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Authors: Jennifer Echols

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

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BOOK: Biggest Flirts
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“Do you promise?” Admittedly, catching a girl in a headlock was less something he would do to Angelica or his beautiful, treacherous girlfriend back home, and more something he would do to one of his little sisters. But his arm was around my neck, his breath was in my ear, and I was very aware that this was the most fun I would have the whole school day, until band last period.

“Mr. Matthews, get off Ms. Cruz,” DeMarcus called through a rolled-up sheet of paper in an excellent imitation of Ms. Nakamoto.

Will released me. I sat up and flipped my braids back over my shoulders like nothing had happened. “Who cut your hair so fast?” I asked. “Did you let your sisters go at it with Barbie scissors?”

He put both hands on the back of his head in horror. “Does it look that bad?”

“No,” I promised him. “I have to stare at you for an hour a day. Two hours, if Ms. Reynolds lets me stay in this desk. When you start falling down on the job, I’ll let you know.”

He put his hands down. “I was driving to school this morning and stopped in at a shop downtown that opened at seven.”

“That was my sister Izzy!” I said with more enthusiasm than I’d felt about her in three or four years.

He pointed at me. “I
thought
. . . well, I did and I didn’t. You look a lot alike, but you’re completely different.”

I nodded. Izzy wasn’t funny.

“Are you two close? You’ve never mentioned her.”

“We used to be, a long time ago. I have three older sisters, and all of us were close when they lived at home. They’ve moved out, though. And I had an argument with Izzy at the beginning of the summer. I stopped in the shop and asked if she needed help taking care of her kids on my nights off from the Crab Lab—”

“Kids?”
Will asked. “How old is she?”

“Twenty-two.” I glossed over his real question, which was
How old was she the
first
time she got pregnant?
Because the answer was
Younger than me
. “Anyway,” I said, “she laughed at me. Admittedly, I’m the last person in the world anybody would want to take care of their kids, but if I offer to help, I don’t want to be laughed at.”

He frowned. “And then what?”

“And then nothing. I haven’t seen her since then.”

“Even though you worked just down the street from her all summer?” When I nodded, he said, “Wow, that’s some chip on your shoulder.”

Yeah, I guessed it was.

The bell rang to start first period. As it clanged, instead of facing the front, he reached across my desk to cover my hand with his. “Have a good senior year, Tia.”

“Awww!” I said, a bit mortified that I seemed so pitiful and needed this boost, but also touched that he would think of lifting me up this way, when he was the one who’d moved clear across the country and had to start over. “You too.”

As he turned around, Ms. Reynolds was already passing out write-in ballots for the Senior Superlatives elections. Mostly I filled in the names of my friends according to the titles I figured they wanted, until I got to Most Academic. There I jotted my own name on the female side, because I knew I wouldn’t get it, and I didn’t want old Angelica to have it.

At the last second I felt bad about this. The little egghead deserved (and probably coveted) that title. If the tally was close, my throwaway vote could have denied her dream, all because I was bitter about her boyfriend, whom I myself had turned down. But by the time I made a move to snatch back my ballot, Will had put it on the bottom and passed the stack to the guy in front of him.

His was on top, completely blank. I’d tried to tutor him on who was who in the senior class, but not everybody remembered stuff the first time they heard it like I did. I doubted he knew anybody’s full name except mine.

We didn’t get another chance to talk during class. As I’d suspected, he was one of those people who actually did calculus during calculus. But I also had AP history and AP English and study hall/lunch with him. Angelica didn’t. I hung out with him during those periods so that he had a friend.

In my classes without him, and while traveling the halls, I heard girls talking about how hot he was, and how stuck up. It didn’t help that he had a Yankee accent people couldn’t quite place, like an elderly snowbird. When I heard them talking behind his back, I tried to help him out by explaining that he was from Minnesota. This elicited moans of “Minne
sooooooo
da!” which did nothing for his popularity.

It also didn’t help that he had his eyes on his phone all the time. And since Angelica didn’t have her eyes on hers, I figured he wasn’t anxiously awaiting her texts. He was probably obsessively checking his friends’ photos for more evidence of his ex gallivanting with his so-called best friend. But he’d told me about that disaster in confidence. It wasn’t my info to share. And if he hadn’t shared it with Angelica, I didn’t know what it would do to their relationship when she found out that she was the rebound girl. I didn’t like him dating her, but I wasn’t going to sabotage it—at least, in a way that he would know about—and make my own relationship with him worse.

I knew about his ex and how lost and lonely he was, because I’d stood next to him in band camp. But he dropped plenty of other hints that he wasn’t the prick everyone made him out to be. There was the dancing, for one thing. He might have seemed serious, but he was often dancing. Not flailing like a freshman at a teen club, mind you, but understatedly boogying to his own beat. It was the drummer in him. Anytime music came on—rap spilling out of a car outside the school, or pop blasting over the loudspeakers in the gym for a girls’ PE class—he was part of it somehow. It might be his head or his toe or just one pointer finger tapping on his thigh, but he was beating out the music as if it was his own.

There was his shyness, for another thing. When someone approached and spoke to him—someone besides me—his lips parted, but he stayed silent. A stricken look entered his blue eyes, and it took him five seconds longer than it would have taken most people without a speech impediment to come up with an answer. He wasn’t stuck up. He just had a hard time meeting new people. Transferring to a new school must have been his nightmare. I was more sure than ever that, driven by fury at his ex, he’d been bluesing for a hookup when he bravely walked into Brody’s party the first night.

Kaye and Harper tried to talk to him in the halls and commented to me later how hard he was to draw out. I felt like I needed to defend him more than ever. But I couldn’t, not to them, because they’d think I still liked him despite not wanting a boyfriend, and then they would never leave me alone. The worst thing in the world would be for those two to decide to “help me through it.” I couldn’t stand to obsess about Will any more than I already did.

It pained me to know that my friends didn’t like him. I’d tried and failed to help him fit in. But a sneaky part of me enjoyed knowing things about him that they didn’t. I doubted his ex had noticed his fingers drumming on his desk to any little beat. Surely if she had, she would have waited for him to come home to Minnesota next May and never let him go. Angelica might have noticed, but I couldn’t picture her appreciating his love for a beat the way I did. Only I understood him, and in some small way, in a tiny warped corner of my mind, that made him mine.

6

“YOU’VE BEEN LYING TO ME,”
Will said in my ear. A chill shot down my neck in the blazing afternoon.

I straightened and stared at him. We’d both been retrieving our drums from the trunk of his car. His 1970s Mustang gave away, yet again, that this uptight boy had a wild streak. Years of Minnesota winters had rusted the wheel wells like he’d been driving through acid, which was why he’d been able to afford the car, and why his parents had wanted him to leave it behind.

I had mixed feelings about the Mustang. I wished his dad had forbidden him to bring it. Then Angelica wouldn’t have shown up in it to night band practice last Monday after their lunch date, waving languidly out the window like a homecoming queen on parade. But I was glad he had this car, because he parked it just outside the stadium. The trunk gave me the perfect place to stash my drum so I didn’t have to lug it back and forth to the band room.

Now I tried to read his expression behind his shades. When he accused me of lying, my mind automatically shot to the fact that I liked him way more than I wanted to let on. Rather than melting under his stare into a pool of hysterical shame, however, I reached for my drum again and commented, “Yes, I have. Which lie do you mean, specifically?”

With an impatient huff, he reached into the trunk, too—it was shady in here, our heads were close together, and if it hadn’t been a hundred and sixty degrees, it would have been a great place to make out—and he dragged out my drum and held it up for me so I could get my shoulders under the harness. “You’ve given me the impression, on purpose, that you’re some free-spirited surfer girl who doesn’t care about school or your future or much of anything at all.”

Uh-oh. I had an idea where this was going, and I tried to spin the conversation in a different direction. “We don’t have a lot of surfers,” I pointed out. “The Gulf is too calm. You’d have to go to the Atlantic side of Florida for that.”

“You know what I mean,” he said. “You pretend to be an airheaded beach bum. If that were true, your friends should be stoners.”

“Well—” I started to point out that Sawyer, though not someone I’d call a stoner because those people had absolutely nothing else to do, had been known to partake. But I wouldn’t get Sawyer in trouble, even for the sake of a joke. And how well did I really know Will, anyway? Maybe old Angelica’s tattletale ways had rubbed off on him.

As Will dragged his own drum out of the trunk, he was saying, “But your best friends are the photographer for the yearbook and the head cheerleader. Something doesn’t compute.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved that was all he’d meant. I’d never thought about it, but Harper and Kaye and I did make an odd trio. “I’m friends with them because we were in gifted class together starting in elementary school.” When he stared blankly at me, I explained, “At your school, maybe they called it enrichment class? Sawyer calls it the loser class.” I held my fingers to my forehead in the shape of an L, Sawyer style.

I jumped as Will slammed his trunk. “That’s just more fuel on the fire. I heard you’re going to be a National Merit Scholar.”

“Ha! That’s what the guidance counselor
says
, based on my test scores. But I have to get a teacher to vouch for my dedication to academics.” I poked him in the ribs with my drumstick as we entered the stream of the band flowing from the school into the stadium. I said more quietly so we wouldn’t be overheard, “I took the PSAT last year. Fifteen minutes before I went in, I’d just had this huge fight with Jason Price. I’m sure you haven’t met him yet.”

“I heard about him.” Will pointed one drumstick at me. “Stoner.”

“Why, yes,” I said, proud of Will for identifying someone in our class by first and last name after all.

“You dated him,” Will said.

“Well, not
dated
,” I said. “Why are you all over me for having winner friends if you also know I had a loser hookup?”

Will was giving me the look that people gave me whenever I purposely misled them and they lost track of what I was telling them and why. I didn’t fool him for long, though. We carefully descended the stadium steps, glancing to the side of our drums so we could see our toes, the air growing hotter as we went. Finally we reached the grass, and he could concentrate on what I was saying rather than on whether he was about to tumble to his death. His brain caught up with my mouth, and he exclaimed in exasperation, “Because if the guidance counselor says you’re going to be a National Merit Scholar, you must have made an almost perfect score on the PSAT!”

“Shhh!” I hissed, looking around to see who’d heard. “You’ll ruin my reputation. See, I was stressed out about Jason, and when I’m stressed, I like to put things in order.”

“But
only
when you’re stressed.” He must have been thinking of his glimpse inside my dark house.

“Obvs. I find multiple-choice tests soothing.”

“That only makes sense if you know all the answers,” he grumbled.

“Of course I know all the answers. I mean, I know them if I’m actually trying to figure them out. So, to make a long story short, I made an almost perfect score because the test caught me on a bad day.”

“Are you talking about her PSAT score?” Kaye asked, jogging over. The cheerleaders had practice on the football field last period, at the same time as the band. We used the middle of the field, they stayed on the sidelines, and we tried not to plow through their pyramids. Normally I would have hugged her hello, but she was about to say something to make this convo with Will worse, I could tell.

Sure enough, she volunteered, “Tia’s an underachiever. She works very hard at it. One year she made a C in Spanish even though she’s bilingual.”

Will looked to me for verification.

I shrugged. “Just because I can speak it doesn’t mean I can spell it.” In Spanish I told Kaye to take her little cheerleader shoes and tumble on over to the sidelines and stay there.

In response, Kaye uttered the only Spanish curse I’d ever taught her, which really was not appropriate for this situation. But she ran across the field toward the other cheerleaders, tossing in a couple of handsprings and a layout as a
so there
. Good riddance. I turned back to Will and grinned like our pleasant small talk had been interrupted but now the children had left us alone again.

“You are incredibly dumb for a smart person,” he said.

I laughed. “I’ve never denied this.”

“You’re just confirming, over and over, that you’ve been lying to me.”

“I haven’t,” I insisted. I knew he was only teasing, but something about being called a liar, by Will, when I really hadn’t meant to mislead him that first night, ticked me off. “
You’re
the one who’s so closed minded that everything has to line up perfectly or it doesn’t make sense. Why can’t I be an underachiever? This is America. I can be anything I want. Besides,
you’re
the one who lied to
me
. When we first met at Brody’s party, I thought we were kindred spirits. You gave me the impression that you were a pirate, with your earring.”

“Oh.” Surprised, he put his hand to his earlobe like he’d forgotten all about his earring.

“I had no idea you turn in your homework,” I said. “Traitor.”

“You mistook me for something else, and that’s the only reason . . .” As we reached our starting spot on the field and faced the home side, his voice trailed off, but his silence told me the rest of what he was thinking. All of it was true. Yes, I’d lured him home last Sunday night only because I thought he was a slacker like me. Yes, he’d ruined everything by being an upstanding Future Pharmacist of America. Yes.

He nodded as if accepting his fate. “So listen, I wanted to ask you something. It’s
not
about a date.”

I laughed to show him I wasn’t uncomfortable that he’d read my mind. And then I kept laughing uncomfortably.

He talked over me. “I’m trying out for Spirit of Atlanta in late November. My parents promised me I could try out for drum corps this year, but that was when we lived in Minnesota and there were three corps right next door in Wisconsin. Now that Atlanta is the closest one, I wondered if you wanted to try out with me.”

My heart was beating so hard it hurt. He’d said he wasn’t asking me for a date, but he was issuing me an invitation for something sweet, something kind, something I almost
wanted
.

Drum corps were basically marching bands with superpowers. They took only the best players from high school and college. They toured the country, competing against each other. It sounded like the perfect place for Will to pass the summer between high school and college—especially if most of it was spent bopping around the northern states, where he wouldn’t overheat at eight a.m. I could tell from the way he talked so wistfully about it that this was one more thing he’d had to give up when he moved.

“I don’t see what my PSAT score has to do with trying out for corps,” I said.

Gathering his thoughts, he tapped his stick on my drumhead a few times. “When I met you, I thought you were a random person who randomly was an excellent drummer. Now I know you’re an excellent drummer on purpose, the type of person who goes out for corps.”

“You’re wrong about me,” I insisted. “You were right the first time. I’m random. When I succeed, that’s the mistake.”

“You make a lot of mistakes.” He sounded hurt. I hoped we weren’t going to have another silent practice like after we argued last Monday.

But he was only waiting for Jimmy, Travis, and the rest of the drummers to arrange themselves in line. When they’d passed, he said quietly, “It would be better to have a friend in corps than to go knowing absolutely nobody, don’t you think? Plus, you have to be there one weekend a month during the school year for practice, and my parents don’t want me to make that seven-hour drive twice in one weekend by myself.”

I turned to look at him. He wasn’t the bad boy he’d seemed at first. Another admission that his mom wanted to keep him safe shouldn’t have surprised me. But that just didn’t jibe with the tall drummer in front of me, looking so serious with his hair cut short, his expression inscrutable behind his mirrored shades.

“What do you think?” he prompted me. “Would your dad let you spend the night in a car with me?”

He was kidding. This was exactly the kind of joke I ribbed him with constantly.

But I found myself speechless. I was imagining spending the night in Will’s car with him. Driving through the night to Atlanta. Talking. Touching. Keeping each other awake behind the wheel.

Then I was thinking about my first night with him. How good he’d made me feel. How I’d decided that one night was enough. How wrong I’d been.

“Tia,” he said.

I snapped, “My dad wouldn’t notice.”

Will’s dark brows knitted behind his sunglasses, and that worry line appeared. “You should try out, then.”

“I couldn’t afford corps.” This wasn’t exactly true. My dad worked so much, and our house was in such a state of disrepair, that a lot of my friends assumed we must be at the brink of bankruptcy. We weren’t. But my dad
was
very tight with our savings. He’d had to support Izzy and Sophia and their kids for a while. Violet hadn’t gotten knocked up and abandoned yet, but we figured she would. By now we both expected the worst.

For that matter, I could have paid for corps myself. I’d saved a lot working two jobs. But saying no to Will was a foregone conclusion. I wanted to get involved with him, but I just couldn’t do that to myself. I knew what would happen next.

Will had an answer for everything. “It’s expensive, but you could apply for a scholarship, or you could get some business in town to sponsor you.”

A business like the antiques shop, I thought grimly as I pulled my vibrating phone out of my pocket and glanced at the screen. I used to answer every time Bob and Roger called, because I was afraid Bob had taken a turn for the worse. But lately they’d started calling me about the
shop
, of all things—where the vintage handbags were on the network of shelves, and how to access the catalog of sterling flatware I’d set up in their computer so they
wouldn’t have to call me
.

As I slipped my phone back into my pocket, unanswered, Will was saying, “I mean, corps isn’t for everyone. Don’t let me talk you into it if you’re not a fan.”

“No, I love corps,” I said. “People complain about traveling the whole summer, eating peanut butter sandwiches three meals a day, and sleeping on school gym floors all over the country, but that sounds fun to me. And not too far removed from my current life. I always wanted to try out.”

He moved his drumsticks apart, a drummer’s version of spreading his hands to shrug. “Why didn’t you?”

“I figured I wouldn’t make it.” A half truth this time. I had a lot of confidence in my ability as a drummer, because I’d listened carefully and compared myself to other players when our band went to games or contests. But I had no confidence in my ability to lead a section or arrive at practice on time. God only knew what I’d be getting myself into in an organization that was actually rigorous.

“You would make it.” He looked sidelong at me beneath his shades. “But maybe you don’t want to chance getting stuck next to me again.”

The highlight of my day, even a fun first day of school like this, was standing next to Will. But I brushed him off. “Maybe
you
don’t want to chance getting stuck next to
me
again, and you regret bringing it up.”

He shut me down. “Nope. So let’s make it official. Will you drive to Atlanta with me for tryouts in November?”

The last thing I wanted was to have a real conversation with Will in which we confronted our issues. But he was watching me with his brows raised behind his shades, which I interpreted as hope in his eyes. Just like Sunday night all over again. I knew he would keep bringing up the idea and I would continue to string him along to avoid either committing to him or disappointing him, unless I went ahead and cut him off. I said, “You think you’ve got me all figured out, but you’re way off the mark. I don’t do stuff like that.”

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