With her impossible-to-please grandmother on her back about college and her disapproving step-dad watching her every move, Tessa would do anything to escape the pressure-cooker she calls home. So she finds a shot of much-needed power and confidence by hooking up with boys, even though it means cheating on her boyfriend. But when she's finally caught red-handed, she’ll do anything she can to cover up what she's done.
Jack is a prankster who bucks the system every chance he gets—each transgression getting riskier and riskier. He loves the thrill, and each adventure allows a little release because his smug smile and suave demeanor in the face of authority doesn’t make life at home with his mom any less tough. He tries to take care of her, but the truth is he's powerless in the face of her fragile mental health. So he copes in his own way, by defacing public property and pulling elaborate pranks, though he knows in the end this’ll only screw up his life even more.
As they both try not to let their self-destructive patterns get the best of them, Tessa and Jack gravitate toward one another, discovering the best parts of themselves in the process. An honest portrayal of the urges that drive us and finding the strength to overcome them.
Heather Smith Meloche has had the honor of winning the Katherine Paterson Prize and the Writer’s Digest national competition for her children’s and young adult writing. She studied video production and poetry at Michigan State University, and then earned her master’s in teaching English as a second language at Bowling Green State University. She spends her days with her family in her home in Michigan, sampling a wide variety of chocolate, letting her dogs in and out constantly, and writing and reading as much as she can. Ripple is her debut novel.
I shouldn’t be here.
But the bedroom is dark. Warm. So far from everything I hate. His lips find my neck. The heat from his breath melts me. His fingers run up my spine, rest at the base of my skull, bury in my hair.
I shouldn’t be here.
I move a leg toward the edge of the bed.
“You’re so beautiful, Tessa.” His voice soaks into my ear. And I pause, close my eyes, float above it all. Watch it like a photo shoot, like a scene with a girl who is more than I am. Her hair beautiful. Her body perfect. And she smiles. Like she’s oblivious to her lame grades. Her lukewarm existence. The cut-downs from her stepdad. Her grandmother’s demands. The raw absence of her real father.
“God, I want you,” Tobacco Shop Guy whispers. And the rush surges. Blood and adrenaline and a wave of power. With eyes closed, I visualize the stretch of his bare back, my pale stomach sliding against his darker one. I imagine the thought inside his handsome head, loud and solid—I can’t live without this girl.
Then my cell on the corner table chimes, yanking me back to reality.
“Who is it?”
I glance quickly at the phone’s screen, but I already know. “My boyfriend.”
He waits for me to answer it. To decide between him and the voice in the phone. But I’m too far gone to choose.
He nods, twines his fingers in my long hair, pulls me to him. I drop the phone onto the shag rug. Close my eyes again, my body close to numb, but my mind, my emotions hyperelectric as I draw him against me. Shove away the warning in my brain.
I shouldn’t be here.
And grip and arc and rise back up to the image of the girl who is more than I will ever be.
It took forty mega-large boxes of Cheerios to fill Brian Wassick’s 2008 Jaguar XJ while he and his girlfriend were in the theater watching a movie.
I know I shouldn’t have done it. Especially now that I’m sitting in this chair in this dark bedroom, watching my mom sleep to be sure she’s not making any wrong moves.
I mean, I’m smart enough to know that picking up our crumbling life in Hallend and dropping it twelve miles over to Pineville isn’t going to change a damn thing. Both Pineville and Hallend are pretty much the same. Both Detroit suburbs with their share of rich snobs and dirt poor. And despite being here now, Mom is still going to be unpredictable. And I’m still going to get the urge to fuck with people who deserve it.
Just like I did a couple of hours ago.
“Brian Wassick’s a conceited ass-hat,” Carver Malowski had said in the theater lot, pointing at the parked Jag as we walked by. “The prick gave me the finger in the school parking lot last week before cutting me off with his lame freaking car.”
I actually thought the car was pretty cool. But my mind was already working on inventive ways to attack it. Because I do this. I envision a dozen pranks a day worthy of execution. In Hallend, I pulled off a good percentage of the ones I thought up. But I’d promised myself I was going to try here in Pineville to play it cooler. For Mom’s sake. To make it easier on us. That promise didn’t last long.
“Cheerios,” I’d said. Then explained to Sam and Carver—my newly acquired Pineville friends—what I meant.
“Cheerios. Hell yeah!” Carver had said. “Screw seeing a movie. Let’s do Jack’s thing.” His whole body—from his Vans to his board shorts to his unbrushed blond hair—quivered with nervous energy. He looked like a surfer rejected by the ocean and spit into the middle of Michigan.
I glanced at Sam Kearns. His arms were crossed tightly over his chest. But after hanging with these guys for the past week, I knew not to be deceived by Sam’s clean-cut hair, expensive yacht shoes, or the skeptical expression he was giving Carver. Sam could pull pranks with the best of them. And love every destructive second.
“C’mon,” Carver pushed. “Wassick totally deserves it.”
So we broke into the car with a coat hanger, hot-wired the Jag to power the windows down, then dumped the forty boxes of cereal Carver rushed to buy from the bulk food store through the open windows, laughing and coughing the whole time through the oat dust. And now Brian Wassick will be pulling Cheerios out of his ass for months.
With the deed done, all my focus is now back on Mom. Four feet from me, she mumbles in her bed, shifts from one side to the other. I tense in my chair, waiting for her to wake and waiting to find out if whatever has gone haywire and whacked out in her brain will fire up tonight and make her do something crazy. But she settles. Her breathing evens out.
And I think for a split second of the easy out waiting for me. I could go be with my dad and live in his awesomely huge spare bedroom. He’s always begging me to move in with him in his house in Canfield, just under an hour’s drive away. I could be eating well. Not worrying as much. Not working as much.
But I can’t desert Mom. I can’t leave her alone. And I know watching over her like this might be a waste of my time and effort since she’s spinning more and more out of control, but whatever. Right now, in this new town, in this tiny house we can hardly afford to rent, I’m going to sink back in this worn-out chair and make sure Mom remains still. Stays safe. And keeps her schizophrenia just between us.
“Where were you last night?” My boyfriend Seth’s question is expected, but my pulse races when it hits me.
“When?” I force my eyes to stay locked on his. The early fall breeze bats against us as we walk down Main Street. The buildings rise tall on either side, boxing us in.
“When I called around eight thirty,” he says.
A million sensations flash through me—I smell the Tobacco Shop Guy, taste him, feel him all over me. The guilt burns like acid.
Seth, Pineville High’s starting quarterback, thinks I’m solid. Decent and honest. Someone worth his time. We met months ago at Bigger Blooms Nursery, where we both worked summer jobs. He said he’d never noticed me before. Not until he watched me sketching pictures with my fingertip in the loose topsoil on the checkout counter. Not until he saw me with daisies tucked behind my ear.
“You’re like this hot, creative granola girl,” he’d said. “Only you wear makeup and smell good and actually shave your armpits.” He laughed loosely, like nothing held it back. He was tall. Wore khakis and designer sunglasses. He was as handsome as a clothing model. He was everything I knew I should like.
Eventually, he kissed me against the greenhouse wall. His fingers looped through my hair and behind my ears. His tongue was soft and gentle, like he was truly into me.
But even then, I only showed Seth my daisies and lip gloss. I flashed him smiles I rarely felt. He didn’t see the dirt falling into my shoes, crawling under my nails, burrowing into my hair and ears.
He thinks I’m clean.
And I wish I could be. I need him to believe I am.
“Hmm. Where was I at eight thirty last night?” I say, fake-thinking. I shove down the taste, touch, smell of Tobacco Shop Guy. “Oh, yeah. I remember.” I grab Seth’s face—August-tanned skin splashed with faint freckles, charcoal pupils floating in sky-blue irises, the chiseled confidence of the college-bound athlete he is. I kiss him until his dimples show, then say, “I was at the library. For an annoying social science report due tomorrow.” (The one I finished by five thirty.) My smile never falters.
He nods. Trusting. Then drapes his arm around my shoulders. His hip knocks like a pool ball against mine as he leads me past Pineville’s downtown storefronts. He talks about football practice, how us being seniors is totally cool, how Central Michigan wants him so badly, they won’t stop sending him crap-loads of welcome letters and promises for a football scholarship. He says his police officer dad and his E.R. nurse mom are so proud, they’re already working on plans for a huge graduation party for him in the spring.
As I watch him, I imagine the photo I’d take of him. His handsome face angled at forty-five degrees while he looks down a stretch of football field, his end zone easily in sight. I would put his picture on canvas and surround it with torn paper of shiny turf and smooth city concrete, words and phrases from diplomas and well-paying job descriptions. And from his forehead, I would paint a thick, bright spotlight streaming toward his future.
I practically shake my head to erase the image.
Since forever, I’ve dreamed of going to an art college—photographing, painting, and collaging the world into how I see it. But instead, I’ve been forced by my wealthy grandmother, Ms. Spencer Diane Leighton, to “not throw away my future,” “think bigger,” “aspire to be more.”
My grandmother’s never really looked at my art. She was always “too busy” when it was on display at district art shows. But since she’s going to pay for my college education, she likes to tell me how my life is going to go.
“You can have it all,” she said last winter after deciding what my next five to seven decades will look like. She’s even worked Seth into the picture since I brought him along on a lunch visit to the Hallend Steakhouse last month. “I like that boy, Tessa.” She pointed at me with her manicured nail. “Keep him.”
And truly, I need Seth with me. I mean, we don’t have deep conversations or anything, but I love how he’s super-sweet to me. Not all ego, like a lot of guys. Or snobby. He lives in an average house with parents who work hard. I love the way he smiles every time he sees me. And him wrapping his arm around me in the halls of Pineville High keeps me feeling stronger and just better about myself. It makes people see me as the nice, upstanding girl Seth chose. But sometimes, like today, when yet another lie about who I really am sits sharp and jabbing inside me, I loathe myself. And I’m sure I’m not worthy of him at all.
Seth squeezes my hand in his. “So you’re decided on the University of Michigan?”
“For sure.” I smile for effect. “U of M is awesome. I’d love to go there.” This bit of untruth pokes at me with the others. The University of Michigan is my grandmother’s choice for me. But when I mentioned to Seth that Grandma Leighton wants me to study business there so she can groom me to take over her family company, Leighton Custom Homes: Building Michigan Since 1919, he was way impressed. So I tell him it’s my dream, too, and that U of M is cramming my mailbox full of letters asking me to attend.
But the truth is my B+ average, my mediocre SAT scores, and my lack of extracurriculars would absolutely never get me into U of M. As proof, I haven’t gotten a single letter from the university wooing me to come there. And the stress I’m under from my grandmother’s expectations for me is staggering.
Seth stops us near the coffee shop, five shops down from the Star Family Diner, where I’ve just snagged a waitressing job now that Bigger Blooms has cut back on the number of employees for the fall. He nods toward the diner. “So what’s your new work schedule?”
“Usually a weekend shift and one or two nights during the week,” I tell him, thinking again how I should work more and save to pay my own way through college. Then I could study art. I’ve thought about getting loans, but being a fine artist doesn’t exactly pay well. I’d be in debt for life. And my mom and stepdad say they don’t want me to have to work as hard as they do, that I should focus on school and try to get into U of M. They say Grandma Leighton’s offer to pay will make things easier on me.
But nothing about my grandmother is easy.
“Are you working tomorrow?” Seth cups my chin with his palm, and something deep and hungry inside me claws up to meet it. He tickles his thumb over my cheekbone, sending sweet shivers through my stomach.
“Nope,” I tell him.
“Coming to my football game tomorrow night, then?” His handsome face hovers like a hot sun above my own.
“Of course. I’ll be there.”
“Cool.” He gives me a genuinely happy smile, then wraps his solid arms around my shoulders. I lean against him, do everything I can to soak up the heat. From his body. From his popularity. From all that confidence and success that radiates from him like gamma rays.
Friday night, and Seth’s game is in an hour. I stand on my bed staring out the high window in my room, waiting for Juliette’s car to pull up at the end of my long dirt drive. Off to the right, a small clump of woods butts up against the tiny square houses lining the road. When I was younger, I used to hang with these trees all the time. Every day and into the night. Loved the way the branches cocked at odd angles. How the roots shot up above the ground and then wound their way back down again. All random and free.
I made rooms with swaying vines for beds and rotting leaves for carpets. Stole my mother’s loom thread, abandoned after her teaching job left no time for weaving, and plotted out my own personal space by winding the thread around the trunks of trees. Every wall in my forest house was as wide and as tall as I wanted it to be.
But eventually, I had to stop playing house and live in my parents’, where I have very little choice about anything.
Juliette’s red sedan glides to a stop at the end of my driveway, and she waits there, like I’ve asked, instead of coming up to the house to get me.
I hop off my bed, stumble against a stack of my mixed-media artwork glued to rectangles of foam board. I lean to restraighten the stack, and that dark sadness returns as my fingers run over the fringe of a winning art show ribbon sticking out from a bottom board.
Halfway down the stack, part of Laney Freyer’s sepia-toned face stares up at me. I took her picture without her knowing. She was at the mall being the school’s biggest gossip, like always. And I couldn’t help it. I grabbed her image with my battered secondhand Canon. Turned her mouth into a dark cave with ink and built butterflies whipping past her lips. I filled their wings with all these slanderous words Laney likes to let loose—WHORE, CHEATED, FAIL, LIAR. Then I set those poor insects on fire.
I got an A when I turned it in. My art teachers have given me As on every project. All except for one.
My self-portrait, which I’ve pulled from the rest and shoved onto the floor of my closet. I’d covered my photographed face with paint splashes, pasted torn strips of college apps through my limbs like nerves. And inky hands grope for me, touching me all over, until you can’t see a single part of me. The day it was due, I decided not to turn it in—my only failing grade ever in art.
My art teacher last spring, Mrs. Gretta, had said, “Self-portraits are very difficult, Tessa.” But mine was impossible. Overwhelming. Like I was being strangled every time I tried to work on it. “If you ever finish it,” Mrs. Gretta had said, “I’d love to see it.” But I can’t touch it. Instead, it hides in my closet, in the dark, where it belongs.
Juliette honks. I grab a thick sweater pooled on the floor, drape it over the stack of artwork so I don’t have to see it when I come home. Then I head out.
I pass my mom at the kitchen table frantically grading English essays for her classes at Worton High, the other high school in Pineville. When I was younger, she would never let me walk by her without grabbing me for a hug. But now it seems like she spends every waking moment focused on her job. Every year, public school funds shrink and good teachers are laid off. Mom’s always trying to prove she’s worthy enough to keep. She says if she can survive in the district until she gets tenure, she might actually make enough money for us not to worry so much about things like food and clothes and paying all our bills.
Willow, my younger half sister, sits next to Mom swiping polish across her toenails. It’s orange. My least-favorite color.
“Tessa,” Mom says without looking up. Her red pen hovers over unnecessary commas and dangling modifiers. “Can you take care of the laundry and make sure the living room is clean?”
Guilt streaks through me. “I’m going out, remember?”
Mom lifts her head, squinting at me like I’m too blurry to identify. Then she smiles. “Oh, sorry. Football game, right?”
Willow looks up from her toes. “Does that mean she doesn’t have to do chores?” she asks, all snotty.
“I’ll do them tomorrow,” I say quickly.
Mom’s lips, oval and full like my own, tighten. “It will have to be early, Tess. Your grandma Leighton is coming over around noon.”
My stomach drops with the mention of my grandmother’s name. My mom grips her red pen harder, like her gut just tumbled, too.
“Awesome.” Willow smiles and layers her big toenail with glittery orange for the millionth time. “I hope she brings me a new outfit.”
“She’s my grandmother, Will, not yours,” I say.
Willow raises an eyebrow. “Then why does she buy me more clothes than you?”
“Willow.” Mom shakes her head in warning. She knows this whole subject makes my insides hurt. My biological father took off when I wasn’t even a year old. “Made a mistake,” he said to Mom, and bolted. He started up a new family on the East Coast and only calls me on birthdays and occasional holidays because Grandma Leighton threatens to take away his inheritance if he doesn’t.
“FYI, Will,” I say, “I told my grandmother not to buy me anything because my style’s not like hers.”
“Clearly,” Willow murmurs.
Grandma Leighton is high fashion, old money, plastic surgery, and country clubs, whereas I’m cutoffs, T-shirts, and all kinds of introversion.
But I asked my grandmother not to buy me clothes mostly because my parents already owe her more than they will ever be able to repay. I don’t want to get us in any deeper than we already are with her.
I come up behind my mother, put my arms around her. “I’ll finish the chores first thing tomorrow.”
“Whatever,” Willow mumbles.
Mom pats my arm. “Have fun, sweetie.”
“Thanks.” As I pull away, I spy a pile of unopened bills next to her stack of ungraded essays. I consider for a nanosecond staying home to help her clean, to make things easier with my grandmother’s visit tomorrow. But Mom interrupts my thought.
“Tess.” Her face is buried in her work as she talks. “I have an evaluation in a couple of weeks. It’s a big deal.” Wrinkles dig into her pale forehead. “Your principal at Pineville High is on the tenure board, and I’m up for review this year. I know I don’t have to tell you this, but please behave tonight.”
“I always behave.” The words shoot out quick. Because I need her to believe they’re true. Even if they aren’t. Because I work so hard to make everyone at home, in school, in public think I’m the most decent girl on the planet. But when nobody’s watching, in my weakest moments, I fall so far outside the lines, I disgust even myself.
I wait for Mom to agree, confirm I’m the perfect child. But she’s back to staring at the papers in front of her, her focus on me totally lost. The urge to leave hits me harder.
I rush through our living room full of ratty, pea-green furniture, scratched brown walls, and worn carpet. No matter how much cleaning we do, everything in our house always looks dirty and old. When I slip out the front door, I glance around, all cautious. I want to avoid my stepdad on my way to Juliette’s car.
The garage door is half cracked, light spilling into the dusk. Beer bottles clink loudly. The maze of cars in the drive tells me my stepdad’s buddies are here. Probably took the party from the bar’s happy hour straight to our house.
I imagine my stepdad in the middle of his adoring friends—all blue-collar, calloused, and crass, dirt under their nails, and long, messy hair on their heads and faces. They look like him, get him.
Like my stepdad and his job installing lawn-sprinkling systems, they work for the rich and uppity, for people like my grandmother. Either crawling into mud pits to put in irrigation or digging into the greasy guts of cars. Or busting their asses building roads in a never-ending bubble of car exhaust. They’re all tired, worn-out, coated in a thick layer of bitter.
“Tessa!” My stepdad’s voice freezes me halfway to Juliette. I wince, turn. Peer into glassy eyes from above cheeks and chin covered in wiry brown hair, strands spilling from his shoulder-length ponytail.
My stepdad looks like Jesus. And I used to think he was. When I was little and he was less tired and more hopeful, he’d put me on his shoulders. I would hold his long hair like a bridle as he carried me from place to place, taught me about the outdoors, joked and laughed. But money got tighter. He got angrier. Eventually, he held a beer can more than he did me. And now we’re in this place.
“Where’re you going?” he growls. The dark brown bottle in his hands dangles next to his mud-caked jeans. I brace myself for whatever verbal onslaught he has planned. He doesn’t touch me. He’s never physical. But it doesn’t matter. This daily formula of ours is simple: BEER = FUCK WITH TESSA.
I swallow. “I’m going to a football game.”
He grunts. “You think you deserve time off? I worked my ass off today. Your mom is still in there working.” He points to the house, and I follow the direction of his unsteady finger to the ranch home we almost lost ten years ago. Back when my mom only had her occasional subbing jobs and my stepdad couldn’t make enough money even with all his overtime. Foreclosure loomed. We were moments from being kicked out on the street. But Grandma Leighton, with her fitted suits and her giant stores of cash, offered to bail us out. In the hovel of our living room, she said she’d pay off our mortgage. Interest-free. I remember my parents standing as stiff as statues while my grandmother talked so casually. Like she was suggesting she pick up doughnuts or close an open window.
My mom and stepdad took the deal.
And now my parents’ debt binds us to her, like we’re one of the many solid gold bangles clinking on her wrist when she moves. But because my stepdad can’t yell at her for that, I get the treat of his anger.
“Spencer’s coming tomorrow.” He says it like it’s my fault.
“I know. I told Mom I’d help her first thing in the morning,” I tell him. “And my homework is done.” My voice cracks with the lie.
His eyes narrow. “You lying?”
He glares at me, suspicious with an undercurrent of disgust, sips from his beer again. And for the gagillionth time, my mind flashes to the art piece I’d create of him if I had the strength to do it. Him standing chest high in a mud pit staring up at a hundred ropes made of beer bottles. His eyes are like filthy windowpanes. His skin dirt-streaked. And in the background, Willow laughs in a baby swing, I hold the fairy house he helped me make with string and twigs when I was seven, and Mom grips a clump of wildflowers he picked for her while they walked through the state park. So many good things behind him.
Tears threaten. Everything around me gets darker as dusk folds into night. And I feel the urge to get to Seth, touch and kiss and grab hold of him as hard as my stepdad holds his beer.
A silhouette emerges from the garage. “Rick! Come on, dude. Dave wants you to tell that story about us hauling the toilet from that abandoned house into the ravine during our guys trip in ’02. Hilarious!”
My stepdad lets a half smile loose with the thought of antics he would crucify me for. Over his shoulder he calls, “Coming.” Then he turns back to me, leans in. “I want your ass up early in the morning to help your mom get the house and lunch ready for your grandmother.”
My stomach flips. Tomorrow is going to completely suck. My grandmother will want to discuss what I’m including in my college app, my latest grades at Pineville High, and how wonderful it will all be when I start working with Leighton Custom Homes. And I’ll have the massive urge to tell her to screw her life’s plans for me because I’m running away to live in a cave—the only place I can afford—and photograph and paint until I die.
But I can’t. Because with her name on the deed to our house and my mom and stepdad owing her for it, she can kick us out if she doesn’t get her way. I’ve seen her destroy the careers of people who have worked with her for decades. Friends, even. What would make her treat us any differently?
“Tomorrow, just kiss her ass a little,” my stepdad says, “and let’s hope that by the time she leaves, your future isn’t completely blown to hell and we still have a place to live. Understand?” He tips his bottle back, glaring at me down the perspiring slope of the glass.
I give my stepdad a nod.
“What? I didn’t hear you,” he grunts.
“I understand,” I say.
He shakes his head, like he’s profoundly disappointed, then turns and saunters back to the garage.
I stumble through the increasing darkness toward Juliette. I’m sure she saw my stepdad’s angry movement. How he jabbed a finger at me with one hand, held his beer with the other. But when I slip into her Chevy Cruze, she only smiles, says, “Hey, hottie. Love your blue shirt. Let’s go enjoy some football.”
“I hate football,” I say to Juliette.
It’s Pineville High’s first home game of the year. My boyfriend doesn’t know I loathe his favorite sport, along with the other things he doesn’t know about me. But he asked me to be here, so I’m here.
The stench of puke wafts from the pile of sick under the bleachers and mixes with a citrus/musk/flora cloud from the designer-scented bodies around us. I hold my nose, breathe through my mouth.
“Truly,” I say, all nasally. “I could live without ever going to another football game. Ever.”
Juliette smiles. “Yeah, but as a hot-blooded American female, there’s got to be a thrill in watching your boyfriend run across the field in tight pants.” Her ultra-green almond-shaped eyes flash. She waggles her dark eyebrows, making me laugh.
I scan the line of players all suited up and helmeted. Seth is easy to spot. His long torso curves slightly to the left when he stands, his left leg bending as he fidgets with nervous energy. He’s not the first boyfriend I’ve had. But he’s definitely the most popular. And he’s lasted the longest. A couple got bored with me within a few weeks. One made it a month in before he broke up with me. He said I hardly talked. But kissing is always easier than talking.
“Besides, Tess,” Juliette says, “this football game signals the start of our senior year. And you and I have serious work to do.” She throws an arm around me. “We’re going to beef up your extracurriculars, get you as many As as possible, and get you into U of M.”
She’s overly hopeful. I look at her like I’m about to add to the vomit beneath me.
Juliette squeezes me tighter. “Come on, Tess. Your SATs aren’t horrible, but you can always take the test again. So it’ll all work out. Trust me. I know that U of M was never your plan. But I’ll be there.”
And although she hasn’t been accepted there yet, she will be. With her perfect grades, all her school and community activities, and how she rises to be a leader in everything, the University of Michigan will, for sure, roll out a red carpet for her.
“Don’t you want to go to college with your bestie?” She bats her dark eyelashes at me. “And maybe in between all those business classes your grams wants you to take to become queen bee of Leighton Custom Homes, you can fit in some art classes.” She lifts her head high, confident as usual.
Juliette and I are opposites in every way. Her dark-hair, olive-skin exotic to my blond, fair all-American. My overly skinny to her super-curvy. Her storm-troopering through life while I amble, bump, and trip my way forward. I’m not the world’s worst student, but with all the crap outside of school exploding and grinding me down, I often have a hard time focusing on classes. And math is my nemesis. If I’m only an A/B student now at Pineville High, I’ll be eaten alive at U of M.
Juliette gives me a playful shove. “Buck up, chica,” she says, recalling our first year of friendship in seventh-grade Spanish class. We became close after building a piñata together and then becoming conversation partners. We realized Spanish words were like secret code that put us in our own little world. No one outside of class seemed to understand when we mentioned chicos guapos, cute boys. Or niñas molestas, annoying girls. It gave us a bond that’s lasted. “I’ll be with you all the way this year,” she says. “I’ll help you study. I’ll help you volunteer. I’ll get you into U of M. I promise.”
I rest my head on her shoulder, try to curb the swirly, sick feel¬ing. “Thanks.”
An air horn blasts, and the marching band squeaks out the Pineville High fight song. The Pep-Till-You-Puke Barbies on the cheerleading squad tumble, thin as Pixy Stix, onto the football field. They build and rebuild a human pyramid.
Seth’s old girlfriend, Simone Channing, is always at the peak, her arms high, her smile so wide, her bottom teeth show. Her brown eyes are like binocular lenses as she darts glances at Seth.
I try not to be jealous. But he and Simone still talk all the time. Take the same buses to away games. Have the same friends. And even though Seth swears it’s over between them, that he’s only ever looking at me, Simone—with her black hair, petite curves, and smooth, light brown skin—is always two steps away from him. Waiting.
Students amble and flow into the bleachers around us. Across the field, the away team’s bleachers are filling, too. At the mike near the twenty-yard line, Principal Levy sweeps his arm in the air like a broom. “That’s right. Keep moving in. Get settled.”
Behind us, several guys snort out laughs. “Dude. Shh! Shh! Wait. It’s working.”
I start to glance at them, but some guy presses his face against the side of my head, stopping me. The stubble on his chin scrapes against my earlobe as his arm shoots out toward the bleachers across from us.
“See, it’s beautiful in its simplicity.” His voice beats warm and low in my ear. “If you put ‘Reserved Seating’ signs down, people. Just. Don’t. Sit. There.” The scent of spearmint gum streams across my cheek as I watch students sitting in some spots and not in others. Sketchy letters form from the empty spaces.
F O O T B A L L B L O W S
The guys behind us explode with laughter.
Principal Levy catches sight of the prank. His heated gaze sweeps the crowd, searching for the culprits, until his glare stops on our clump of bleachers. On the idiots laughing it up behind me. And on me right in the middle of all the offenders.
I feel the sting of Principal Levy sizing me up. Like I am a part of this. U of M, my parents, and definitely my grandmother would not be amused. Panic prickles through me, followed by intense bitterness at this guy, no longer touching me but still hovering in my personal space.
I glare at him. His square cleft chin. Dark brown bangs splaying across his forehead. A silver hoop in his lower lip glinting in the field lights. Black tattooed letters scrawl across the side of his neck in some kind of Latin phrase. The T-shirt under his army-green jacket shows a cartoon squirrel clutching two huge acorns and the words MY NUTS ARE BIGGER THAN YOURS.
His pale blue eyes hook mine. He gives a killer smile, then leans in until there is barely any space between us. “I hate football, too.” His face drips with pride. He stands, thrusts his hand out. “Jack S. Dalton.”
And although I’d normally be thrilled to have a guy looking at me like he’s looking at me—all sizzle and swagger—I never so much as flirt with guys in Pineville, especially not guys in my school. I don’t want to risk losing Seth. And with Principal Levy still eyeing this section, me included, I’m getting more pissed every second that I might be caught up in this lame bleacher stunt. My glare at this Jack kid intensifies.
Juliette points at him. “Why don’t I know you?” As the head of student council, Juliette knows everyone.
“Do you want to?” Jack asks.
Juliette rolls her eyes.
“You’ve never met him.” Carver Malowski hovers behind Jack with his scraggly white-blond surfer hair, a pale green Oxford, and designer jeans.
“Thanks for the insight, Carver,” Juliette says all sarcastic.
Carver’s dad, an unemployed trucker just fifteen years ago, bought a single truck, grabbed his out-of-work brother, and started Transitions Moving. Now national, the company has given the Malowskis elite economic status and given Carver zero manners coupled with a spoiled loser attitude.
Next to Carver, Sam Kearns says, “Jack moved to Pineville this past week from Hallend.”
Sam, with his light brown hair shorn close to his neck and ears and his ultra-prep-school clothes, is the son of Pineville’s mayor. Pineville crawls with wickedly bored rich kids like him and Carver looking to fill their time with recreational drugs and occasional acts of vandalism. Jack S. Dalton has obviously entered the spoiled-and-apathetic fray.
“But you know, Juliette,” Sam continues, “it seems like you should be very aware of any new students. Being our school’s student council president and all.” His arms cross. His eyebrow rises as he gives my best friend a smug look.
Always up for a challenge, Juliette moves to stand squarely in front of Sam. Sam’s got a good six inches on her five-foot-four height, but right now, Juliette seems infinitely taller. “Well, Sam Kearns, it also seems like, as the son of this city’s mayor, you might consider contributing a little more to this school instead of pissing all over it.” She gives a backward wave at F O O T B A L L B L O W S, her eyes not leaving his.
Jack clears his throat. “I do have to mention that not a single ounce of piss was used during the preparation of that stunt over yonder.”
Carver snort-laughs and slaps Jack on the back in a good-one-buddy kind of way.
But none of this is funny. Because Principal Levy is now talking to Vice Principal Barnes, who turns her stare our way.
Juliette seems unworried. “So, what’s the S stand for, Jack S. Dalton?” she asks.
“Sinister.” Jack winks at her.
“Of course.” Juliette sits back down, unimpressed.
Sam taps Jack’s shoulder. “Hey, we should probably find somewhere else to be.” He nods toward Levy and VP Barnes. “They might be onto us.”
Jack nods, but then he steps toward me. He offers his hand to shake again. “So, hi. I’m Jack.” His face is annoyingly beautiful, his body tall with hints of sinewy muscle beneath his offensive T-shirt. But my glance darts again to Principal Levy as both he and VP Barnes point up toward us.
“Um, Jack, dude,” Sam says, sounding a little more urgent.
I should really stand and walk away from this guy. But I didn’t do anything wrong. This was my school before Jack showed up. And that’s my boyfriend on that field. So I turn my back to him instead.
Jack taps me on the shoulder until I turn around. His dark eyebrows lift, then lower above his long-lashed eyes. His hand gets closer. “Go ahead. Shake it. I know you want to,” he says in almost a whisper.
And weirdly, terrifyingly, he looks beyond at me, right into me, like he seriously does know what I want, can see my secrets, pinpoint every flaw. Like he knows the wicked things I do.
My body tenses. Then I catch myself, remember he’s never met me before, doesn’t know a thing about me. So I paste on a fake smile. “You know, Jack, you have no idea what I want. Besides, I really have no idea where that hand has been.”
He flashes straight white teeth. “Fair enough.” He leans down, whispers in my ear. “But one day, if you’re lucky, I’ll tell you exactly where my hand has been.”
A chill wracks me. Maybe from the heat of Jack’s words, or the panic at the idea of spending any more time with a guy who looks at me too deeply and finds making trouble a thrill.
Jack backs away, and I let out a held breath. He and his friends scramble up the bleachers, head for some other boat to rock and no doubt sink. I turn to see that VP Barnes has disappeared, and Principal Levy is now across the field repositioning football fans, filling in the spaces Jack and his friends made.
On the sidelines, Seth high-fives a fellow player before looking up at me, causing the past couple of minutes of Jack “Screw-Off” Dalton to fall away. I sit up straighter under Seth’s gaze and wave. When he waves back, I glue on a delighted smile.
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