When the lightning strikes, I’m a bored rose between two snoring thorns. The thorns are my best friends, Marin and Sarah, who are crashed out on either side of me, and the lightning is #nofilter-perfect Tuck Brady, sauntering across the stage of our high school auditorium. I--Rainie Langdon, the bored rose--am planted in row J. It’s not a place where one usually encounters lightning.
But it’s the final week of the school year, which at Dobbs High means roughly a zillion mandatory assemblies designed to highlight talent in every discipline. Sarah delivered a science lecture on Monday. Marin was part of the art show on Tuesday. Now here it is Thursday--and, true to form, I have yet to set foot on the stage.
Today’s festival of shame is theater, which means the entire junior class has earned the endless joy of slumping in a too-warm auditorium while drama kid after drama kid trots onto the stage to deliver handcrafted monologues intended to punch us right in the angst.
It’s the worst.
He clears his throat, runs his fingers through his golden-blond hair, and turns to the audience. More specifically, he turns to me. Across the rows of disinterested classmates, through the dim lighting of the auditorium, Tuck Brady’s sky-on-a-sunny-spring-day eyes lock right onto mine.
Which can’t really be happening, because that would be crazy. If Tuck and I happen to run into each other out in the real world--say, at a gas station or a hot-dog stand--we definitely say hello, and that’s definitely it. When we see each other in the halls or the cafeteria at school, we generally don’t even make eye contact, because he’s too busy with his drama-head friends or his soccer friends or his music friends, and I’m too busy gabbing with Marin and Sarah. What I’m saying is--we do not run in the same circles, so there’s no way he’s looking at me.
Yet . . . he is.
I’ve tuned out the last six hundred monologues, so I have no idea how different this one is, but it must be different because . . .
Because Tuck isn’t just talking to me.
He’s talking about me.
“You’re a canoe,” Tuck says to me (and, presumably, the rest of the auditorium). “You’re floating. Aimless. You’re drifting. Getting knocked askew by the waves of speedboats rocketing past you. They all know where they’re going. They all have a plan. But you . . . you don’t.”
I glance at Sarah. She’s a speedboat with big plans. Neurosurgery plans. She’s got her next fifteen years mapped out to the minute. Then there’s Marin. She’s spent every summer since eighth grade at a different art program and already knows she’s doing undergrad at Pratt, and Glasgow for her master’s. Me, however . . .
Tuck is right. I’m a canoe. No effing idea where I’m going. Nary a paddle to be found.
“Floating is easier.” Tuck’s gaze drifts to the balcony overhead, and I slowly relax. I was right the first time. Tuck is just being an actor, and I’m just being my usual: the girl without a country. “You don’t have to be brave if you’re not the one steering. It’s the current making choices, not you.”
Tuck’s eyes suddenly dart back to my own. He sends a smile blazing across the seats at me, and--because I can’t believe what I’m seeing--I throw out both elbows. They connect solid with my friends. Marin only waves a hand at me and huffs a little, flopping her head to the other side and going right back to sleep, but Sarah bolts awake. “What?” she asks too loudly.
Several people shush her. One of them is me. I point at the stage, and Sarah swivels her head to look at Tuck. Who is looking at me. Looking back at him.
I am not used to all this looking.
“It wouldn’t be so scary if you had a road map, if you could see the signs.” Tuck shifts his weight and continues his monologue. “Then you would just know what path to take. You wouldn’t have to guess. You wouldn’t have to be terrified of going in the wrong direction. I get it.”
By extension--I extrapolate--Tuck Brady gets me.
Something clicks inside me. It’s a door opening, a door that has always been locked. Behind it is something desperate and wild and free, some buried part of me that wants to get out, that wants to experiment, to risk . . .
And, let’s be honest, that wouldn’t mind kissing Tuck Brady.
God, that boy is hot.
“But sometimes you can’t see the path until after you’ve walked it. The signs are there, but you don’t know where to look yet.” Tuck gazes down at me from the stage. “So take a chance.”
Sarah nudges me. “I think he’s--”
“I know,” I tell her. “Hush.”
“Risk it.” This time, Tuck takes a step forward. Toward me. Toward the future. Toward . . . dare I say it . . . our future? “If we’re not alone, maybe it won’t be so scary.” He stretches his hand out. Slowly, slowly, like he might actually be able to reach all the way out to my row and touch me. I straighten in my seat, leaning forward, starting to rise . . .
“Rainie.” Sarah grabs my wrist, keeping me in my uncomfortable auditorium chair on planet Earth. “Don’t make it weird.”
I don’t know how I could possibly be the one making it weird when Tuck is currently doing the weirdest thing that anyone has ever done, but I settle back down. It must be right, because Tuck flashes a grin at me--a blinding-white, heart-stopping grin--before walking offstage to half-assed applause from 99 percent of the audience, and to thunderous, palm-stinging, whole-assed applause from the last percent. Otherwise known as me.
I’m in a daze as I follow Sarah past a row of lockers, past a group of freshmen playing cards in a corner, and past a steamy couple just rounding second base. Basically, the entire school is treading water until the week is over. We reach the art room--a place where we clearly do not belong--and plop our lunches onto a table. Marin looks up from a sketchbook she’s drawing in: an indication that she clearly does belong. “Reminder about the condiments.” Marin gives us each a stern look. “Keep it on your fries, not the supplies.”
Sarah drips ketchup over her paper envelope of French fries. “Buzzkill.”
I flick Marin on the arm. “Yeah, one mustard finger-painting incident and suddenly it’s all TSA in here.”
Marin flicks me back. “Behave,” she says as I reach toward Sarah’s envelope. Sarah swats at my hand but allows me to take a fry.
We eat in silence for a moment: Marin because she’s still sketching, Sarah because she’s trying to power through her fries before I snag the rest of them, me because I’m trying to decide if fate just stepped in to have its way with me or if I’m hallucinating. Was Tuck talking to me from that stage? Surely it didn’t happen.
But what if it did?
“Dude, quit.” The world snaps back into focus, and I realize I’ve been staring straight at Marin, my mouth open with a half-chewed fry inside. Marin looks at Sarah. “Why is Rainie doing . . . that?”
Sarah shrugs. “There was a weird thing in the assembly, and now she’s tripping about it.”
“I’m not tripping about anything,” I inform them both. Even though I am 100 percent tripping about all the things.
“I didn’t see anything weird.” Marin erases something in her sketchbook.
“You were asleep,” Sarah and I say together.
Sarah nudges me. “Tell her.”
“Then I will.” Sarah leans toward Marin. “Tuck Brady couldn’t take his eyes off Rainie. It was like the end of The Jungle Book, when Mowgli follows the girl into the village.”
“It was not like that,” I say, even though it completely was. “And Tuck has a girlfriend.”
“Not anymore.” Marin flicks a thick red braid back from her face. “He broke up with Olivia.”
“Why? When?” Sarah looks as surprised as I feel. Tuck and Olivia are one of those perfectly iconic high school couples: hot artsy drama boy with hot artsy artist girl. Does this mean Tuck is now an actual option?
“I don’t know. Maybe a couple weeks ago?” Marin shrugs. “Olivia thinks there’s another chick, but Tuck said there’s not. Who knows.”
“I’m telling you, he’s Mowgli.” Sarah gives me a pointed look. “And you’re the girl with a water bucket on your head.”
I roll my eyes at her. Marin flips her sketchbook to a blank page and slides it across the table at me. “Here, do you want to draw your feelings?” She’s making fun of the life coach who spent a week at school earlier this year, trying to get everyone to identify their dreams and goals.
“I can’t draw,” I tell her. “Especially dreams and goals.”
Because I don’t know what mine are. I never have.
Marin gives me a look that I think is supposed to be supportive. “You took that one art class, remember?” She reconsiders. “I guess, technically speaking, you only took half of the class. But you weren’t bad.”
“I was bad,” I tell her.
“You were better than Sarah, and she stuck it out until the end. Here.” Marin shoves the sketchbook at Sarah. “Show Rainie what a bad little artist you are.”
Sarah draws a stick figure giving the finger and holds it up toward Marin.
“See?” says Marin. “She sucks.”
Sarah pokes out her tongue at Marin. I don’t do or say anything. I’m too confused.
I’ve just reached my locker after algebra (specifically, after an algebra test on which I’m fairly certain I scored my old dependable grade of C). I’m twirling the combination lock when Sarah slams against the locker beside mine. “You’re going to rupture something,” I tell her.
“You’re going to love me,” she says.
“I already love you.”
“Love me more.” She leans in, bringing her voice down. “The drama kids are having a party tonight.”
“The drama kids are always having a party.” I’m being flippant, but the ramifications are already spinning through my head. Recently single boy plus music plus alcohol. These are the ingredients of a zillion successful high school love stories. “Where?”
“Wendell’s house. His parents are in the Poconos for their anniversary.” Sarah pokes me in the arm. “I’ve never hooked up with a drama boy.”
I glance over at Sarah’s flawless complexion and gorgeous Indian features, so different from my boring look: dirty-blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin with a smattering of freckles. She will have no problem finding a drama boy . . . or any boy, for that matter.
As it turns out, Marin doesn’t have Friday plans either, although she draws the line at hooking up with drama boys. “I only like slam poet boys and tennis boys,” she reminds us. “Or the occasional rockabilly girl.”
Marin has very specific tastes.
When the three of us get to the party, Wendell is hanging out on his big wraparound front porch with a couple of other kids. He doesn’t look surprised to see us approaching through the cloud of clove-scented smoke that surrounds him. He throws a peace sign at Sarah. “Slumming it?”
“More like a change of pace,” Sarah tells him.
He jerks a thumb toward the house. “There’s a pony keg in the downstairs bathroom.”
We thank him and head in. On the way, I nudge Sarah. “Wendell is cute, if you don’t mind the cigarettes.”
Inside, the party isn’t raging, but it’s not dead either. A couple dozen people mill about, talking and drinking. It looks like Wendell’s anniversary-celebrating parents have a shot at getting their house returned to them in decent shape, which is better than I can say for the parents of the cheerleader whose party we crashed a few weeks ago.
Reggae music plays from a speaker, and an underclassman sits cross-legged on the floor with a guitar, strumming along. Ella Reynolds kneels beside him with a set of bongos that she’s not so much playing as tapping. Ella and I used to be best friends, but we stopped hanging out in middle school, when I “lost focus” (the guidance counselor’s words, not mine) and Ella started turning into the type of girl who knelt on the floor with bongos.
When Ella sees us, she pushes the bongos off her lap and rises to greet us. “What are you doing, slumming it?” she asks me with a grin.
Sarah rolls her eyes. “I thought you guys were supposed to be all original.” Marin elbows her in the ribs, and Sarah throws up her hands. “What?”
“Sorry,” I tell Ella. “They don’t get out much.”
Sarah throws me a look of mock anger. “We’ll get drinks.” She drags Marin toward the back of the house, presumably in the direction of the famed downstairs bathroom.
Ella takes in my outfit--short dress, tall boots, mascara--which makes me realize I probably overdressed for this particular occasion. The cheerleaders may have been too wild for my taste, but at least I understood their party. You want a boy, you show some skin.
“So, really.” Ella cocks her head to one side. “What are you doing here?”
I shrug (what else am I going to do?). “First summer weekend. Seemed like fun--”
I stop because Ella’s eyes have slid past me and narrowed. I turn to follow her gaze to the front door, where James Dean is entering the room. I mean, James Dean if he was young and artsy and Latino.
And also alive.
The guy is tall--even taller than I am now in my three-inch heels--with light bronze skin and dark brown eyes. Despite the warm June air, he wears jeans and a black jacket over a white T-shirt. As I watch, he reaches up and tucks a strand of his choppy black hair behind one ear.
I give a subtle tug to my hemline. On second thought, maybe this is too much skin.
Beside me, Ella makes a disgusted sound under her breath. “Do you know him?” I ask her.
“Yeah, unfortunately.” She throws a fake smile at him. “My ex. Milo Cabrera. Goes to North. I don’t know why he’s here.”
I remember Ella’s very first boyfriend: a shy sixth grader who later moved out of state. Fine, but nothing to write home about.
This Milo guy, however . . . well, let’s just say Ella has leveled up since sixth grade. Like, all the levels.
I kinda want to keep staring at him, except suddenly Tuck Brady is sauntering into the room. He’s also wearing jeans and a white T-shirt, so maybe there’s some sort of drama-boy dress code I’ve never noticed before. He walks over to Milo, and they do a handshake-into-a-one-armed-hug routine.