I wouldn’t have overheard them if I hadn’t left my Bio notebook in my English class. But I had, and my first Bio test was coming up; I didn’t intend to bomb it. So, even though I was already out of the school building and on my way to freedom, I turned around and hurried back inside. I would have charged straight into the room if Roxanne’s voice hadn’t floated out at that precise moment and stopped me in my tracks.
“Okay, what do you think you’re doing?” Roxanne was demanding.
“You jealous?” said Nathan’s voice.
“Of that – creature?” Roxanne said contemptuously. “I think not. But I don’t get it. What on earth possessed you to ask her to sit with us for lunch?”
“Oh, come on, you can’t possibly be that dim,” said Nathan incredulously. “You don’t think I like her, do you?”
“Well, then, you want to have sex with her. Fine. But why her? There’s Karin Wu hanging on your every word, and you haven’t even asked her on a single date yet – ”
“It’s not even that.”
“What, then?” Roxanne asked impatiently.
“Don’t you see how she treats me? Like shit. Have you seen any girl ever treat me like that before?”
“Oh, my God, Nathan, please stop getting all Not Another Teen Movie – ”
“What’s wrong with making her fall for me, a little? All I need is to get a little close, she’ll stop acting like I’m some Mafia leader, and we’re done. I’m not going to let her make me the laughingstock of Thornton, Rox.”
Roxanne sighed. “So you want to play with her feelings to keep your reputation intact.”
There was a pause. Then Nathan said thoughtfully, “When you put it like that…”
“No, no, you are not backing out. It’s a great idea. I approve. You do your part in ruining her life and I’ll do mine.”
“You really are a bitch, Roxy,” Nathan said quietly.
“She lost me my boyfriend, Nathan.”
“You don’t even care about him. Can’t you just forget what happened with Kettering?”
“Look who’s talking. You’re the one planning to break Little Miss Nobody’s heart.”
Nathan seemed to be hesitating. “I – I guess,” he said reluctantly at last.
I felt slightly sick. Nathan was an asshole. He was just as bad as Jazz said Roxanne and Zach were, except that he seemed to have some sort of conscience, from the way he’d hesitated before agreeing with Roxanne. But I was one step ahead, and I wasn’t going to fall for his plan.
“So,” Roxanne said, dropping her voice suddenly. “Zach’s back.”
“Yes,” Nathan said, and his voice seemed forced.
“He seems different,” Roxanne said, almost timidly. “Don’t you think?”
Nathan laughed. “He seems like the same sardonic asshole as ever.”
“Yes – but he seems harder. Like he doesn’t even trust us anymore.”
“That’s ridiculous, Rox. Give the guy a break. He hasn’t seen us for months and he’s a suspicious kind of guy, he isn’t going to come jumping into our arms immediately the way you would.”
“I know, but don’t you get the feeling that he kind of – resents us?”
“Why on earth would he – ”
“We didn’t write to him, Nate,” Roxanne went on. “We didn’t email or call or visit. He got kicked out and he didn’t tell us. He’s been here for a month and we didn’t know – ”
“Maybe he took the whole Denise thing harder than we thought he would.”
“You shouldn’t have gone out with her right after they broke up, Nate.”
“Okay, you went out with Jean two days after we broke up – ”
“You and I aren’t like Zach, Nathan! He wanted Denise – a lot. You and I didn’t give shit about each other as anything but friends by then!”
There was another silence. Then Nathan said, very quietly, “So you think Zach is mad at us because of me.”
“No, Nate. We’ve all neglected him. We’ve got to make it up to him, okay? Tonight. Let’s go to the Regency after dinner and hang out – ”
Realizing that I had heard far more than I wanted to, I turned and fled. I’d have to get another Bio book and abandon my first one as lost.
When I got home, Ann’s bedroom door was ajar. “Summer,” she called as I made my way past it.
“Hey,” I said, forcing a smile. My stepmother was pale and drawn, eyes deeply set into the hollow of her face. She’d always been slender, but now she was nothing but skin and bones.
“There isn’t any orange juice,” Ann said uncertainly, squinting up at me. “I looked into the freezer this morning and it wasn’t there…”
She was like a bewildered child wondering at the absence of a favorite toy.
I remembered the days when Ann and I had gone grocery shopping every three weeks. Ann would make a shopping list longer and more voluminous than my eighth-grade history notes, and when we took a cab home, I would always sit in the front seat because the back seat would be groaning under piles of food. Ann would say that we needed everything essential for survival during the next three weeks because we couldn’t be sure that an earthquake or a blackout wouldn’t occur by the time the fortnight ended.
That was the Ann that I had known. The Ann that I had known was bossy and composed and always in control. The Ann that I had known wore expensive, immaculate suits to work, went to the gym every evening, and cooked delicious dinners for her kids. The Ann that I had known knew how to deal with all kinds of emergencies ranging from disastrous floods to disastrous dinner parties.
The Ann that I knew now, after Neil’s death, wore sweatpants and old Williams sweatshirts day in and day out and spent her days gorging on tubs of ice-cream while she watched bad daytime television and read bad romance novels.
“I’ll get the juice,” I said, trying to inject efficiency into my raw, tired voice.
“Thank you,” Ann said faintly, her eyes wandering away from my face.
“Ingrid, I love you!” The blue eyed half-Latino guy on the TV inside the master bedroom declared passionately to an excessively buxom, excessively leggy blonde. “I’ll never leave you!”
“You always promise me that, Thierry,” the leggy, buxom blonde said sadly. “And you never keep your promise. Never!”
Ann watched raptly, her pale, long fingers clinging to her equally pale, long face.
I backed away into my own room, realizing that my efforts to wake Ann up from the world she seemed to be immersed in these days would be futile.
Once in my room, I called Curtis from our home phone. He picked up after a long time. “Yeah?” his voice demanded impatiently.
“Hey, it’s me.” I chewed my index fingernail, thinking of the weird conversation that morning.
“Summer.” Curtis’s tone softened, but he didn’t sound as pleased to be talking to me as he had in the morning. “How was your first day of your second week?”
Okay. So he wasn’t going to bring up the phone sex thing. Good, because I didn’t want to go there, either. “The people I met last week are just as horrible as ever, and they hate me. Oh, and this life-ruining guy came back – ”
There was female laughter in the background. “Get your ass down here, Banks! You can sweet-talk your girl later!” Dean, one of Curt’s basketball buddies, yelled, so loud that I could hear him through the phone.
“Listen, I have to go,” Curtis said quickly. “I’m at Lance Redford’s party. He decided to apply early to Williams, so we’re celebrating.”
And you don’t want to have to deal with my problems. Was it just the sex thing that was twigging him out, or was it more? “Okay,” I said, trying not to let the disappointment show in my voice. “Have fun.”
“Yeah,” said Curtis distractedly. “Thanks.”
I swallowed. “I, um. Love you.”
“Me, too,” Curtis mumbled, and then the dial tone hit my ear loudly.
I put the phone down, trying not to read too much into what had just happened. He was busy, that was all. It didn’t mean he didn’t want to talk to me, or was cheating on me, or just didn’t like me all that much anymore – I blinked, refusing to let myself start crying. I would do some homework, make dinner, go to bed. What was the point of tears, anyway? I had to stay calm or organized — my family would fall apart even more than they already had.
I opened my algebra book. The first page had ‘Nathan Wellington rocks my world” written over it in a messy, sprawling handwriting. I stared down at it for a few seconds, frozen. I checked the cover. It had my name on it in CeeCee’s neat writing – that hadn’t changed. So the book was mine. But I hadn’t written that sentence about Nathan – I hadn’t! I had been assigned to sit with Ralph Botterill during algebra, but we hadn’t shared my book, so there was no way he could have written it. The rest of the day, my book had been in my desk, except during third-period study hall, when I’d sat in the library. Nathan, as a Galloway Prefect, had been patrolling the library, checking random books that kids were studying to make sure they weren’t library books being stolen – Nathan. Of course it was Nathan.
I pulled the School Directory out from under my bed and searched for his home address. His house, when I got there, was so magnificent that it screamed an establishment of servants, but Nathan himself opened the door, looking pretty magnificent himself in formal pants and a tie with his golden hair slicked back and his face clean and pink-cheeked, as if he’d been playing in the wind. “Summer,” was all he had time to say before I shoved my book, open to the first page, in front of his nose.
“Care to explain?” I hissed.
Nathan held up his hands, palms up, grinning. The grin infuriated me. “I couldn’t resist.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“I just wanted you to think of me while you were going about doing whatever it is that you do all day.” His gaze was melting. “Is that such a bad thing, Summer? A hot guy wanting you to think of him?”
“Yes, it is, Nathan. Especially when that guy is as much of an asshole as you are.” Somehow, facing the actual confrontation, I felt much calmer than I had in my room.
Nathan grinned again. “At least you haven’t tried to deny that I’m hot.”
I resisted the urge to smack his head with my book. “You’re unbelievable.”
“I have to say, this worked better than I thought it would,” Nathan said. He stepped closer, and I felt my heart slam against my rib cage in spite of myself. He grabbed the book from me and held it aloft. “I expected you to maybe call me up and scream at me. But actually coming to my house – want to stay for dinner? I wouldn’t mind some company. My parents are in Chicago for the weekend.”
I kept my expression calm and cold. “I know what you’re doing, Nathan.”
“I know you do. I told you what I’m doing. I’m flirting with you.”
“I heard you and Roxanne in the English classroom today.”
“What – oh, shit.” For a minute, Nathan’s confidence wavered. “Summer, I – ”
“Whatever you’re trying to do, it won’t work on me. I know guys like you, and I know what they want, and I know how not to give them what they want. I have better things to do than waste my time playing games with you. I want you to leave me alone. Got it?”
Nathan took a step forward. “I get it, but I’m not sure I want to follow your instructions.”
I backed away. “I mean it, Nathan. Leave me alone.”
“Okay, here’s the deal.” Confident Nathan was back in action. “You let me kiss you once, publicly, and I’ll leave you alone.”
I stared at him. “What?”
Nathan smiled. “One kiss. You’ll enjoy it. I can guarantee that.”
“I don’t – if you think – ”
“Think about it, Summer. One little kiss, and I’ll leave you alone. No more things written in your books, no more hot guys flirting with you, no more me annoying you…”
“Publicly,” I repeated.
Nathan’s lips twisted into a grin. “Do we have a deal?”
I hesitated. He evidently took the silence as consent, because at that moment, he bent down and kissed me on the lips. I’d already known that he was more experienced than Curtis had been, but still, I hadn’t expected the kiss to be as good as it turned out to be. For a moment, I wished I could kiss him back and drag him off to a deserted corner, but then his tongue brushed my lips and I pulled back, shoving him forcefully away from me. I had a boyfriend I loved – what was I doing locking lips with Nathan Wellington? “What the hell was that?” I sputtered.
“I thought we had a deal,” Nathan said innocently.
“You weren’t supposed to kiss me now, you toad,” I stuttered. “You said publicly. That means when people are watching!”
Nathan shrugged, unperturbed, and nodded at something behind me. “He’s watching.”
I spun around. “He” was standing frozen at the edge of the driveway, a bulky backpack on his shoulders, watching us with a contemplative expression. Once again, I couldn’t understand the look in his eyes. Once again, his presence disturbed me and injected fear for my wellbeing into my mind. Once again, Zachary James Gellar had shown up when I’d least expected him to.
“You were crying last night,” observed Michael.
I looked up at my older brother in amazement. We were the only ones in the kitchen that morning; everyone else was either asleep or had left already. I didn’t really have anyone to talk to in Linbury, except for Jazz sometimes, but even in my moments of desperation I wouldn’t have gone to Michael. He was too much like me – suspicious, silent, and with walls around his heart that were higher and steelier than my father’s.
I shrugged and shoveled some cereal into my mouth. I could count on Michael not to pry.
I had been crying last night after I got back from Nathan’s, dull muffled sobs that I’d tried to flatten into my pillow. I’d started writing a letter to Curtis at three in the morning, thinking that if I got all my feelings for him into the open, he would forget everything that had ever gone wrong and we’d go back to the way we used to be. But how can you convince someone who’s probably stopped loving you to love you again? How do you go about finding words that tell them exactly how much you love them, and how can those words be strong enough to compel them to stop feeling indifferent to you? It’s impossible.
“How’s that fancy new school of yours?” said Michael. It was yet another shocker. This was the first time I’d seen him open his mouth twice in five minutes.
Michael was only a couple of years older than me, so he should have been going through Thornton with me this year. But he had gotten into Harvard two years early after designing some sort of medicine-related computer software that had biology geeks foaming at the mouth with excitement, and he’d gotten twelfth grade off to intern at Linbury Hospital and sit around in his shorts. Sometimes I felt like the failure of my family – I was neither beautiful and popular, like CeeCee, nor brilliant and studious like Michael.
“The school’s fine,” I said noncommittally. Michael hesitated as if he wanted to ask more questions, but then he looked back down at his Frosted Flakes. Thank God.
The door-bell rang. I offered to get it, but Michael was already on his way to the door. I sighed, figuring that I just had to be the most boring person on the planet if silent, serious Michael couldn’t stand being alone with me for long. I heard muted voices in the corridor outside, and then Michael said briefly, “She’s in the kitchen.” I turned around in my chair. Who would be asking for me this early in the morning? A wild, irrational hope sprang into my mind. Curtis…
But it wasn’t my boyfriend who stepped into the room. It was Nathan Wellington.
I dropped my spoon into my bowl of cereal and shot to my feet. What the hell was he doing here? My home was supposed to be my sanctuary, a safe haven away from the rigid political system and the daily humiliation I had to face at Thornton. How dare Nathan Wellington invade my privacy? “Hey,” he was saying, as comfortably as if he stepped into my kitchen at seven am every morning. With his broad shoulders and impressive height, he seemed to fill the room. “What’s up?”
I cast a nervous glance at Michael. My brother didn’t betray any interest in what was going on. Instead, he lifted his shoulder bag off the kitchen counter, patted my head in an uncharacteristic gesture, and walked out. I turned on Nathan the moment Michael was out of earshot. “What do you think you’re doing?” I hissed.
“Driving you to school.” Nathan’s tone made it sound so obvious. He grinned rakishly. “You and me, my car, the wind. Romantic, isn’t it?”
“It is not romantic,” I sputtered.
Nathan ignored me. “Nice kitchen,” he said, looking around the room.
The kitchen counter hadn’t been cleaned in a month, there was an open can of Oreos gathering dust on the table, the dirty dishes in the sink were piled up into a tall tower, and he wanted me to believe that he thought my kitchen was nice? “You’re not supposed to be here!”
Nathan finally deigned to look at me. “Why not?”
“We had a deal, Nathan.” I stepped closer to him.
“We kissed in public. But that’s it. The deal didn’t include you showing up at my house. Ever. You will never do this again. Understand?”
Nathan grinned again. “You’re hiding something in your house, aren’t you? So what is it? Did you ever star in pornos? Because that would be extremely interesting – ”
I grabbed his arm and yanked it, hard. He didn’t look as if I’d hurt him at all – I probably hadn’t – but I hadn’t been able to resist the urge. “Would you just leave?”
Nathan shrugged. “I guess I could go now.” He stepped closer this time. “But at some point of time, I’ll stop leaving. And then you’ll just have to deal with the fact that I won’t stop trying until you flirt back.” He winked. “Besides, that kiss wasn’t really public enough.”
A crash sounded from upstairs just as he stepped out of the door. I exhaled slowly. Hadley was awake. Furious, probably drunk Hadley, who could have given all of my secrets away to Nathan. But he was gone, and just in time. And yet the queasiness in the pit of my stomach told me that the respite was temporary. I’d agreed to kiss Nathan so that he would stop annoying me, but it seemed like my plan had backfired: I had only piqued his ego and forced him to want to make me fall in love with him for real.
When would this madness stop?
During Assembly, I sat at the back, doodling in my English notebook. The Champagne Gang, predictably, sat in the front row together. Zach was there with them – apparently just as much as a part of them as ever, although he didn’t say much to them, just turned on his iPod and ignored Roxanne’s efforts to make him listen to the announcements.
There were six Prefects in each class at Thornton in charge of student discipline, and they made all the announcements in turns. The morning Nathan dropped by at my house, it was the turn of the seniors – Nathan, Derek Kettering, Karin Wu, Lola Wesley, and two other boys I didn’t know.
They were making an announcement that seemed to be generating a lot of enthusiasm, judging from the applause and hoots of the crowd. “Okay, guys, it’s time for the annual fundraiser – Chocolate Hearts, baby!” one of the boys said, and the other Prefects cheered.
“For those of you who’re unlucky enough not to know what that is, it’s our annual fundraiser to pay for student administration,” said Lola Wesley. “Now listen carefully – The Regency – that’s a restaurant downtown – closes doors to the general public for one night, and it becomes a haunt for Thornton students. You go with a date, you drink, you dance, the male half of the couple pays, and twenty percent of what the Regency gets is paid to us.”
I doodled a flower on my notebook cover, already sure I wouldn’t be going.
“Don’t make it look so simple, Lola,” said Nathan. “There’s more. Chocolate Hearts is compulsorily couples-only, but some girls don’t get dates and the Regency loses out on business. Besides, participation is also compulsory. So it’s a rule that girls give in papers with their names and phone numbers to Karin here, the papers are put in a box that stays with the Chocolate Hearts Committee, the guys come by and draw out a paper each, and the girl they get is their date. It’s totally compulsory. If a girl has a boyfriend, they each buy a ticket and it costs them twenty dollars more. Participation fees is twenty dollars, handed over to Karin. You guys get it?”
I dropped my pencil and sat up straight. Twenty dollars was double my weekly allowance. I knew I could get Dad to cough up the extra money, however; that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that Thornton seemed to consider its students to be made of money, and I wasn’t – who knew how many more fundraisers there would be and how many more sums of twenty dollars I would be required to submit? It wasn’t right, it wasn’t fair, that participating in fundraisers was compulsory.
There was another, more pressing problem. The system of a chit of paper with my name on it, determining my night – and perhaps my whole future at Thornton. What if Nathan Wellington picked me as his date?