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This Week's Featured Author:
Katie Klein, author of
Cross My Heart or Amazon UK or Nook $3.99
The Guardian $2.99 Kindle Edition or Amazon UK or Nook
Read an interview with Katie on the Chair to Chair Page>>>
Cross My Heart
Never underestimate the power of glitter. It’s Kindergarten 101, really. Squeeze an unrealistic amount of glue on construction paper. Dump a pile of glitter on top. Shake. And let dry. Glitter is like . . . little flecks of brilliance caught in a tube. A miracle in a jar. Because glitter can take any work in progress to that next level. It hides the most glaring of imperfections, works to bring out the best in everything. It takes the ordinary and turns it into something interesting and beautiful.
I stand back, hands perched on my hips, admiring my handiwork.
RAFFLE—$5.00 PER TICKET.
The pink words twinkle beneath the tarnished, gold-plated chandelier welcoming guests to the front office. I flick the edge of the poster board, and a few specks of glitter fall, shimmering to the tile floor. A trail of the rosy sparkles chased me the entire morning: from my bedroom to the car, across the parking lot, and down the hallway to here—the foyer of my high school.
I sweep my hands together, then smear my palms across my jeans. Wrong move. I brush my pants vigorously. When this doesn’t work, I remove a miniature lint roller from my purse, peel off the old adhesive layer, and run it across my lap until I’m sparkle-free.
The first bell rings and I bounce to attention, shoving the roller back into my purse. As classmates trickle inside, I sit up straighter, adjusting the cash box in front of me and planting a pleasant smile across my face. Business Friendly. They ignore me, pushing through the glass doors, cell phones pressed against their ears, mid-conversation, twirling through their iPod playlists in search of anthems to begin their day.
My cell phone buzzes, lighting, the vibration exaggerated against the wooden tabletop. Right on time. A photo of Blake, my boyfriend, flashes across the screen. The picture draws a smile—his gray-blue eyes, blonde hair glowing beneath the fluorescents, giving him an ephemeral, angelic appeal. I read the early morning text message wishing me a Happy Monday. He is nothing if not dependable, and I try to think if a school day has passed since we began dating where he hasn’t sent a morning message like this. I can’t, and craft a response.
As I’m typing, a book bag thuds to the floor and Savannah, my best friend, crashes into the chair beside me. She immediately lowers her head to the table, burying it in her arms.
“You’re here early. I’m kind of impressed,” I say, sending my text message and shutting the phone with a snap.
She groans. It’s muffled. Far away.
I glance over at her, not concerned in the least. I love Savannah, but she is prone to melodrama. “Good weekend?”
She lifts her head. Her straight, blonde hair is pulled away from her face with a headband. “Two days away from the love of my life and my weekend is supposed to be good?”
“I know you’re not talking about me,” I tell her. “Because I just saw you Saturday.”
“Let’s just say I can’t wait for lunch, k?”
“I believe you.”
She turns in her seat, studying the poster taped to the wall. “I guess you talked to the Wal-Mart people,” she says.
“I did. They offered an amazing discount on the game and the console—I mean, they’re practically giving it to us.”
She frowns. “They should. People were trampled over those things the day after Thanksgiving.”
“Which fully explains their willingness to give back to the community. And rightly so. It is a family store.”
“I don’t know why they don’t sell bullet-proof vests. God knows you need one to make it in and out safely.”
I force back the knowing smirk pulling at my lips. “Which is why I do all of my shopping . . .”
I force back the knowing smirk pulling at my lips. “Which is why I do all of my shopping . . .”
“Online. We know,” she interrupts, rolling her eyes. “It sucks that the rest of us haven’t reached your level of enlightenment, yet.”
“Keep striving,” I tease.
Mr. Connelly, one of the history teachers, navigates the crowd of students, weaving in and out as he passes through the lobby, a cup of coffee steaming in his hand. He pauses in front of us, the chandelier light reflecting in his shiny, balding forehead.
“Good morning, Jaden. Good morning, Savannah. What are we saving this time?” he asks.
I smile brightly, the spiel I memorized weeks ago poised on my lips. “The children of Bangladesh. Did you know malaria is one of the leading causes of death in children? It’s a totally preventable disease. If we can get treated mosquito nets in every home, the cases would cut dramatically.”
“Sounds like a worthy cause,” he replies. “As always. What are you raffling?”
“An ‘A’ in your American Government class,” Savannah grumbles, arms folded. I can almost read her mind: Because that’s the only way to get an ‘A’ in your class. Which is not entirely true . . . because I have one. In fact, it’s safe to say I’ve aced all of Mr. Connelly’s classes.
I throw her a dirty look. “Wii Fit.”
“I wonder which would bring in more donations,” he mutters thoughtfully, lifting his I READ THE CONSTITUTION FOR THE ARTICLES mug and sipping slowly.
“The ‘A,’” Savannah and I reply in unison.
He swallows. “Yes, well, thankfully there are laws in place for that sort of thing. So . . . I will buy my ticket,” he continues, reaching for his wallet, “in hopes that I win a Fit.”
Savannah snickers, turning her head away and covering her mouth to conceal her smile.
“I suppose you wouldn’t need an ‘A’ in your own class,” I muse, jabbing my elbow into her arm. She straightens, rubbing the affected area.
He shakes his head. “No,” he replies. “Not today.” He hands me a floppy five-dollar bill, soft and stained, which I trade for a ticket.
“Thank you, Mr. Connelly.”
“Thank you, ladies.”
Savannah bursts into giggles the moment Mr. Connelly walks away, the smell of his black coffee still lingering in the air around us. “Oh my God. Did he just call it a ‘Fit’?” she asks.
“Yeah, I think so. But, you know, it’s five dollars.”
“The children of Bangladesh thank us.” She tosses her blonde hair over her shoulder.
I sit up straighter. “Yes, Mr. Connelly?”
“Will I see you in peer tutoring this afternoon?” he calls from across the busy hall.
“Absolutely,” I reply, lips stretching into my trademark smile: wide enough to show off straight and exceptionally white teeth—thank you, Crest Whitestrips—but not fake. Just . . . happy to help. Always.
When the two-minute warning bell rings, we split up. Savannah heads toward her first period class, while I stop by the school office to turn in our cash box for safekeeping and say hi to the secretaries. The halls are abandoned by the time I finish—silent—the lockers standing dormant and passive. A trail of crumpled papers and empty candy wrappers steers me to English. I bend down to pick up some of the larger pieces, dumping them in the trashcan by the water fountain on my way to Ms. Tugwell’s room.
I check the time on my cell phone just outside the door, lips pulling into a frown.
Ms. Tugwell won’t count me late, though. She never counts me late. No teacher counts me late. Ever. I slip inside the classroom and guide the door shut, easing it closed with my hand. Still, every head turns to me as the lock clicks. I feel my cheeks flush with heat and tiptoe to my seat at the back of the room as discretely as possible.
“This project will be worth thirty percent of your semester grade,” Ms. Tugwell says. She pauses, adjusting her glasses on the bridge of her nose, and peering at me with slightly magnified eyes. “Nice of you to take time out of your busy ‘saving the planet’ schedule to join us, Miss McEntyre.”
I smile cheerfully, even as my classmates snicker around me. “Poverty doesn’t sleep, Ms. Tugwell. If I don’t do my part, who will?”
Ms. Tugwell is, at the least, heavy set. She’s actually pretty large, and spends most of her time sitting in her chair behind her desk. She doesn’t really walk . . . more like waddles, and the ground beneath her trembles as she moves. Her glasses are at least thirty years out of style, and the lenses themselves are probably decades old, because she wears the same plaid jumpers that balloon at her waist . . . every single day . . . with her sneakers. She’s a good teacher—I like her—but every year, when a new group of idiot freshmen boys comes in. . . . I mean, “tugboat” doesn’t sound anything like Tugwell. But that doesn’t seem to deter some people.
My teacher shakes her head, but even so, I’m almost certain a tiny smile forms as she turns her attention back to the white board. I breathe a quick sigh of relief. No tardy.
“Moving on. This assignment will not be turned in for another two months, but that doesn’t mean you should wait until the last minute. You and your partner should make plans to meet as soon as possible, then regularly until it’s due. I’d suggest you get together before the end of today, so you can decide what literary piece you will focus on. You’ll find the list of acceptable works in the information packet on your desks.”
I skim the light blue pages, running my finger over the staple in the top left corner, then raise my hand. “When do we pick partners?”
Ms. Tugwell re-positions her glasses. “About three minutes ago.”
“Three minutes . . . ,” I trail off. Before I made it to class. Partners have already been picked. I force an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t here.”
“I know you weren’t, so I had the pleasure of assigning you one.” She grins knowingly, and I sit back, heart thudding rhythmically in my chest, waiting while she takes her time, studying her gradebook, stretching the suspense as far as she can possibly manage, until finally: “You and Parker will be working together.”
For a moment my breath escapes me. My heart slows to a crawl, and it pounds heavy in my ears. I glance to my right where, two rows over, Parker Whalen sits. He’s there, wearing his typical jeans, typical black crew-neck shirt, and typical black leather jacket. His motorcycle helmet, which for some reason he does not keep in his locker, rests at his feet just beside his black bag. Stereotypical bad boy motorcycle rider—lots of intimidating gazes and determined angst. I heard he was in a gang, but find that completely hard to believe because he never wears any colors, he never gets into any trouble, and he never speaks to anyone. The whole gang thing is about camaraderie anyway, and he’s always alone. Plus, it’s not like Bedford is brimming with criminals. There are what? Twelve hundred people in our town? We don’t even have a Wal-Mart for God’s sake—that’s a town over (thankfully). And to actually get any decent shopping done, we have to drive an hour and a half into Hamilton.
I’m not sure why I’m even surprised. My guess? It took my classmates all of ten seconds to select their partners. Parker would have been avoided, leaving me, not present at the time, as the only viable option. I swallow a sigh. No big deal. It’s just a project.
There is nothing I cannot handle.
“Thanks,” I reply, forcing a smile.
I steal another quick glance in Parker’s direction. This time our eyes meet. They lock to mine, slicing into me, and I stagger against his frown, smile wavering; his hard stare, smoldering; his quiet intensity as it sparks through my veins, leaving my entire body prickling in bewilderment. It’s like he hates me already, and I haven’t even done anything. I shift in my chair, uneasy. Only after what feels like an eternity’s worth of awkwardness am I able to tear my eyes away, shrinking lower in my seat as I flip my notebook open to a clean page.
The moment the bell rings I cram my books into my bag and stand, slinging it over my shoulder. Not thinking, I look toward Parker’s desk. But his seat is empty. I just do see a flash of black leather as he escapes the room. I hurry after him, but by the time I reach the hallway, so has everyone else. Whichever way he’s gone, Parker has already disappeared into the swirling mass of students—laughing, talking, tossing things back and forth—and as hard as I search—twisting, turning, peering over heads—there’s no sign of him.
He doesn’t re-enter my world until lunch.
The one thing I know for sure about Parker Whalen is that he never sits inside. He eats at the picnic tables on the lawn, even on days like today, when the wind chill hovers just above freezing and the sky threatens rain. It’s impossible to know how he spends our lunch period, because he never faces the rest of us. We’ve never spoken. English is the only class we share, and we don’t exactly hang out in the same circles. In fact, I can’t imagine Parker Whalen hanging out with anyone . . . for any reason . . . at all. The truth? The rest of us grew up together. We filtered to one high school. Even if we didn’t go to the same middle school, Bedford is a tiny town, and everyone knows everyone, and everything about everyone. When Parker arrived, he never really managed to break into the cliques formed at birth. Whether or not he’d even tried, he always remained something of an outsider.
“Man, I’m telling you, they had nothing on you. Hey!” The familiar voice sings in my ears, happy to see me.
I squeeze between Savannah and Blake, my boyfriend, who leans over and deposits a wet, barbecue potato chip kiss on my cheek as I sit down. They flame as I subtly sweep the crumbs off my face.
“Hey. What’s going on?” I ask, tucking my hair behind my ears before opening my brown, paper lunch bag.
“I was just reminding Tony of how awesome he was at Friday’s game,” Blake informs me, chewing. Blake is a basketball player, an athlete, so I try to forgive the little nuisances, like the fact that now my cheek is all gritty and smells like his barbecue breath.
Savannah’s ears perk at this. “What happened?” she asks.
“My man Tony scored forty points all by his self.”
“No way! That’s amazing!” she gushes, her entire face lighting.
Tony shrugs, unable to look her in the eyes. I hope it’s because of his repressed feelings for her. I don’t think she could be more obvious. I don’t think he could be more oblivious.
Ashley, another member of our lunchtime group, pops open the tab of her soda. It hisses, and she has to suck back the fizz. “This was an away game, right?” she asks.
“Yeah, we beat North Central ninety-five to sixty-eight,” says Blake.
“We crushed them,” Tony adds.
“You, my friend, were on fire.”
“Fire!” Tony repeats.
“Fire,” Blake finishes.
“Oh my God, I so wish I could’ve been there,” Savannah tells Tony. “It’s just that it was so far to drive, and my parents are like . . . ugh.”
Across the table, Ashley rolls her eyes. “You hate basketball.”
Savannah tosses a dirty look in her direction. “No. I don’t. I mean, it’s not that bad.” She turns her attention back to Tony, all smiles again. “You could get on a college team, and then go pro!” she says excitedly, already planning Tony’s future. Visualizing herself part of it, no doubt. I’ve watched her do the same thing every day since the first week of our freshman year, with a new guy each month. She’s had an eye on Tony as of November, which is probably some kind of record. Usually by this time she’s either already dated and dumped, or grown bored and moved on.
“Speaking of college,” Blake says, nudging me with his knee beneath the table, “have you heard anything?”
He’s asking about Harvard, and I kind of wish he wouldn’t. I’m the only one at our table who’s applied to an Ivy League school. I think I might be the only senior who’s applied to Ivy League, period, and I’m still waiting on a decision. Everyone else picked state schools or local private colleges. (Except for Savannah, who possesses absolutely no desire to continue her education beyond high school and is highly vocal about her decision . . . or lack of a decision. Whatever.)
“Um, no, I haven’t,” I confess.
“It’s still early,” he replies, hopeful.
“And no news isn’t necessarily bad news,” Ashley adds.
I study the turkey jammed between my sandwich bread, shrugging casually, then change the subject. “You guys are getting partners in English today. You know, for that big project?” I split my sandwich in half, tearing it straight down the middle, pinch off a bite of turkey and cheese, and pop it into my mouth.
“Oh my God. I totally forgot about that,” Savannah says, rolling her eyes. “I hope I get paired with a nerd.”
“So. . . .” Blake knocks me with his elbow as he roots around his potato chip bag, digging for fragments. “Who’s your partner?”
I continue chewing for a moment, then, hesitating, cover my mouth with my hand. “Parker,” I mumble.
“Whalen?” Savannah asks, eyes widening.
“That’s the only Parker I know,” I say.
Tony bursts out laughing, falling back in his chair, like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard all day. A few juniors a table over stop to stare at us, scrutinizing. “Parker Whalen? Are you serious?”
Blake slants away from me. The shift is slight, but I notice it nonetheless. “I thought we picked partners.”
“We did. Sort of. I had to stop by the office so I got to class late,” I mutter. “Partners had already been picked.” I shrug. It’s not like I had a choice or anything.
“So the Tugboat put you and Parker Whalen together.” His jaw tightens, words sharp and spiteful.
“Yeah. She did,” I reply, glowering at him. “And don’t call her Tugboat. It’s juvenile. And rude.”
“Jaden had to do it. I mean, there’s not a person at this school who’d actually want him for a partner,” Ashley says, matter of fact, spooning a bite of yogurt. “He’s freaky. Jaden’s just nice enough to not let something like that bother her.”
I’m not sure how I would define Parker Whalen, but freaky is a little extreme. Strange? Possibly. Eccentric? Maybe. A definite loner . . . but he doesn’t seem freaky to me . . . just . . . quiet. “It’s weird, actually. I don’t know anything about him. And he’s been coming to this school for what? Five? Six months?”
“We know enough,” Tony says. “I heard his dad makes money off some illegal dog fighting ring—totally underground.”
“I heard his old school kicked him out for marijuana,” says Savannah.
“Which he was also arrested for,” adds Ashley.
I roll my eyes. “We don’t know if any of those things are true,” I say, still chewing. “And just because he wears black and drives a bike? I mean, we don’t even know him.”
“I saw him at Vince’s a few weeks ago. He was wandering around like he was scouting the place. The dude is a freak.”
My ears perk up at this. Not what he said about Parker, but Vince. Because I think he means Vince De Luca, and if that’s the case. . . . “Wait. You went to Vince De Luca’s?”
Blake’s cheeks flush. Busted. Vince De Luca graduated from Bedford High a few years ago. He lives a county over now, in an old rental, and his parties are fairly notorious. Vince’s reputation is anything but stellar. Never mind that he still runs with the high school crowd. He and my brothers used to hang out, and I’ve since been warned.
“I thought we talked about that.”
“We did,” Blake says. “I was with the guys. I swear we were only there for like, fifteen minutes. If that. Ask Tony.”
I look to Tony for confirmation.
“Fifteen minutes,” he agrees.
“You know I do not like that guy,” I remind him. I set my sandwich on top of my bag; my appetite has mysteriously vanished.
“Yeah, well, I don’t really like Parker Whalen,” Blake replies coolly.
* * *
At the end of the day, as I’m taking a quick trip to my car before I head to Mr. Connelly’s room, I see Parker again. He’s walking to the far end of the lot, where he parks his motorcycle. Blue and silver. A sport bike. Which seems perfect for him, actually. I pick up my pace, hurrying to catch up with him before he disappears. Rumors, reputation, or not, we have a project to do—a project to do together. The sooner we talk the faster we can get to work.
“Parker!” I call out, crossing in front of a red Volvo. He straps his helmet beneath his chin, then mounts the bike, using his legs to back out of the space.
Everyone’s eyes are fixated on me, it seems, as I weave in and out of cars and around groups of friends who’ve stopped laughing and chatting to wonder what, exactly, I’m doing. In the next moment he cranks the engine, and revs it a few times. The thunderous blasts shake my eardrums, vibrating the ground beneath me, pulsing. He peels out of the parking lot, tires squealing, not once turning my way.
I remain cemented to the asphalt in the middle of the lane, watching in disbelief as he fades away, taillights glowing. A car horn beeps behind me, punctuating my stupor. I jump, and turn toward the line of traffic snaking around the lot. I quickly move out of the way, waving an apology to the driver. I wrap my arms tightly across my chest, hugging myself in an effort to keep warm, then jog to my car, feeling the icy wind as it bites my face and numbs the tip of my nose.
I flash those still eyeing me a quick smile. Everything is absolutely under control. Parker Whalen is not avoiding me. Not on purpose, anyway.
I sit down at the dinner table, watching as my soon-to-be official nephew, Joshua, shoves his hand deep inside a plastic dinosaur bowl, grasping and mashing. Oatmeal dribbles over the sides and plops onto the tray of his highchair.
“I hope you’re eating some of that, young man,” my mom warns.
Joshua grins, revealing the impossibly tiny baby teeth at the front of his mouth. With a smile like that? He’s the only one of us who can, quite literally, get away with everything.
“Dinner!” Mom calls.
My two older brothers materialize from the living room, still dressed for work, their white socks speckled with mud and their short, brown hair pressed flat against their scalps: what we generally refer to as “hard-hat head.”
“Hey, little man,” Daniel, my oldest brother, says. “Gimme five.” He extends his hand.
Joshua giggles, and smacks it several times.
Daniel stares at the sticky, brown oatmeal splattered across his palm. “Great.”
“Pass me those,” my other brother, Phillip, demands, nodding toward the baked beans.
“No way. That’s the last thing you need,” I say, rolling my eyes.
Phillip pushes his shirt sleeves up his arms, past his elbows, frowning. “Just hand them to me.”
“I’m thinking about the collective good of this family.”
“I’m thinking about the collective good of this family.”
“Shut up,” he replies, his voice rising, “and think about passing me that pot.”
“Are you gonna say ‘please’?”
He exhales loudly, stands, and leans across the table, snatching the stainless steel dish. A trail of steam chases as it moves.
“Phillip, can you please not say that?” Sarah, Daniel’s fiancée, begs. “I don’t want Josh picking up those things. Because it would be pretty horrible to have to document his first word and it’s not ‘Mama’ or ‘Dada’ but ‘shup.’”
The four of us watch as Joshua examines a glob of oatmeal on his fist, his eyes crossing momentarily. He shoves the entire thing in his mouth, then pulls it out, covered in spit.
“Impressive,” Phillip says, mouth full.
“Takes after his uncle,” I say.
My dad, an older, grayer version of Daniel, sits down in his chair at the head of the table, scooting it closer as Mom enters with the rolls. I can’t quite pin-point when it happened—the wiry, gray wisps of hair and creases around the eyes—if they’ve always existed and I never noticed, or if becoming grandparents somehow triggered the changes automatically.
“Is this everyone?” she asks, swiping her auburn hair (same shade as mine) away from her face. She frowns. “Phillip, can’t you wait for the rest of us?”
Every seat at the table is occupied, and Joshua sits in his highchair between my mom and Sarah: a typical dinner at the McEntyre house. There are seven of us in all. My mom and dad, of course; Daniel, Sarah, and Joshua, who stay in the middle bedroom upstairs; me; and Phillip, who’s younger than Daniel by two years, and two years older than me. A true middle child. We’re nothing if not a full house.
“Daniel, Phillip, how was work?” Mom asks.
“Good,” Daniel replies. “The house on Oak Street is almost ready to be painted.”
She stabs a pork chop with her fork, and passes the plate on to Sarah. “That soon? It went up fast,” she marvels.
“Chalk it up to the good winter weather we’ve been having. I don’t think we’ve had to take off a single day,” says Dad.
My eyebrow lifts instinctively as I reach for my sweet tea. I don’t know what he means by “good winter weather,” but the days we’ve been having lately—cold, dark, and miserable—are not good, in my opinion. I mean, I’m generally a glass half full kind of girl, but I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun shining. And since when did he ever take a day off?
I clear my throat. “You know, Dad, the faucet on my bathroom sink is still kinda screwed up.” “Kinda screwed up” is an understatement. There’s a pipe instead of a nozzle protruding from the porcelain. I can’t get cold water unless I use a wrench, and who wants to brush their teeth with hot water?
He reaches for his knife and cuts carefully, tearing off another piece of meat. “I know, sweetie. It’s on my list,” he assures me, chewing.
My dad’s the owner of McEntyre Construction. It’s like, a family thing. His dad started it, my dad took over when he retired, and eventually, when they grew old enough, my two brothers climbed aboard. My grandfather could fix anything. He built houses by hand then taught my dad everything he knew. Only, when my dad became president, he adopted a “why do something yourself you could pay someone else to do?” attitude.
Because of this, Mom and I change every burnt-out light bulb; replaced the front steps after Daniel stepped through one, splitting it completely in half; and took a flat-head screwdriver to all the windows painted shut by the family before us. This is why, even after living in our Victorian “restoration” home (where nothing is restored) for several years, I can still only get cold water by using a wrench. And even then there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to tighten the pipe enough to keep the faucet from leaking, which is a pain at two in the morning, when I awake to an incessant: drip . . . drip . . . drip. . . .
This is why the hardwood floors in my bedroom still need bracing, why the front living room stays closed off during the winter (there’s an insulation problem, and the cold air seeps through the walls), and why my mom still doesn’t have the screened-in back porch she’s always dreamed of, even though we are, by definition, living in her “dream house.” At first, I assumed my dad and brothers would get around to making all of these little “improvements”—but it never happened, and at some point along the way I stopped holding my breath.
I speak carefully. “I know . . . it’s just that . . . it’s been on your list for a while now, and it’s getting kinda hard to turn on with that wrench you let me borrow . . .”
“Jaden,” he interrupts, a tinge of annoyance lacing his tone. “I’ve barely had a weekend to myself in months. The boys and I are stretched thin . . . the Bennetts are anxious to move in . . .”
A cell phone rings, severing the conversation. My dad, Phillip, and Daniel all forage around their pockets, removing phones one by one, inspecting the screens. It’s Dad’s.
“This is the painter with my estimate,” he explains. “I have to take this.” He stands and walks out of the room, pressing the phone to his ear just before he disappears. “McEntyre Homes,” he says. Business Friendly.
“Who’s supposed to be calling you?” I ask Phillip.
“None of your business.”
“I can tell you,” Daniel teases, a mischievous grin plucking at the edges of his mouth, reaching all the way to his eyes. “Unless Phillip would rather do it.”
Phillip tilts his head back, groaning. “You remember Becky Summerlin?”
“Wasn’t she a year behind you?” Mom asks.
“She graduated last year,” I confirm, picturing the shy girl who’d been part of the yearbook staff, her mousy brown hair and comfortable eyes. “She was quiet, but she seemed really sweet. What does she want with you?”
He rolls his eyes. “Ha. Ha. Anyway, we ran into each other last week. She was visiting her parents. We decided to meet up next time she came to town,” he explains. “That’s it.”
“Why is she calling you, then?” Sarah asks. “Why aren’t you calling her?”
“I did!” Phillip answers, shoulders squaring. “I left a message. Now I’m waiting for her to call me back.”
“How long have you been waiting?” I ask.
He shrugs, forearms propped against the table, pushing those baked beans around the plate with his fork. “A day or two.”
“Or three,” Daniel adds.
Sarah laughs. “Well if you don’t hear from her by this weekend you might wanna give her a call back.”
“Or leave her alone,” I mutter.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the room strikes the hour. We eat in silence for a few moments, listening to the chimes.
Finally, Daniel clears his throat, grabbing our attention. Sarah glances over at him. “What?”
“Are you gonna tell them?” he asks, nodding toward us.
Her eyebrow lifts. “Tell them?”
We watch this exchange closely, waiting for someone to speak up. The last time they had something to tell us, I became an aunt. A wintry draft passes through the dining room window, stirring the curtains and raising goose bumps on my skin.
“Are you going to tell them?” he emphasizes.
A wave of recognition crosses her face. “Oh. Oh! Yeah. Sure.” She turns back to us. “Daniel and I wanted to tell you that we set a date.” Her cheeks flush.
“It’s about time,” Phillip mumbles.
“Yay!” I cry, clapping. “When?”
“Well, we’re thinking about the second week in June. At the gazebo in the park.”
“Oh! The park will be beautiful that time of year!” Mom affirms. “The flowers will be blooming. . . . Let me know if you need any help planning.” She jumps out of her seat. “I should get you the number for my florist.”
“Is that day okay for everyone?” Sarah asks. “I mean, you guys don’t have anything important planned do you?”
“My graduation is that Friday, but it’s not a conflict or anything.”
A flash of remembrance lights her face, and she lifts her hand to her mouth. “Oh my gosh. Graduation. I didn’t even think about that. We can move the wedding back a week or two. It’s no big deal.” She looks to Daniel for approval.
“No, no, no,” I say quickly. “I swear. There’s no conflict. I think the second weekend in June is perfect.”
“You have to think about the rehearsal dinner, though,” my mom says, returning from the kitchen with a card from her Rolodex. “That’s typically the night before the wedding.”
“Well,” Sarah begins, “I don’t think we were planning on anything too formal for that. Maybe we can do it earlier in the week. Like on Wednesday or Thursday. I don’t want anything to overshadow Jaden’s night.”
I smile. “You guys are not going to overshadow anything. It’s just graduation. Protocol, even. It’s no big deal.”
“Jaden,” Sarah chides. “Stop being so selfless. God.”
“Not a big deal?” says Mom. “The fact that my baby girl is graduating and heading off to Harvard in the fall happens to be a very big deal.”
“Wait,” Daniel interrupts, eyeing me curiously. “You heard from Harvard?”
“No,” I mutter, my cheeks searing. I poke at my pork chop, jabbing it with the fork prongs, frowning. “Mom’s assuming.”
My dad bursts back into the room. “The painters are going to over-charge us. We’ve used them for how many jobs?” He grabs his glass and lifts his plate of food from the table, still full but almost certainly lukewarm by now. “Anyway, I have a few phone calls to make, so I’m going to take this in the office.” He leans down and kisses my mom on the cheek—quick, sweet, but not exactly a compelling replacement. “Dinner was great,” he says, vanishing for the last time that night.
* * *
The next day I find myself in the hallway just before school ends. One of the perks of my last hour office aid job is that, if I finish my work, the secretaries let me leave early. The thing is, I have a reputation at school. A good one, actually, and I’ve discovered a good reputation is generally advantageous . . . in an “ask and you shall receive” kind of way.
I linger at my locker, arranging books and adjusting photographs. In the uncharacteristic calmness of the hall the fluorescent lights hum, flickering, casting a sallow light on everything they swathe. Nearby, a class erupts in laughter. I breathe in the stuffy school air and brush my fingers across the Harvard crest I printed from my laserjet at the beginning of the school year. A good luck gesture. I swallow hard, suppressing the tiny butterflies in the pit of my stomach: the ones that flare up every time someone mentions the word “Harvard,” or “college,” or “future.” Any day now.
I’m examining a photo of Blake and me from last year’s prom, our first formal together, when I notice movement at the far end of the hallway. My heart races, and I press myself tightly against the lockers, the metal cool against my legs. It’s Parker, bending over the water fountain. The vent kicks on, the buzz ricocheting off concrete walls as he finishes, and I watch him wipe his mouth with the back of his hand before disappearing inside the guy’s bathroom.
He avoided me in English, never responding to the note I passed him asking what literary work we should pick for our project. He didn’t show up to lunch. . . .
Without thinking, I slam my locker door shut and dash after him, my Mary Janes thwacking against the floor tiles, bag and purse bouncing behind me. I pause for a moment just outside the bathroom door, hesitating. This may be a huge mistake, but I lack options at the moment. I need him. It’s do now or die trying.
I suck in a quick breath, push through, and enter the men’s room, stumbling. Parker stands in front of the sink, washing his hands. He recoils when he sees me, startled. A flash of surprise, then confusion, crosses his face, quickly replaced by a hard scowl. His jaw tightens. “What the hell are you doing?”
Too late to back down now.
I scoff, working to right myself, spine stiffening. “What am I doing? I’m sorry, but I have a major research project due in two months, and for some unfortunate reason my partner has decided to go all AWOL on me.” I fold my arms across my chest. “What is your deal?”
Parker shuts off the faucet, then shakes his hands, sprinkling the mirror with tiny drops of water. “I don’t have a deal, Miss McEntyre,” he says, words smothered in sarcasm.
“Then why are you avoiding me?” I ask. “We’re supposed to be partners and you’re not even speaking to me. We haven’t picked a book . . . or decided our topics. You may not care about your academic future, but I have to get a good grade on this.”
He moves closer, eyes flashing, cutting through me. “I’m a slacker? Is that what you think?”
I drop my arms, shrinking back. Isn’t that what everyone thinks? When I don’t answer, he shakes his head. “You don’t know people as well as you think you do.”
“I’m not pretending to know anything about you,” I fire back. “I get that you must not like me or something . . .”
“Not like you?” he interrupts. “Jaden McEntyre, there’s not a soul at this school who doesn’t just adore you.” He lifts his bag from the bathroom floor and slings it over his right shoulder. He can’t leave. We’ll never get anything accomplished if I let him slip past. Without a second thought, I leap in front of the door and lean against the frame, blocking him.
“Do you mind?”
“Yeah, I do mind, actually,” I begin. “If you’re so miserable being my partner . . . which, I might add, is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard since you don’t even know me . . .”
His eyes narrow. “I don’t know you? Really? Jaden McEntyre. Daughter of a general contractor. Cheerleader. Human rights activist. Best friend of Savannah Wainright. Girlfriend of Blake Hanson. Volunteers for Cancer Walks. Gives blood. Raises money for the poverty-stricken children of Bangladesh. Straight A’s. Ivy League bound. The safest, most boring person at this school.”
I choke back the huff perched in my throat. Oh My God. This isn’t happening to me. This shouldn’t be happening to me. I’m supposed to be in AP English this semester. Stupid Calculus scheduling conflict. The AP classes aren’t required to do this project. I shouldn’t be in the guy’s bathroom, with its profanity-laden walls and toilet paper strewn across the floor and its mildewy, locker room smell, arguing with Parker Whalen. I should’ve been on time to English. I should’ve picked my own partner. I mean, this is what I get for saving the planet? Whatever happened to good karma? I struggle to find my voice. “Are you serious?” I finally manage.
“I don’t lie,” he replies, matter of fact.
“Fine. That’s fine,” I sputter, working to regain my composure. “Either way, we’re partners. And we have a project to do whether you like it or not, so . . . get over yourself.” My fingers clench to fists, and my jaw smarts from the added pressure.
But instead of firing back . . . Parker smiles. I think. I mean, the corners of his mouth turn up . . . like he’s amused. Maybe it’s more of a smirk. I don’t know. I sweep a few stray hairs away from my eyes, blinking, unsure.
“That’s pretty harsh,” he says. “Especially coming from you.”
“It’s not funny. You might not want to get a good grade on this project, but I do.”
The scowl returns, sharpening his features. “You’re so presumptuous. Assuming that I don’t want good grades.”
“Okay . . . whatever. Here’s the thing: I’m going to the library tomorrow afternoon. I’ll be there at three o’clock. I’m taking my list, and I’m choosing a book for our project. You’re welcome to join me . . . Partner.”
I spin on my heel and storm out of the bathroom. I inhale deeply, seeking fresh air: desperate. Desperate for someone to come along and explain to me what, exactly, just happened. Desperate for someone to come along and tell me what to do about Parker Whalen, because our future together does not look promising. I shake my hands, trying to suppress the pent-up frustration swelling inside, and swallow back a primal scream.