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Authors: Whitney Lyles

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BOOK: Love Off-Limits
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“Yeah, I'm still up.” She rolled over in bed and flipped off her light. She liked to chat in the dark. “What are you doing?” she asked. Usually he was glued to his Wii by this point in the evening.

“I'm just hanging on my balcony.” What he referred to as his balcony was more
of a large window ledge that was probably never intended for more than decoration. He'd popped out his screen a long time ago and had sat out there looking at stars and just hanging out when he needed some alone time. “What about you? What have you been up to all evening?”

Oh, just corresponding with complete strangers about whether or not you would still be my boyfriend if I had one ear.
“Just the usual. Dinner with the fam. Homework. You know.”

“My dad has a girlfriend.” His voice sounded heavy.

The remark took Natalie by surprise. “Oh…are you sure?”

“Yeah, he told me over the phone. I guess he's been seeing her for a couple weeks now. He wants Chad and me to meet her next weekend.”

“I thought he was in counseling with your mom.”

“I did too.”

“I'm sorry, Jere. Are you okay?”

“I'm fine.” He answered a little too quickly. “I mean, I guess I just don't know what to think. I knew things weren't going well, and honestly I thought it would be kind of cool having them separated. They
wouldn't both be around breathing down my neck all the time. But now it's just a hassle. And my mom is all bummed out. I hate seeing my mom so sad. It sucks.”

She suspected he'd never opened up like this to anyone—even Matt. She remembered the day Jeremy's parents had separated. He'd even gotten choked up when he'd told her. All she could really do was listen. She'd known he wasn't looking for a bunch of crapola love-column Dr. Phil–type advice. He'd just needed to tell someone. It was the same now.

The other end of the phone was so quiet that she could hear coyotes howling by his house. They sounded echoic and faint. She didn't know what to say. “I think you just need to think about yourself for now, Jere. Don't worry about everything so much, you know? Let your parents figure it out. Just be you. Maybe your dad just needs to figure things out. Maybe he just needs some time.” As she said the words she felt like such a jerk, because she could sort of relate to his dad.

“I guess.” He didn't sound optimistic. “Nat, sometimes I think you're the only real person I have in the world. You and Matt.”

She knew that whatever happened she
could not take time for herself at this point. In spite of the fact that she had doubts about their romantic relationship, she still cared deeply for him as a friend. She didn't think she could stand to see him suffer anymore. “You know I'm always here for you.”

“Promise.”

“Of course.”

He was quiet again, and then he seemed to snap out of his funk. His voice picked up a beat. “So we have to start hunting for our costumes.”

“That's right.” She was happy for his change of mood.

They chatted for a few more minutes before saying good night. She pulled her blankets up around her shoulders and thought of all her mixed feelings. She tried to think if she knew of anyone who'd been in a similar situation to her love life. Only the movies—specifically tragedies.

She could hear coyotes howling outside. They often cried in the night. The bad feeling came over her again. As she turned over in bed it hit her like a ton of bricks. She'd never closed out the computer screen in the newsroom. She had left the newsroom in such a haste she'd forgotten that she'd only
hit minimize. She'd never actually closed it out. That meant that anyone could walk in and read what she had written. No one knew she was behind the column except Matt, who was one of the last people she wanted to see it. What if he told Jeremy?

Four

The only other time Natalie had woken up before her alarm clock had been when she'd first begun dating Jeremy. Her excitement level back then had been so intense that she'd naturally risen with the sun. Butterflies had squashed her appetite. Rather than eating breakfast she'd spend an hour on hair and makeup.

On this particular morning her eyes popped open before the sound of her alarm clock greeted her. She skipped breakfast, and she couldn't help but think of the irony. Once, she'd gotten up early for love, and now she was getting up early to avoid having anyone discover that she was so conflicted by love. She'd been up half the night
worrying. She was
pretty
sure that Matt wouldn't tell Jeremy about the column and all her bleak opinions about relationships. Guys didn't run and tell each other stuff like that, and Matt was just cool that way. He wasn't nosy and certainly wasn't the type to stir up drama. But the risk was still there. Besides, she didn't want Matt to know her true feelings either. Her sarcasm had really been for her own entertainment, and thinking of Matt reading her silly words was embarrassing.

Parking on campus a half hour before school started was the only bonus she could find from the whole situation. Most mornings she ended up in the Outer Space parking lot. She ran to the English building, which housed the journalism room. While sprinting across campus, she realized there was a good chance she'd have to wait for Mr. Moore, the newspaper adviser, to arrive so he could unlock the door. Oh Lord, what if he didn't arrive until right before classes began, or worse, later in the day? She'd never come to the newsroom this early. For all she knew it was closed until third period, which meant she'd either get detention or have to wait to fix her little problem.
She felt a mixture of relief and terror when she noticed that the newsroom door was propped open. Relief that she'd be able to get in there, and terror her true feelings had already been exposed.

When she entered, Matt was seated at the same computer she'd been sitting at yesterday.
No!
Maybe there was a small chance he hadn't seen her little minimized article in the bottom corner, or maybe he'd just figured that since it wasn't his own work he should just leave it untouched.

“Hey, Natalie,” he said. His light blue eyes were almost the same exact color as his T-shirt. She couldn't help it if she thought he was cute. He wasn't the kind of guy that was drop-dead gorgeous—like Jeremy—but there was something about him. His blond shaggy curls, his dimples, and his long eyelashes. He looked sweet, but also strong and capable with his broad shoulders and sinewy arms.

“Matt, you're here early.” She tried to act casual, as though her early arrival was routine.

“So are you. Your computer still down?”

“No. Actually, I just came to give you my latest column.” She tried not to make
it obvious as she glanced at the screen. Her work was gone.

He seemed surprised. “Natalie? The biggest procrastinator at the paper is handing in her article early?” Anyone acquainted with Natalie knew that getting things done early was so not her style. She was more the “come screeching in at the last minute” type of girl—with everything.

“Well, you know. I just wanted to get it over with.”

“Mr. Moore will be stoked too. That's cool that you're enjoying the column.”

If he only knew.
Obviously, he hadn't seen the phony column.

He sighed. “We are so swamped.”

It was no secret that the paper was slammed whenever there was a big event like a theme dance on campus. “Is there anything else I can do to help?” she asked.

He thought for a moment. “How do you feel about picking up an extra feature article? I'm sure Mr. Moore will give you extra credit for it, and I've already done some of the work. I could fill you in after school today. We could do it together.”

Natalie had mentioned to Jo that she might swing by after school today, and
she was actually feeling really good about having all of her assignments behind her, but how could she say no? He seemed like he really needed the help. “Yeah, all right. What's it about?”

“Finding just the right Halloween costume. I talked about it with Mr. Moore, and we're hoping for some creative ideas—fresh things that no one has ever come as before. And I thought it might be cool to add, like, a Halloween costume quiz at the end. Something like ‘What does your costume really say about you?' or ‘What costume best suits your personality?'”

“I love it! That sounds like fun.” Natalie loved personality quizzes and was always taking them in all her favorite magazines. The newspaper had never done anything like this before.

“You want to meet back here after last period?” she asked.

He nodded.

If he'd seen the other column, he certainly wasn't acting like it, but then that meant someone else had probably seen it and closed out the screen. But they wouldn't know who she was, anyway. She fished around in her backpack for the disk, and when she glanced
up she realized that all the other computers in the room were turned off. She pulled out the disk and sat at a computer next to Matt. “So these computers get turned off every night?” she asked.

“Yes. The custodian, I'm pretty sure, shuts everything down. All I know is that whenever I come back in the morning they're turned off.”

Hallelujah!
It sounded like the only person who could've potentially seen the fake column was the janitor. And what would he care?

 

It was halfway through lunchtime before she finally ran into Jo. Her best friend came toward her with a look of mischief in her eyes—not an uncommon look for Jo. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail at the nape of her neck. She was dressed in an expensive-looking pair of skinny jeans with a silver tank top. A stylish pair of pointy flats with little buckles over the tips completed the look. Jo always looked good in clothes. She rarely came to school in an outfit that didn't attract compliments. Natalie, on the other hand, dressed for comfort. Converse All Stars, her favorite destroyed jeans, tank
tops, and hooded sweatshirts made up her uniform.

Jo was also one of those lucky girls who never had to worry about a tan. Her Iranian heritage had given her the bonus of beautiful bronzed skin, exotic features, and a grandmother who could tell fortunes. Natalie's skin was the color of a baby's butt, and her grandmother came with Prints William.

Jo's angelic face featured big round dark eyes that always seemed to appear inquisitive and caring. “So, can you keep a huge secret?” Jo asked.

Whenever anyone phrased a question with those words, the answer was yes. Who in their right mind would say no when it sounded like juicy news was on the way? “Of course. You didn't think I'd say no, did you?”

“So, I just came from the Howl at the Moon committee meeting, and guess who is on the ballot for the couples costume queen and king for the second year in a row?”

Natalie knew the answer, but for some reason didn't want to admit it. “Who?”

“You!” Her eyes widened as she pointed to Natalie. “You and Jeremy!”

“Oh. Great!”

“Oh great?”

“Well, you know how I've been feeling.”

“I know, but it's just the school dance. It will be fun.” Jo knew how Natalie felt, but Natalie sensed that she didn't fully understand. It was like Jo just thought that Natalie was going through a phase.

“Have you figured out who you're going to ask yet?” Natalie asked. It was a sore subject, mostly because the guy Jo had a crush on had already been asked. Poor Jo had been waiting all summer for this dance, finally working up the nerve to ask Brian Gonzalez. As soon as Howl at the Moon bids went on sale, Kelly Green may as well have been riding a broomstick when she swept in and asked Brian before Jo had a chance.

She shrugged. “I'm not sure. I'm never going to find anyone at this stupid school. I'll be single the rest of my life.” Jo was always doom and gloom when it came to her love life, mostly because she'd never had a boyfriend. She was dying for one. It was often hard for Natalie to complain about her own love life when Jo thought Natalie was the luckiest person on earth.

“You can always take Vincent.”

Jo sighed. “I know. But for once I'd
like to go to the dance with someone where sparks actually fly.” She changed the subject, as she always did when Natalie tried to bring up any romantic possibilities between Jo and Vincent. “Are you coming over today?” Jo asked.

“I think I'm going to be a little late. I promised Matt I would meet him in the newsroom. I guess there's a lot of work for the Halloween issue of the paper, and I said I would help with another article.”

“Try to swing by after that. Seto said she would read our cups.”

Natalie felt a surge of excitement. Jo's grandmother, Seto, could see the future by reading the inside of teacups. It was the coolest thing ever, and Natalie would never pass up an opportunity to have her fortune told, especially at a time when she needed so much guidance. “I'm there.” As she waved good-bye to Jo, she felt a knot in her stomach. She was excited to have her cups read, but the future seemed so uncertain.

Five

Mr. Moore greeted Natalie when she entered the newsroom. A few of her fellow staff writers also waved.

“So, you're going to take on our personality quiz,” Mr. Moore said.

Natalie nodded. “It sounds like fun.”

“Good. I think you're just the right person for that assignment.” He'd said that about the love column too. And now look.

Mr. Moore couldn't be nicer. Always encouraging and enthusiastic, he was a well-liked teacher on campus. But sometimes it was hard to overlook how nerdy he was. He always carried pencils in the front pocket of his short-sleeved button-down plain white shirts. He practically
devoured boring magazines and had once confessed that he read a nonfiction book a week. He even read some of his favorites twice. His square glasses were tight around his temples, and his shoes looked like they were either expensive orthopedics or very cheap ugly black shoes with soles like tires that he'd found at a discount store.

Matt looked as though he'd never left the newsroom. He was seated at the same computer and still looked busy. He ran his fingers through his hair before turning to face Natalie.

“I'm starving,” he said. “You want to hit up Denny's while we figure this out?”

“Sure.” She was hungry too, and getting away from campus was always a good thing. They said good-bye to Mr. Moore and some of their classmates before heading to the parking lot.

They rode in his car. She noticed traces of beach sand on the seats and the floor of his old pickup truck, evidence that he'd been surfing in his free time. The truck smelled faintly of sunscreen and surf wax. They lived a good forty minutes from the beach, but Matt was always escaping to the coast whenever he could. Natalie had seen him surf on
many trips to the beach with Jeremy. Matt was a good surfer—graceful on the water. Unlike Jeremy, Matt surfed for fun. Jeremy was always so competitive about everything. If he was good at anything, he wanted to be in competitions. He wanted to be the best.

They drove across town to Denny's. Natalie loved this time of day. She'd never been a morning person. School was out. The afternoon sun cast shadows over the trees in Oak Canyon. Oak Canyon had every kind of tree one could think of. Maybe it was because they lived in southern California and all kinds of trees could thrive in the warm weather. Of course, oak trees with their little boatlike leaves covered most of the terrain. But there were palm trees and pine trees too. Orange trees and millions of avocado trees.

“I had a chance to read the column,” Matt said.

“That was fast.”

“Good work.” Matt flipped on his blinker as they turned down Canyon Boulevard. “I think it will answer a lot of questions for people—make it easier to find dates.”

“I hope so.”

Matt had originally talked her into tak
ing the column. She could still remember his exact words when he'd approached her: “You're the perfect candidate for this,” he'd said. “You and Jeremy are the real deal. What better person to write about love?”

It was starting to feel hot in the car, so Natalie rolled down her window.

“So are you doing anything for Jeremy's birthday this year?” Matt asked as he rolled down his window too. “The party you threw last year was great.”

Natalie hadn't forgotten that Jeremy's birthday was a week before Halloween. He'd be seventeen. She knew he'd probably be expecting another big party. Last year she'd orchestrated a beach bonfire party. She remembered cuddling up next to him while they'd toasted marshmallows with all his friends. She remembered how warm she'd felt in his arms, how things had been so comfortable between them. “I'll probably organize another party. I'm not sure where yet.”

“Bowling would be fun,” Matt suggested.

“Bowling? I hadn't even thought of bowling.” This was probably due to the fact that she didn't have an athletic bone in her body. She liked to watch sports, and that was about it. But bowling could be fun. It wasn't
like she had to tackle, kick, or run after anything. “That's not a bad idea.”

“They have rock-and-bowl at the bowling alley on Friday nights. The radio station broadcasts there, and they play good music the whole time you bowl.”

“Jeremy would probably love that. I'll invite all his friends.”

“I can help with anything,” Matt offered.

“Thanks.”

They chatted about the paper and the other articles that students were working on. “You going to the dance?” Natalie asked.

“No date yet.”

“You? No date?” Did she sound like she was flirting? Because she hadn't meant to sound like she was flirting. “I mean…what I mean was that I just thought this would be something you wouldn't want to miss out on. I mean, this is our junior year and we only have two more Howl at the Moons left.”

She didn't even sound like herself. Why did she feel so uncomfortable? She tried to squash all her funny feelings by encouraging Matt to find a date. “Any ideas about who you would like to go with?” she asked.

He seemed as though he were squirming a little at the question.

“You do! You totally have a crush on someone.” She was curious.

He smiled and shook his head. “No, I don't.”

“Why don't you have a girlfriend, Matt?”

His smile faded slightly and he shrugged. “I don't know. Guess I just haven't found the right girl. Not everyone is as lucky as Jeremy and you.” They were at a stoplight and he turned to look at her for a moment. He looked at her in that way that made her feel as though he had nothing else in the world to look at or think about.
This is just the way Matt is,
she told herself.
This is the way he looks at everyone.

“We're here.” The sound of Matt's voice was distant at first. “Natalie?”

“Uh-huh.” She snapped out of her daze. “I mean, yes. Oh, we're here.” She reached for her seat belt.

“I thought I'd lost you for a minute there. What are you thinking about?”

“Oh, just school and the article,” she answered quickly.

He nodded. “Good. We need lots of ideas for this.”

They waited for a hostess to lead them to a booth. Natalie didn't need to look at the
menu to know she wanted a large basket of cheese fries with a side of ranch, and a Diet Coke.

Matt scanned the menu for a couple seconds, then set it down. “I think I just want cheese fries.”

“That's what I'm getting. You want to just split a huge basket? Maybe get some mozzarella sticks too?” she suggested.

“Sounds good to me.”

Matt pulled a folder out of his backpack and placed it on the table. “So, here is what I've started. I made a copy for you.” He slid a couple sheets of paper across the table.

It was mostly just couples costume ideas jotted down, and some ideas for the quiz. She scanned them.
Couples from around the world, couples from different time eras, movie theme couples, sports couples…

“What if people want to go with their friends to the dance?” she asked, and then realized this was so something she would ask in her current state of mind. “I mean, you know that every year a group of girls and guys go together with no specific dates.

“True. I thought about that. We'll have to come up with some singles ideas too.”

They began to brainstorm—bouncing all
kinds of ideas off each other—pausing only when their food arrived. “For the couples around the world idea a samurai and a geisha would be pretty cool,” Matt said.

“Love it.” Natalie added it to the list. “And for America we could put Uncle Sam and Betsy Ross or just dressing in all red, white, and blue.”

“Great idea.”

“And for different time eras we could date all the way back to the prehistoric era with cavemen. Oh! And even Pilgrims. Then there could be the whole Southern belle theme and the gangsters and flappers for the twenties.” She dipped a fry in ranch dressing, and Matt picked up her thoughts where she left off.

“Then the fifties, and the hippies in the sixties. Yeah, I mean, the list goes on and on.”

“I have the best idea. We could even put an opposites category in there. Like, someone could go as ‘the past' and go as a caveman and someone could go as ‘the future' and go as a robot.”

Matt loved the opposites idea. “How about hot and cold? One person could come in full beach attire and the other could come in a ski suit. People wouldn't even need to
buy a costume for that. All you'd need is a bathing suit and a snowboarding outfit.”

“Maybe we should do an affordable costume column too. Where people could just find the simplest things in their house to make a costume from. I once read a book where the character went as white trash, and all she put on was a white trash bag. She just cut holes for the arms and the head.”

Matt tossed his head back and laughed. “That is hilarious!”

They had fun brainstorming costume ideas, and Natalie couldn't believe how easy it was to come up with things when she had a creative partner. They decided they would give only a few specific costume ideas for each general theme. The article was meant to inspire people to come up with their own ideas, and to have as much fun as Natalie and Matt were having while coming up with ideas.

They still hadn't even discussed the quiz when they polished off the last cheese fry and mozzarella stick. With the two of them working together, the article would be a breeze.

“I'm gonna head to the boys' room,” Matt said, excusing himself.

It was a couple seconds after he left when
Natalie realized she felt a little surge of irritation in her mouth—specifically in the upper front teeth region. Alarm hit when she sensed the familiar feeling of something stuck in her tooth. She'd had something stuck between her teeth this whole time? She ran her tongue over the spot, and sure enough, it detected something hard and foreign. What was it? An herb from the mozzarella stick crust? Or had it been there since her granola bar and Doritos binge at lunch? She wanted to die. What she needed to do was run to the bathroom. However, all of their stuff was on the table, including Matt's wallet and backpack. She picked up a spoon from the table, and tried to examine her mouth in the reflection. But the spoon was too tarnished. She ran her finger over the spot, but whatever was in there was stubborn. She lifted her front lip and snarled in the window next to her. Maybe she could see from her reflection. But she could only see the outline of her head.

This was horrible. She reached for her glass and began to swish Diet Coke vigorously between her cheeks as though it were mouthwash. She was midswish and looking chipmunklike when Matt appeared out of
nowhere. She spit her Diet Coke back into the glass.

“You all right?” he asked.

She didn't want to open her mouth too wide and expose whatever was lodged between her two front teeth. “I'm fine,” she said between gritted teeth. Her voice sounded funny through her clenched teeth.

“Did you see someone outside? Someone from school?” he asked as he slid back into the booth.

She shook her head this time.

“I thought I saw you smiling at someone outside.”

“It was just a dog.” She was still speaking through her gritted teeth. She sounded like she was underwater.

“You sure you're all right?”

She jumped up. “Will you excuse me for a minute?”

She didn't wait for his answer. She scurried to the bathroom and quickly removed what appeared to be mozzarella stick crust. She decided this might go down as the most embarrassing moment of her life. She'd rather wear the Dalmatian suit to prom. How long had he been staring at fried food residue while she was rambling on about
costumes of the world? She wanted to die.

When she returned, he was reading over his notes.

“Everything all right?” he asked.

Natalie smiled big. “Great.”
I just want to drive off a cliff, but thank you for acting like you never noticed the food stuck between my teeth.

He lifted his eyebrows. “All right, then. Back to business.”

She was glad he could forget her mozzarella mouth and move on so quickly. This would haunt her until she was senile.

It was hard to focus after that. Natalie was jittery and weird and wished she could just feel normal. If it had been Jo or Vinny, she wouldn't care. Or even Jeremy, for that matter. That's when she admitted it to herself. Sitting there in Denny's, wishing for floss, she realized that she had a crush on Matt. It was more than a little attraction. She felt butterflies, and felt self-conscious, and everything people feel when they're falling for someone. This realization made her feel terrible. What if Jeremy was checking out other girls, or Jo? The truth was, she didn't know. She convinced herself that the only reason she felt this way was because she was confused—period. She wasn't thinking
straight. These were crazy-person thoughts. She needed to come to her senses. He was cute. That was it. Who could blame her for feeling a little giddy around him?

She needed to get out of there, quickly.

“Listen, why don't I just do the quiz myself? You have so many other things to deal with at the paper. And I'm not that busy, so I'll do it.”

He looked surprised. “Really?” he asked with hesitation in his voice.

“Positive.”

“Wow, thanks, Nat. This makes my life easier.” He raised his Diet Coke glass. “To more Denny's meetings,” he said.

Their glasses clinked. “To more meetings.” Her heart skipped a beat.

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