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Authors: Jennifer Echols

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Social Issues, #Friendship, #General

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But I was sure he hadn’t mentioned anything to me about drums last night. I would remember. I hadn’t been
that
drunk. In fact, I’d watched him tapping his fingers to the rhythm of the music and wondered if he was a drummer, but I hadn’t put two and two together. “I thought they sent you to me because you wanted to get drunk and hook up.”

He shifted to face me on the towel. “They would meet a complete stranger at a party and send him to hook up with their drunk friend?”

He had a point. Kaye and Harper were way more protective of me than that. “I guess not,” I admitted. “I was drunk as I was thinking this.” I went back over what had happened last night when I looked up from my bench and saw a pirate. His explanation didn’t make sense. “No,” I insisted. “I thought you wanted a beer. I gave you a beer. You took it.”

“I didn’t drink it.”

I glanced around, suspicious that I had been transported to a parallel universe where high school boys didn’t drink the beer they were given. But there was still only one sun, mostly blocked by a tall palm, and I didn’t detect extra moons or a visible ring around the planet.

As I thought about it, though, I decided I’d seen his true nature from the beginning—if not when he found me on Brody’s back porch, at least by the time he walked me home and acted like a gentleman instead of the scoundrel I was expecting. I’d seen it, but I hadn’t wanted to see it.

Yet if he
was
that innocent, what business did he have coming to a party and deliberately sitting next to the girl over the cooler? I pointed out, “We spent a lot of time together last night. You had plenty of chances to tell me that you’re on the drum line, or that we would be seeing each other again soon, as in
this morning
.”

He nodded. “You’ve got me. I didn’t intend to hide it from you. Once we started talking, I was having fun with you, and I didn’t want anything to ruin it.”

That I understood. I’d felt the same way the countless times I’d thought,
This boy is not a real pirate.

“And I hoped we were heading for something really good. If we’d started dating, which honestly was what I
assumed
was going to happen after last night, the fact that we’d have to spend so much time standing right next to each other would have been
good
news.”

“It’s still good news,” I assured him. “I just don’t want a boyfriend.”

“I get it,” Will said.

Ms. Nakamoto issued instructions through her microphone then, commanding all the drums to move our equipment so DeMarcus could place clarinet players in a curlicue where we’d been sitting. As we lugged our stuff five yards downfield and plopped on the forty-five, I pondered whether Will really did “get it,” as he’d said. My reasons for not wanting a boyfriend ran deep. Not even my closest friends completely got what I only half understood about myself.

“Jesus. It’s. Hot!” Will took off his cap, poured bottled water over his head, slicked his fingers through his hair, and put his cap back on.

“You’ll get used to it,” I assured him, munching a Pop-Tart.

“By the time I get used to it, I’ll be gone.”

This was true for a lot of the old people who thought they wanted to retire here. They came into the antiques shop to buy knickknacks for the cute cottage where they planned to live out their days. They told me it was a lot hotter in Florida than they’d imagined, and they asked if we were in the midst of an unusually hot spell. I told them no. When they reappeared a few weeks later to sell their knickknacks back to me, they admitted they were packing up and heading back to Cleveland. They weren’t as sick of five feet of snow each winter as they’d initially thought.

But a high school senior couldn’t do what he chose, obviously, so Will’s words sounded bitter. I wondered again whether he was taking my no-boyfriend rule the wrong way: that is, personally.

I teased him, which was my solution to every problem. “If you want to stay cool, getting rid of the Paul Bunyan beard might help.”

He rasped one hand across his stubbly cheek. “I can’t find my razor.”

“Your refrigerator and now your razor?” I poked out my bottom lip in sympathy. “We have razors in Florida, you know. And stores to buy them in. We’re not
that
weird.”

“I didn’t want to be late this morning.” He glanced sideways at me. “To beat you in the challenge.”

“Ohhhhh!” I sang. “That hurt.” It didn’t really, but he’d seemed so straight-laced in the bright light of morning that the jab did surprise me. “By the way, how did you memorize the drum cadence so quickly?” I’d arrived too late to hear him, but he must have played the challenge perfectly to pull ahead of me.

“As soon as I knew I was moving here, I wrote ahead and asked Ms. Nakamoto to send me the music,” he explained. “I’d already planned to challenge you on the first day. I mean”—he corrected himself when I raised an eyebrow—“I’d planned to challenge the drum captain. I didn’t know it was you. Until last night.”

Then he leaned over until his breath tickled my ear. By now just about all the boys in the band had pulled off their shirts, and some girls had too if they’d remembered to wear a bikini top or sports bra underneath. But I was very aware of Will’s bare chest in particular, and the way he’d set my skin on fire last night, as he whispered, “You let me beat you, didn’t you?”

I gazed at him, neither confirming nor denying, and hoped that, behind my sunglasses, my eyes were as unreadable as his. I didn’t like to lie, but I wasn’t willing to admit this either.

He whispered again, “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.”

Ms. Nakamoto was calling to us again: Everybody up. Back to our places. The drum captain had to provide a beat while the whole band marched through the first formation of halftime. Drummers scrambled toward us from all corners of the field. But Will and I sat watching each other. We understood each other better than either of us was comfortable with.

The moment passed. He stood and pulled me up after him. We marched elbow to elbow through the first thirty-two measures of the song, then stopped to let DeMarcus shift people a few steps up or back according to what Ms. Nakamoto hollered.

“So, this school’s mascot is the pelican?” Will asked.

I was relieved that he’d dropped the serious conversation. Or maybe he just didn’t care to have one while the third- and fourth-chair snares, Jimmy and Travis, and all the cymbal players could hear us. As long as he wanted to be jocular, I didn’t care why.

“You’ve come to this realization only gradually?” I asked. “How did you interpret the large sign at the entrance to campus that says
HOME OF THE PELICANS
?”

“I thought it was a
home
for
pelicans
.” He gestured to five of them flying in formation overhead, on their way from one inlet to another.

“You did not.”

“School mascots are supposed to be fierce,” he explained. “Cardinals and ducks and pelicans are poor choices. If you’re going to pick a bird, pick one that hunts prey or eats carrion, at least.”

“Right. Let me guess. You transferred here from Uptight Northern High School, Home of the Vultures.”

“We aren’t vultures.” With mock self-righteousness, he said, “Our mascot is the Wrath of God.”

I snorted with laughter I didn’t quite feel. Granted, he’d been in town only two days. But I wished he’d referred to his other team as “they” rather than “we,” and in the past tense. He still identified himself as a member of his old school, not this new one. If he had his way, he probably
would
make it back to Minnesota before he got used to the heat. I watched a bead of sweat crawl down the side of his neck.

And I felt a fresh pang of guilt that I was part of the reason he didn’t like it here. I certainly hadn’t helped matters by taking him home and then brushing him off. But I wasn’t about to change my no-boyfriend policy just to make a cute stranger feel more welcome.

I said calmly, “I see. And your marching band was called the Marching Wrath of God?”

“Please tell me this band isn’t the Marching Pelicans.” He sounded horrified.

“Yes,” I said with gusto. We weren’t really. We were called the Pride of Pinellas County. “It’s weird, but no weirder than lutefisk.” Another score, courtesy of lessons on state trivia in Mr. Tomlin’s third-grade class.

“Oh!” Will gaped at me in outrage. “No lutefisk jokes. That is
low
.”

“Just preparing you for when school starts.” Sawyer would be at the top of the list for making lutefisk jokes.

“The Tampa Bay Rays have a good name,” Will said contemplatively. “Stingrays kill somebody every once in a while, right?”

“Well, they used to have a manta ray on the logo, but now the Rays are supposed to be sun rays,” I informed him. “Like
that’s
dangerous.”

He took off his hat, wiped his brow with his forearm, and put his hat back on. “Depends on whether you’re from Minnesota.”

I laughed heartily at this. “I could be wrong. Maybe they’re just a bunch of guys named Ray. Plumbers.”

“And their logo is an exposed butt crack.”

I pointed at him with one drumstick. “Perfect! We should clue Sawyer in. That would make a great look for the team mascot.”

Will squinted at me over the top of his sunglasses. “Sawyer?”

“Yeah. He’s the school mascot, our dangerous pelican.”

“Sawyer, your boyfriend?” He gave me what I imagined was a steely glare through his shades.

I’d made clear last night that I didn’t have a boyfriend. And I
thought
I’d made clear—as clear as I could make a relationship when it was admittedly a bit cloudy to begin with—that if I did
acquire
a boyfriend, Sawyer wouldn’t be it.

But in Will’s voice I’d heard that same bitterness from a few minutes earlier. He pressed his lips tightly together. I was doomed to stand next to this guy for the rest of the year, and he was making sure that I knew at every turn how jealous he felt.

I didn’t want a guy
acting
like a boyfriend any more than I wanted the real thing. But as we watched each other, tingles spread across my chest as if he was kissing my neck.

An electronic beep interrupted us. “Hold on,” he said, raising one finger. Obviously he thought it was important that we come right back to this stare-down when he finished his other business. He pulled his phone from his pocket and glanced casually at the screen. As soon as he saw it, though, his jaw dropped. He tapped the phone with his thumb again.

“Fuck!” he shouted in a sharp crack that bounced against the bleachers. He turned toward the goalpost, reared back, and hurled his phone—quite an athletic feat, considering he was still wearing his snare drum.

“Oh, God,” I exclaimed, “what’s the matter?”

Travis said, “Nice arm,” and Jimmy agreed, “Forty, fifty yarder.”

Will pointed at them with both drumsticks. Afraid he was going to launch into a tirade and get in trouble with Ms. Nakamoto, I put a hand on his chest to stop him.

Too late. Everyone in the band had turned around to gape at him. The ones who hadn’t heard his curse whispered questions to the people standing next to them about what he’d said. And Ms. Nakamoto had definitely heard him.

“Hey!” she hollered, hurrying over from a row of trombones. She must have forgotten Will’s name, because if she’d known it, instead of “Hey!” she would have shouted an outraged
Mr. Matthews!
She hustled right up to the front of his snare drum and frowned at him, hands on her hips, whistle swinging on a cord. She was at least a foot shorter than him. “Is that how you talked during band practice where you came from?”

“No.” He should have said “No, ma’am,” but I didn’t think
that
was how people talked in Minnesota either, and he hadn’t been here long enough to know better. I hoped she wouldn’t hold it against him.

“Do you think that’s appropriate language for the drum captain?” she demanded. “Do you think you’re a good role model for freshmen when you lose your cool like that? Because I can give the responsibility right back to Ms. Cruz if you can’t handle it.”

“Let’s not be hasty,” I spoke up.

“I’m really sorry,” Will told her. On top of his drum, he gripped his sticks so tightly that his knuckles turned white. “I got this . . . this . . .”

“Upsetting message on your phone, when phones aren’t allowed in band practice?” she prompted him.

Officially we had a rule against phones, but Ms. Nakamoto didn’t normally enforce it because a lot of band camp was spent hurrying up and waiting for something to happen. She wouldn’t have come down on him like this if he hadn’t hollered the
F
-word an hour after becoming drum captain.

But I could save him. Placing one hand on his back, I leaned forward and said quietly to Ms. Nakamoto, “We’ll just go for a short walk, okay? Will moved here yesterday all the way from Minnesota. It’s a big adjustment, and things aren’t going smoothly.” I assumed from his reaction to the message that this was the understatement of the century.

Ms. Nakamoto turned her frown on me, then pursed her lips. I couldn’t see her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I hoped I’d caught her off guard with my offer of help, which was probably a first for me in three years of high school band.

She muttered something and turned away. Not wasting any time lest she change her mind, I gave Will a little push in the direction of his phone.

“While you’re over there, see if you can find some change I dropped at practice last year,” Jimmy said.

Will turned to him angrily, his drum knocking against mine. He was beyond caring, obviously, and anything was liable to set him off now. The bad-boy hockey player I’d seen in him hadn’t been entirely my imagination.

I whispered to Jimmy, “Shut up. You don’t want
me
back in charge, do you?” I put my arm around Will’s waist—the way he’d touched me at the party the night before—and steered him downfield.

4

WHILE MS. NAKAMOTO WENT BACK
to issuing orders through her microphone, and the giggles of the clarinets faded behind us, Will and I walked toward the goalpost and ditched our drums. I spotted his phone in the grass and pointed it out to him. He didn’t move any closer but instead stared at it in distaste, his nostrils flared like he didn’t want to touch it. I plucked it out of the grass for him. It wasn’t his phone, though. It was one half of its plastic cover, emblazoned with a logo of a sunset behind evergreen trees and the words
MINNESOTA WILD
.

A couple of yards farther on, I picked up the other half of his phone cover. It was printed with the slogan
MINNESOTA IS THE STATE OF HOCKEY
. Sad.

The phone itself glinted in the sunlight—smack on the white goal line. I dusted off some of the lime before holding it out to him.

“You can look,” he grumbled.

I didn’t want to invade his privacy. But I was dying to know what had happened. And clearly he wanted to tell someone.

I peered at the screen. It was a text from someone named Lance. All it said was “Dude.” Attached was a photo of a dark-haired beauty with porcelain skin. She smiled sweetly into the camera, eyes bright. A cute guy with curly blond hair kissed her neck.

“Who’s the girl?” I asked, my heart sinking into my stomach.

He verified what I’d been thinking. “My girlfriend. Beverly.”

I nodded. “Who’s the guy?”

“My best friend.”

I looked up at him sadly. “Only two days after you left?”

“The same day I left,” he said. “I mean, that picture was from last night, but I already heard they got together the night before that.”

“So she didn’t waste any time after you broke up?” I asked gently.

“We didn’t break up,” he snapped. “I’m going to be down here for only a year, and then I’m going back to Minnesota for college.”

“Oh,” I said. Right. He wouldn’t be here long enough to get used to the heat.

“We weren’t going to have to do the long-distance thing forever. Less than a year. We were going to see each other at Christmas when I visit my grandparents, and maybe spring break. So we said good-bye two days ago, and I left in my car, right? My parents wanted me to sell it, if anyone would even buy it, because they didn’t trust me to drive it down here by myself. But I convinced them.” He was talking with his hands now. The car was important. He had this in common, at least, with boys from Florida.

“I was at a gas station in Madison when I checked my texts. I had ten different messages from
everybody
that she was cheating on me
right then
with my best friend at a party.” He pointed to the phone in my hands, as though this was all the phone’s fault. “I tried to call her, but she didn’t answer. I tried to call him. I thought maybe I should drive back and confront . . . somebody. But what good would that have done?” He paused like he wanted me to answer.

“Right,” I said. Going back to fix it would have been like trying to repair a house of cards with a window open to the breeze.

He looked toward Ms. Nakamoto as rim taps raced across the field to us. While Will and I were missing, Jimmy was beating the rhythm for the band to march into the next formation.

“I ended up driving around Madison for an hour,” Will said. “I knew going back to Minnesota wouldn’t do any good. And I needed to get here in time to try out for drum captain today. But the farther I drove from home, the less relevant I was going to be to any of my friends’ lives. Then my dad chewed me out for being an hour late to the checkpoint in Indianapolis. He kept asking me where I was all that time. I was watching my entire life go down the drain, thank you.”

I set my sunglasses down on my nose so I could look at him in the real light of day. “Therefore, when you came to the party last night, you
were
looking for a good time. A rebound girl. I didn’t read you wrong after all.”

He folded his arms on his bare chest like he was cold all of a sudden. “I’m sorry, Tia. For the first seventeen years of my life, I did everything right. For the past forty-eight hours, I’ve done everything wrong.”

He hadn’t kissed wrong last night. I wanted to tell him that to cheer him up. Then I decided against it because he seemed to be counting
me
as one of the things he’d done wrong.

A lot of boys considered me the wrong kind of girl. I wasn’t offended. At least, I thought I wasn’t, until this came out of my mouth: “You didn’t do the deed with her just before you left, did you?”

“I . . . what?”

“She cheated on you the same night you left. Last night she was at it again. That’s why someone sent you this picture, right? Lance can’t believe her gall.”

“Right,” Will said tentatively, afraid of where I was going with this. Good instinct.

“Any guy in his right mind would be outraged at her and think, ‘Good riddance.’ But you’re devastated. You know what would do that to you? Finally having sex with her on your last night together. That’s where people go wrong—
not
doing it for a long time, and putting so much emphasis on the act that when it finally occurs, it leaves you an emotional wreck. She probably wanted to do it for months, but you refused because she was a nice girl. She told you she wanted one special night with you, and then she would wait for you until you came back for college. Really it was her way of tricking you into sex and taking advantage of you.”

“That’s enough,” he bit out. He held out his hand for his phone.

Feeling sheepish now, I gave it to him.

He pocketed it and picked up his drum.

I snagged mine by the harness and hurried back toward the drum line. Jimmy thought it was funny to speed up the beat until the band was practically running to their places rather than marching. That was going to annoy Ms. Nakamoto, who was probably nearing the end of her rope already. She would blame Will and threaten to give the drum captain responsibility back to me again. I started running myself, determined to prevent one tragedy today.

Will returned right after I did, taking over the marching rhythm from Jimmy. But the camaraderie between us was gone. He stayed utterly silent for the rest of the hour.

And I felt sorry for him. With only a little glimpse into his life back home, I could tell he was a nice guy. A hockey player and the drum captain, who had friends and a girlfriend. The friends he’d had and the titles he’d held were a big part of who he was. Rip him away from that and he wasn’t even a nice guy anymore. Down here he was just an unknown hottie with no tan and a temper.

By the beginning of the third hour, I’d had enough. Will wandered away from me and sat on the grass. I spread my towel out right next to him and sat down. He stubbornly slid away. I picked up my towel again and moved it closer. He looked toward the press box, chin high in the air, but he bit his lip like he was trying not to laugh.

“What I said was way too personal,” I whispered in his ear. If he’d been obsessing over our fight as I had been, he would know exactly what I was talking about. “I’m sorry. You said some personal things about me, and I pretended not to care when I really did, and then I jumped down your throat when you came to me for help.”

He smiled with one corner of his mouth. “I’m sorry too. We’ve insulted each other a lot for two people who hardly know each other.”

“We’ve also made out a lot for two people who hardly know each other. It all evens out. But we’ve got to find a way to make peace. Otherwise it’s going to be a long year of standing next to each other. Almost as long as the last thirty minutes.”

He gave me a bigger smile. “Agreed. Don’t mention lutefisk again, okay?”

“I promise. I will also bathe from now on, or stand downwind of you.” I tossed my hat onto the grass and pulled the hair bands off the ends of both braids, which probably looked like old rope on a shipwreck by now. I bent over to shake my hair out, then turned right side up again and started one French braid down my back by feel.

He watched me without speaking. When I finished, he said, “As long as you’re tidying up, your shirt’s buttoned wrong.”

I looked down. Sure enough, one side hung longer than the other. “
You
did that,” I accused him.

“What are you saying? That you want me to fix it?”

“If you dare.”

He glanced over at Ms. Nakamoto, then at DeMarcus. He unbuttoned my top button and put it through the proper hole, then fixed the next button, periodically looking up to make sure he wasn’t about to get expelled for molesting me one button at a time. He never rubbed me “accidentally” or undid more buttons than necessary at once, but the very act of letting him do this in public was enough to make chills race down my arms.

“I think we’re sending each other mixed messages,” he said.

“I think I’ve sent you a very clear message,” I corrected him, “and you’re choosing not to receive it.”

His hands paused on the bottom button. “You mean you
do
like what I’m doing right now, but you
don’t
want to date me.”

“Date
anybody
,” I fine-tuned that statement. “See? You
do
get it.”

Ms. Nakamoto called through her microphone, “Mr. Matthews, take your hands off Ms. Cruz.”

The whole band said with one voice, “Oooooh.”

Will put up his hands like a criminal. This time, despite my shades, I could tell he was blushing.

Jimmy called from the next towel over, “At least Ms. Nakamoto knows your name now.” Travis gave him a high five.

Will and I sat in companionable silence while the band lost interest in us. Ms. Nakamoto was making the trumpets into a square, which seemed fitting, knowing our trumpets. DeMarcus got into a shouting match with a trombone. A very stupid heron, even bigger than the egret from last night, landed near the tubas, and they followed it around. Out on the road past the stadium, a car cruised by with its windows open, blasting an old salsa tune by Tito Puente. Will absentmindedly picked up his drumsticks and tapped out the complex rhythm, which he’d probably never heard before, striking the ground and his shoe in turn to create different tones, occasionally flipping a stick into the air and catching it without looking.

I hadn’t thrown that challenge after all. He really was a better drummer than me.

“Can I ask you something?” His voice startled me out of the lull of the hot morning.

We were trying to be nice to each other, so I refrained from saying,
You just did.
And I braced for him to probe me about my aversion to dating. He didn’t seem to want to let that go.

“There was a girl at the party last night named Angelica.” He pointed across the field at her with a drumstick. “I saw her this morning. She’s a majorette.”

“You’re kidding,” I said.

“Shut up. I know you’re making fun of me. She was with the drum major last night, but some of the cymbals told me they broke up afterward.”

Wow. DeMarcus and Angelica had dated since the beginning of the summer. They’d texted each other constantly for the month DeMarcus had been in New York. I knew this because he would occasionally mention it online. And she’d broken up with him the first night he got back? I bet it was because he’d drunk a beer at Brody’s party.

I could have told Will,
Better than her breaking up with him on the day he moves across the country, eh?
Instead I said diplomatically, “I hadn’t heard that.”

“My question is, were they really serious? Because if it was casual, I might ask her out. If they were serious, I wouldn’t move in. I don’t want people to hate me. Not my first week, anyway.”

I had no skin in this game. But I wondered if he was playing me, to get back at me for turning him down last night, and saying what I’d said about his ex-girlfriend this morning. It didn’t make sense that he would
really
be interested in both Angelica and me. The gap between the two of us could not be accounted for by the normal boundaries of taste.

So maybe he didn’t
really
like
me
.

I told him the truth. I owed him that much, after the trials I’d put him through in the past twelve hours. “As far as I know, it was casual.”

“Good,” he said, and then, “Thanks.”

We uttered hardly a word to each other for the rest of the time we sat together. The silence was as awkward as it had been before we made up, but this time it was because Will had designs on Angelica. I wasn’t sure why that would turn him cold to me. For my part, I wasn’t jealous, only disappointed that he had such poor taste in women besides me.

In the last hour of practice, gloriously, we got up, and the whole band played the opening number that we’d been marching through with only a drum tap all morning. I worked out my stress by playing a perfect rhythm, my beat fitting with the quad and bass and cymbal parts like pieces of a puzzle. During the pauses between run-throughs, I showed Will some of the tricks the snares had done at contests in the past, reaching over to play on each other’s drums during some passages, and tossing our sticks in the air, which was only effective visually if the freshmen didn’t drop them. Will taught me some even better tricks he knew from back home. We devised a plan to try some of these ideas in future practices and determine how well the worst players could handle them.

We’d joked around before, but now we were building solid mutual respect. Now we were friends.

Or so I thought. Then Ms. Nakamoto let us go for the morning, and Will didn’t even give me a proper good-bye. “See you at practice tonight,” he called over his shoulder as he made a beeline across the field to catch Angelica. Not wanting to witness their young love, I followed at a slower pace, saying hi to some girls in color guard and playfully threatening to bulldoze right over a mellophone player, snare drum first.

By the time I made it back to the band room to deposit my drum, word among the cymbals was that Will had asked Angelica to lunch. Lunch! I never heard of such a thing. He’d already whisked her off in his famous car. The way the other majorettes out in the parking lot were gossiping about them, Will and Angelica were an item already.

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