A darkness surged through Roaring Creek, casting a shadow upon its modest homes and oozing onto Vera Martinez’s hands—and it all began, at least for her, the day that Maxwell Oliver’s pale brown eyes turned her way.
He was staring.
Vera flipped a fistful of curls in front of her face and pretended not to notice. This was an unfamiliar situation. Boys never looked at Vera, and certainly not like this.
She opened an eight-hundred-page novel, reduced to the five-inch screen on her phone, and pretended to read. Discreetly, she scratched her scalp with a nail chipped of black polish and let her gaze slip between her wavy strands. Yup, he was still looking.
“All right, class!” Ms. Spuhler cleared her throat to begin their last day of eleventh-grade English. “Settle down.” The teacher grabbed the TV remote, the only tool necessary on the final day of classes.
Roaring Creek High School had the feel of an iPhone powering down one app at a time. Science teachers cleaned lab equipment, jocks threw out ratty sneakers, and theater kids sobbed over the end of another magical season. Vera, however, was the app that no one clicked. She was “Keynotes” or “Numbers,” an icon you couldn’t delete due to manufacturer settings, but was rarely engaged.
So why was Maxwell Oliver suddenly taking notice?
“We’ll be picking up Jane Eyre right where we left off,” said Ms. Spuhler. So far today, Vera had watched Saving Private Ryan in AP History; Hidden Figures in precalculus; and now Jane Eyre in Advanced English.
He’s not looking at me, she reasoned. Then, because she had to prove herself right, Vera glanced at the window behind her, expecting to see a flying squirrel or mating robins drawing Maxwell’s attention. But there was nothing. Not even a breeze.
Her brow furrowed. Vera and Maxwell had never spoken, not directly, or at least if they had, she couldn’t remember it. They’d never been partners on a project or run into each other at the beach. To say they moved in different social circles would imply that Vera had a circle, which she didn’t. Unless you counted her family, and that was just sad. Vera preferred to be thought of as sans-circle. The loner. The outcast. The . . . well, all the other names that people called her.
Her parents had unconventional careers, the kinds that caused dog walkers to cross the street when they passed the Martinez home and mothers to refuse to let their children go over for playdates. Vera had long since accepted this, because what other choice did she have? Hating her reality would mean hating her mom and dad, and she refused to go there.
Maxwell Oliver, on the other hand, was an athlete, an honest-to-goodness I competed in the Junior Olympics sprinter. He was beloved. Janitors high-fived him in the hallway, and girls, if given the option, would line up in formal wear for a chance to accept his thornless rose.
Vera was different, for a slew of reasons that added up to her not being the type who’d catch Maxwell Oliver’s eye. Yet he was staring, almost like he had something to say. It made no sense. Every cell in her brain screamed Don’t fall for it, it’s a trick! But still her stomach twisted with the toxic taste of hope. A shoved-down piece of her soul longed for someone to look at her and see something other than the five-year-old everyone avoided on the playground.
Vera tucked a thick lock of hair behind her ear and gnawed on her lip. She was under no obligation to pretend she didn’t notice. He was staring at her. So technically he should be embarrassed.
She steadied herself, preparing to meet his gaze head-on. What was the worst that could happen? After today, she wouldn’t see Maxwell again until the start of senior year.
Vera inhaled, summoning all her courage from down deep, when Jackson Johnson stumbled into the classroom. He tripped in a walloping belly flop onto the linoleum floor, and the room erupted into laughter. Jackson immediately bounced up, milking the crowd with his arms spread in a victorious V. “We’re almost out of heeeere!” he shouted.
Applause broke out, everyone whooping and giggling as he danced about as if in a training montage. Even Vera chuckled as she stole another peek at Maxwell. His gaze still lingered, lips parted, and he was prepared to mouth something. Then both his friends abruptly turned her way. They whispered, chuckled, clearly talking about her. Vera’s cheeks flushed, and she let her eyes flit about the room until the heat in her face subsided. When she glanced back, Maxwell’s focus hadn’t shifted. Only, before he could speak, Jackson snatched a notebook and smacked Maxwell on the top of his head. Ms. Spuhler dimmed the classroom lights.
And the moment was shattered.
But it had been a moment. Vera was certain of it.
She just didn’t know what it meant.
She would soon.
The darkness hanging over Roaring Creek was inching closer to Vera Martinez.
And it all began with a single look.
“Oh my God! You are so dumb!” yelled Leo Rambutan, thrusting his hands in frustration.
“Why the hell would I know where Indonesia is?” Jackson scrunched his eyes. “It’s an island. I thought it was in the Caribbean.”
“It’s thousands of islands, and because I’ve been your friend since preschool!” Leo slammed the door to his empty locker.
Max Oliver watched as his best friends bickered, shoving one another, but didn’t intercede, because (1) Jackson was that clueless, and (2) Max hadn’t slept more than a couple hours a night for the past two weeks and he didn’t have the energy to referee. His brain throbbed behind his eyes, and it took all his effort to fake some end-of-year enthusiasm.
“Max, please tell me you know my dad’s Indonesian.” Leo slapped his back as they trudged toward English. Only two hours left before the final bell.
Max debated staying home. It was a blow-off day, movie after movie after movie. He tried to get some sleep when the teachers dimmed the lights, but his classmates kept interrupting with invites to parties and flyers for bonfires. Man, I sound pathetic. It was the last day of eleventh grade, which meant it was almost the first day of senior year. He and his friends had been looking forward to this moment since they first stepped into the building, and now he was whining about going to parties? Nothing felt right anymore.
“Yeah, your father was born in Indonesia,” Max said. “Which is somewhere in Southeast Asia. And your mom is, like, Polish?” It sounded like a question.
“Czech, but close enough.” Leo nodded.
“Max got that wrong,” Jackson huffed.
“Poland and the Czech Republic are right next to each other.”
“Why would I know that?”
“Because one day, believe it or not”—Max wrapped an arm around his friend’s broad shoulders—“you might actually leave Connecticut.”
“Says the guy who’s taking over his dad’s business,” Jackson quipped.
Max shut his mouth. Touché.
His family owned Oliver Seafood, one of the town’s only restaurants on the waterfront. Max grew up waddling around picnic tables full of lobsters in plastic tubs, while his dad worked the kitchen and his mom kept the books.
Then, just like it had for many people in Roaring Creek on that same hideous, unforgettable day, his world changed.
“Sorry, man, didn’t mean to bring it up.” Jackson caught the change in Max’s face, or the laser stare from Leo; either way, he shifted to pity mode. It always came back to the dead dad.