Reese had saved Jer for last and made a big show of giving him his lips. I didn’t see how many grams he got but it must have been a good haul because she whispered, “I’m only allowing you to have these because you know, along with everybody else, that you’re mine.”
Puke, I thought. However, there was an unexpected twist in my stomach. Was it because Reese and Jer were together or because there weren’t any more lips in their baskets for me?
I was betting on the lips.
They were almost to the door, Mr. Henkel just beginning to stand, when Reese turned around. “Duh. I almost forgot.” She reached into the bottom of her pearlescent basket, her fist curling around something, and then sprinkled chunks of paper all over my desk. “This got ruined but it was for you.”
Heat pricked behind my eyes as I stared down at the piles of white. I blinked a few times, tamping the threat of tears of pain and anger that wanted to spring out. I wouldn’t let Reese get the best of me.
I looked away from the white confetti decorating my desk and stared at Reese. She was looking down at me with her sickeningly sweet smile. How could I ever have been friends with this horrible person?
I stood, my legs shaking but willed my hand steady as I held it out. “My lips?”
Her own lips curled into a snarl. “It turned out we didn’t have enough for everybody so you didn’t get one. More people got grams than we thought.”
I smiled right back. “Oh, well, since Jer got so many I’m sure he won’t mind sharing.”
I snatched a set of lips from his desk and ripped the note attached to it off. “You don’t mind, do you?” I asked, trying to mirror Reese’s smile as best I could.
Jer looked amused. Reese looked anything but. I could practically feel the heat coming radiating from her.
“Mr. Henkel,” she hissed.
“Miss Ross,” Mr. Henkel sighed. “Please give Mr. Davis back his lips, and Miss Barnes, might I suggest you keep better track of the grams when Christmas comes around?”
Her body relaxed and the perfect façade she always wore shone through again. “Oh, of course, Mr. Henkel. It won’t happen again.”
After tossing Jer back his lips, I looked down at the ripped chunks of my gram. There were words on most of the pieces. I saw “mask” and “inside” and a big cursive “R”, but that’s all I could take. Someone had actually written me something but it was all ruined now. All ruined because of Reese. I swept the pieces onto my page of notes, walked to the front of the room, and let them fall in the trash.
I stared at the clock the rest of class and was the first one out when the bell rang, Jer following right behind me. “Katie.”
I waved him away. “Not right now.”
He grabbed my shoulder. “You know how she is.”
That was the excuse I always used for her. She’d say something mean about my mom and I’d shrug it off.
That’s just how she is.
It was a justification for her behavior. An explanation for why I was still friends with her. If she couldn’t be a different kind of person, why would I try and make her be? If that was just how she was, I couldn’t get mad at her for it. If that was just how she acted, I had to live with it because she was my best friend.
It was all bullshit. I knew that now.
I spun on Jer, my hands curling into fists around my book bag. “I can’t believe you’re dating that bitch. What happened to you?”
He frowned and looked at the ugly lockers. A moment or two passed and then he pulled his hand from my shoulder. Without another word, he turned and walked away.
Well, wasn’t that par for the course? That was exactly what he did when he found out Alicia was pregnant, just on a smaller scale.
Reese was a bitch and Jer was a coward. Nothing had changed. Absolutely nothing.
I closed my eyes and let the warmth of Nic’s voice seep inside me. I had no right to even be calmed by his voice. I was a hypocrite. Had been a hypocrite. It was still a wonder he’d even decided to start talking to me again. Seeing Reese in all her glory always made me ache for the hurt I’d caused others.
I shuffled my feet around to face him.
“Hey? You okay?” he asked.
I shook my head slowly, still not meeting his eyes.
“What is it?”
His voice trembled. I looked up, expecting he’d seen Jer and me talking. Expecting he knew Jer had upset me. Expecting he was so angry his voice trembled because of it. Instead, his face was pale and ashen.
He looked as if his dog just died.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, reaching for his hand but noticing they were both occupied with text books, I brought it back down to my side. “You okay?”
His face pinched. “You first.”
“It was Jer and Reese,” I said, needing to erase the weird look on his face. “They’re being themselves.”
His eyes closed and he was still, a frozen replica of himself.
“Reese said I got a Halloween gram today but it got ruined. She dropped little pieces of white paper all over my desk. I couldn’t read a thing. And I didn’t get any lips.”
His eyes flew open. “She tore up your gram?”
I nodded. Then, remembering how good I’d felt for a split second only to have it ripped apart and scattered all over my desk, pricks of tears returned to my eyes.
“Hey,” Nic said, switching his textbooks to one hand and grabbing my hand with his other. “Don’t do that. I’ll buy you another one.”
I looked away, blinking again. “What good would it do? She’d just rip it up anyway and I’ll never know who the original one was from.”
Nic gazed at me as the warning bell rang over our heads. When it stopped, he steered me away from the classroom. “Come on.”
He was quiet as we walked toward gym. Instead of taking a right down the gym hallway though, he led me right out the front entrance, his fingers still wrapped around mine.
I couldn’t help but smile. “What are you doing, Nic?”
“I’m getting you a replacement gram. Something better. And besides, it’s just gym. No one has ever not gotten into college just because they skipped gym class once.”
That was probably true. If Nic said it, it was most definitely true.
When we got to his car, I pulled back on his hand and he stopped by the passenger door. I swallowed, there were all sorts of words bubbling to the surface but none of them seemed appropriate. Nic was really great to me. Not only was he the smartest person I knew, he was also the most kind-hearted, which sounded weird when I was talking about a seventeen-year old guy who enjoyed blowing people up in video games and reading sci-fi stories. But he also read poetry and was a good friend. Better than I could ever hope to be.
When I’d called Nic a juxtaposition, I was right. Juxtaposition is the state of being side-by-side, especially for comparison purposes. To me, Nic always needed contrasting. There were always two parts of him to compare. There was the shy, geeky guy and the almost confident guy.
Nic licked his lips and stared down into my eyes. I swallowed again, my throat suddenly dry. This was the other part I’d started to notice about him recently. This serious, secretive part that made my skin tingle a little.
He stepped back to lean against the car, drawing me with him. When the anti-theft alarm blared all around us, I jumped back, my legs hitting the side of the car next to us. Nic spun, grabbed the keys from his pockets, and started pushing buttons on the remote key chain as fast as he could until the alarm stopped.
My heart beat like mad through my shirt. Nic slowly turned and after seeing the horrified look on his face, I started to laugh. Hysterically. His eyes narrowed at first but then they softened and a smile filled his face.
He glanced toward the school and then opened the passenger door for me. I got in, still chuckling my butt off while Nic walked around the front of the car.
When he sat, he said, “As you can tell, this is the first time I’ve tried to skip. I could never be a secret agent.”
“Yeah, I don’t think they usually announce their whereabouts when they’re trying to be sneaky.”
“Next time we try to skip, I’ll let you handle the details.”
Ouch. That stung. Not that Nic had meant it as a dig to how I used to be, but it still stung knowing I was seen that way, no matter how true it was.
He started the car and pulled out of the school parking lot with his normal calm demeanor, not realizing all he did was bring me back to the past and made me see how different from him I was.
Nic was good. I was striving to be, but I had a hell of a lot of making up to do.
I’d come to the conclusion on the short trek to the mall that I’d always be a dork. I was one of those too-stupid-to-live characters in books, who instead of making the obvious correct choice, made the worst decision possible just so the story could continue on.
I almost kissed Katie.
Shit. What was I thinking? I was two seconds away from pulling her to me when the stupid car alarm went off, which was another total dork move. I’d never been so pissed at technology in my life. Yet, it had saved me from copious amounts of embarrassment. She probably would’ve laughed at me. Or worse, felt bad for me and my stupid unreciprocated feelings.
Katie was quiet on the drive across town. I could tell she was thinking of Reese and Jer. Or maybe even Alicia and Hanna. It was something that made her forehead wrinkle. I didn’t ask her about it. As much as Katie used to idolize her sister, she hated her now. One mistake made Katie question everything, made her life as she knew it crumble, and it wasn’t even her mistake. That was a hard pill to swallow.
I didn’t need to complicate her life by buying her grams and writing her love poems, and mentally dreaming about the feel of her lips on mine. I was glad Reese decided to ruin Katie’s gram I’d bought her. It’d been an impulsive move. She wouldn’t have exactly known it was from me but she probably could’ve figured it out. I’d left some subtle hints in the few lines I’d scribbled down.
Oh well, it was all for the best.
I parked outside the mall entrance nearest to Gertrude Hawk and waited until Katie made the first move. Eventually, her gaze lifted out the window. “What’re we doing here?”
“I told you I was buying you another gram.”
The upturn of her lips made all my wallowing on the way here worth it. “You don’t have to.”
“I know, but you deserve to have one.”
She stared down at her hands. “I’ll never know who the original one was from.”
“Katie. I …” I stopped myself from the word-vomit that was about to explode from my mouth. I could never control myself around her. She made my guard fall. She made all my thinking cells turn off and go on feel.
“Reese is such a bitch,” she said. “Always was a bitch too. I don’t know how I stayed friends with her for so long. She deserves to be humiliated in front of everybody, just like she humiliates others. Like you and me. And half the stupid school. She should really know what it feels like.”
The sharpness of her words startled me. Not that I didn’t entirely agree with her, but I always took the passive approach. Ignore Reese and she’ll go away. Eventually. For instance, I’d go off to college and she’d become a waitress at the local diner. Then, when I graduated, I’d be one hell of an awesome physicist and she’d still have her crappy little job at the diner.
“I see that look on your face, Nic, but I’m serious. What goes around comes around.”
I lifted my gaze to hers. The steely look in her eyes troubled me for a reason I couldn’t pin down exactly. I didn’t want her to go through any more hurt, but that wasn’t all of it. There was something more. “I thought you handled yourself pretty well the other day, Miss Double Barrel,” I said, bringing up my two middle fingers and pretending they were guns.
She shook her head and smiled. “Maybe that’s just the beginning.”
A cold smile disfigured Katie’s face. It was worse than the fake smile and worse even than no smile at all.
“Before you start plotting everyone’s demise, can we please go get some chocolate? You weren’t the only one who didn’t get a gram today.”
The forced, teasing smile on my face fell as I saw the look on Katie’s. Her coldness vanished and sympathy filled its place. “I’m sorry, Nic. You deserve a gram more than I do. I’ll buy, okay?”
I shook my head. “No way. I’m buying.”
We argued back and forth a couple times but she agreed to my buying the chocolate. Eventually.
A day later, I was lying on my bed, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew opened in front of me, when there was a knock on my bedroom door.
I flipped another page I couldn’t quite understand. I needed a Shakespeare translator and stat. “Yeah, Mom,” I said, grumbling. “Be right there.”
The knock sounded again.
Jeez, how did they ever expect me to get good grades when they were constantly interrupting me to watch Hanna? I groaned and ignored it.
The knock came again.
I needled my fist into my eyes. “Mom, I know. I’m just finishing up some work.”
The door started to inch open and I let the book fall closed, defeated for now. “What?” I snapped.
Nic came in with his hands lifted in the air. “Unarmed,” he said.
I suddenly felt lighter. “What are you doing here?”
He waved. “You said you were doing work. I had to see it for my own eyes.”
I sat up and rearranged my tank top. “You know I do work.”
“This is a Saturday. Even I try not to do work on a Saturday.”
“Right.” I rolled my eyes. “You’re always doing work. You probably spend most of your Saturdays pouring over books and doing research.”
I should be a lot more like him. If my brain worked like his, I would be.
He frowned and he seemed troubled, his eyes dark and forehead wrinkled.
“What? I just mean you’re a good student. I should try to be more like you.”
He shook his head. “I’m more than a good student, you know. You used to think I was pretty fun to hang around with.”
I smiled, remembering his attempt at cutting class the other day. “I know you’re not good at sneaking around, but I still think you’re fun anyways.”
He sat next to me. “Not just then. I’m talking about when we were younger. Don’t you remember when we used to ride our bikes all day? Or spend the day in Reese’s pool until our fingers were old and wrinkly?”
I smiled at the memories. The good ones when we were really young and Reese and I hadn’t got caught up in the popularity contest of school yet. “We had some good times.”
A smile spread across his face. “I’m glad to hear that, because I’m taking you out today.”
I folded my legs underneath me on the bed. “What?”
“I’m taking you out. Already talked to your mom. She’s going to watch Hanna while Alicia’s working an extra shift so you and I can go hang out.”
I stood. “Really?”
He held up a finger. “On one condition. We don’t talk about school. We just hang out. No Shakespeare project. No Reese. Nothing.”
“I think I can handle that.” Instead of thanking Nic, I pulled him from the bed, pushed him out the door and shut it behind him. “One second,” I called.
Finally, a weekend where I didn’t have to watch Hanna. A weekend where my life wouldn’t totally suck. I needed to dress for the occasion.
Nic’s rumble of laughter from the other side of the door warmed me. It was so familiar.
I threw a cute zippered hoodie over my tank top and changed my jeans. When I walked out to the living room, Nic was tossing Hanna into the air. She squealed and laughed so hard a smile immediately took control of my face.
I hid behind Nic and popped up. “Gotcha!”
She squealed louder. “Kay, Kay!”
Nic handed her to me. I set her down on the couch and tickled her. “I’m going to get you, Princess.”
“Kay Kay siwy.”
I picked her up, kissed her on the cheek, and handed her off to my mom. Then, for good measure, I kissed my mom on the cheek, too. “See you later.”
“Whoa. Is that you? I haven’t seen you this excited in a long time. I guess we should get you out more often.”
I grabbed Nic’s hand and led him out the front door before I got involved in a feelings look again. “So, what are we doing today? Going to the library, the museum, the historical foundation?”
Nic stopped me. “You really think I’m just a dork, don’t you?”
I’d planned to make a joke but the hurt look on his face squashed that idea. “I’m only joking.”
His eyes pierced mine. “I don’t know what’s wrong with trying to do well in school. To make something of myself. So what? I do homework. So what? I prefer to get 90’s rather than 70’s. Sue me.”
“Hey.” I grabbed his arm to stop him from turning away. “I’m sorry.”
He pushed his glasses back up on his nose. “I just don’t know why people only see me as this studious person. I like to have fun too.”
I’d hit a nerve. If I’d known it bothered him, I never would’ve teased him about it. “I thought you liked to be seen as the studious person.”
He cocked his head. “Not only. When you were little miss popular, did you only like to be seen as a bitch?”
I recoiled. “Um. Ouch.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m just saying that wasn’t who you were. Not entirely. And I’m not just the smart kid in the front of the classroom. Or the guy that can kick your ass in Black Ops.”
I wanted to make a smartass comment on how he couldn’t kick my ass in Black Ops but it wasn’t the time. I knew how it felt to be labeled. “No. I know. You’re right, Nic. I know you’re much more than just a goody-goody teacher’s pet.”
He opened the car door for me and I got in. When he got in on the other side, he said, “I actually don’t like to be the teacher’s pet. It’s kind of weird to have some old person act like you’re their best friend. If I’m their best friend, they’ve got more problems than me.”
“Like Mr. Nicholson. You and him are like this.” I laughed and crossed my fingers to show him how tight they were.
“He’s a bit creepy.”
“If he ever invites you to his house for dinner, don’t go. He’s probably got this massive sex slave chamber in his basement.”
Nic’s lip curled upward, half amusement, half horror. “Wrong. You’re just … wrong. And that is completely disgusting, I can’t even focus right now.”
Despite shaking his head every five seconds or so, Nic started the car and pulled out onto the road. We drove for a while, neither one of us talking, until his cell phone on the center console buzzed.
I looked down. “It’s Jackson.”
“Just leave it. I’ll check it when we get there.”
I was already picking it up and reading the text out loud to him. “You have zero chance if you don’t even try bro.” I looked at Nic and then back down at the phone. “Ugh, Jackson says bro? Tell him to please stop saying that stupid word.”
He grabbed the phone from my hands. “Jesus, Katie. I said I’d check it when we got there.”
“Okay … sorry. Just trying to help.”
He laid his head back against the seat rest and sighed. “It’s not you. It’s Jackson. He’s been bothering me about something. Forget I said anything.”
“What’s he talking about?”
Nic rubbed his temple and sighed. A few moments of silence went by before he finally answered. “It’s just some scholarship I might go for. That’s all.”
“Well, Jackson’s right. You do have zero chance if you don’t even try.
A couple minutes later, we pulled in to Putt-Putt Pumpernickel’s. I smiled at Nic. “We’re going to play mini-golf? That’s awesome.”
“I remember you used to love to come here when we were younger.”
“I was the reigning champ too. Be prepared to get your ass kicked, Nicolai. Just sayin’.”
He smirked. “Just sayin’? People still say that?”
I pushed the door open. “No reason to be a sore loser already. I haven’t had a chance to beat you yet.”
I didn’t beat him. Not by a long shot. He kicked my ass. And he wouldn’t let it go either. I sat on the picnic table, chocolate ice cream he’d just bought me in my hand, and pouted.
“Remember hole eleven when you went into the water? That was classic.”
“Oh, and fourteen when you completely missed our green and hit it onto the other one and hit that old dude’s ball. I thought he was going to smack you with his cane.”
I reached out with my cone and stamped some chocolate on the end of his nose.
His eyes widened. Shock rippled off him, leaving him mute.
I laughed. I not only laughed, I doubled over with laughter. The look on his face was like I just kicked his puppy or something.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a massive dairy mess coming at me. I turned my head just in time but he got my cheek with his chocolate and vanilla twist.
“Nic!” I grabbed a napkin and wiped at my face.
“That’s what you get for being a sore loser.”
“You were being a sore winner.”
He wiped at his nose but he only succeeded in smearing the chocolate.
“Here. Let me get it.” I grabbed a fresh napkin off the picnic table and reached out.
He backed away. “I can do it.”
I rolled my eyes. “You can’t see it, Nic. I can, so let me do it.”
He sagged back on the bench and shut his eyes.
I took the napkin and wiped at his nose. He looked so stoic sitting there, his glasses pushed up on his nose, his eyes closed, his face unpinched and unworried. I took a few seconds to stare at him.
His eyes opened and then rounded. “Why are you staring at me like that? Did you leave some on my face?”
“No, I got it. It’s all gone. I was just thinking how great you are to bring me out here. Thank you. I needed this mini-vacation. It means a lot to me.”
He took a strand of my hair and pulled it away from my face. I could see from the corner of my eye that it had ice cream on it. He took a napkin and threaded the hair through its folds before pushing it back around my ear.
My face heated and I didn’t quite know why. “Thanks.”
He studied me for a moment, his stare roaming all over my face. “You’re so pretty, Katie.”
I smiled. “I was kind of just thinking the same about you.”
He leaned closer. I watched as his lips moved forward and was sure he was about to say something smartass. Not wanting him to ruin the moment, I said the first thing that came to mind. Something unselfish, something to help him because he was always helping me. “I could teach you, you know.”
His eyebrow lifted, eyes full of confusion. “What do you mean?”
I wanted to take it back but then again, I kind of didn’t. Nic looked smug as if I wouldn’t be able to teach him anything. “I don’t know. I could help you get a girlfriend. I know what girls like. What makes them crush on guys.”
He got up and threw his ice cream cone in the trash. “So you want to change me?”
“No. No, oh god no, I don’t want to do that. Maybe just give you some confidence. Some pointers on how to talk to girls, to get them to see how awesome you are.”
“I talk to you, don’t I?”
“Well yeah, but we’re not talking about me, right?”
He jammed his hands in his pockets. “Right. Of course we’re not.”
“Don’t be like that, Nic.” I stood and put my hand on his shoulder. “I just think you deserve to have a girlfriend. Someone who you could do things like this with all the time.” When he didn’t respond, I took it as a good sign. “Mark my words, I can help teach you. You’ll have a girlfriend by winter formal.”
“Yay. Can’t wait,” he said drily.
I pushed him playfully in the arm. “Do I detect sarcasm?”
He looked away, almost as if he refused to meet my eyes. It was clear he didn’t want to talk about this let alone joke about it.
“I just don’t want you to be lonely,” I said.
His gaze locked with mine. “I’m not lonely. I have you.”
“But before me? And—”
“I had Jackson.”
“Oh fantastic. Jackson. Did you guys sit in your room and play Dungeons and Dragons all day long?”
“Nobody plays that game anymore.”
“Wouldn’t know but that’s beside the point. One day soon you’re going to go off to smarty mcsmartyson’s college and I’m going to be lucky to get into a community college and you’re going to need to know how to talk to girls without me there.”
He pushed his glasses up on his nose and with a cold stare said, “I don’t. need. dating lessons.”
“Drop it, okay?”
She dropped it alright. Along with an extra side of silent treatment. There was really never going to be a shot for us. I didn’t need to come right out and tell her to get an answer like Jackson suggested. I knew the answer. Deep down, I’d always known it. She only confirmed it when she said she’d help me look for someone else. If she liked me, no way would she have offered that.
When I pulled up to her house, her lips pursed as she stared out the window. “You know, Nic,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to hurt you when I said that earlier. I really was only trying to help.”
Her eyes were shiny when she finally looked over. My resolve softened. My legs turned to rubber. I couldn’t still be upset with her when she looked at me like that. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t like me. I just needed to get over it and move on. “I know. You were just being a good friend.”
Her voice, thin and high, and so unlike her, filled the interior of the car. “I’m trying. I spent so long thinking friendship was one way. Reese never did anything for me that was just for me. It always had an angle for her, too. I just want to help you and only you and that was the only way I could think of to do it.”
“Hey. You don’t have to try to do nice things for me.” I reached for her knee but instead of rubbing it like I’d intended, I gave her a little friendly shove. “I already like you.”
A smile split her lips. She leaned over, her face moving closer. And closer. My heart rate kicked up a few thousand notches as anticipation rang all the nerve bells in my body. I closed my eyes and just when I thought I knew she was going to make contact, she did. But her soft lips landed on my cheek, not my buzzing lips.
One thing was for sure, it was going to be hard to get over Katie Ross.