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Spring renewal comes with many things—the annual Sheffield Family Lawn Game Tournament, my part-time job at the Talbot plant nursery, an inexplicable increase in dick drawings on the outside of my locker.
What I don’t expect it to bring, this year, on the day of the spring equinox, is my name being called in homeroom for the Student Advisor Program.
The Student Advisor Program is for juniors freaking out about college apps and the bored seniors who volunteer to help them. When my sister was one of those juniors last year, she formed a codependent bond in SAP with the co-captain of the golf team that basically weirded everybody out.
But me: I’m completely chill about college apps. I’m going to follow my sister to State, obviously, and if I can’t get in there I’ll probably just stay home and work for Mr. Talbot for the rest of my life. I’ve got a green thumb; it’ll be fine.
Haimes says, “Nolan Grant Sheffield,” and I straighten up in my seat, watch the other three kids in the class that apparently actually did sign up for SAP scramble out the door.
“Well, Nolan?” Haimes says, gesturing toward the door. “Report to the library. They’ll have late passes for your first period.”
“But I—” I cut myself off. Do I really want to argue about getting out of half of my gym class? We’re starting a soccer section. I’m specifically exempt from the no-hands rule—lose a little blood from the face during kickball and apparently everyone panics—which will probably only give those jerkwads Plank, Sid, and Small Tony an even meaner edge to their play. I mean, they’re pretty much the reason I always bleed in the first place.
I hightail it out into the hallway, preparing to explain to the librarian that this was all a mistake.
Maybe I’ll take the long way down to the soccer field after I talk my way out of SAP. I can hang in the second-floor bathroom for a while if I have to, so long as Bern and his crew aren’t monopolizing it for an organized roof climb—I’m 90 percent sure they have a rope ladder and a grappling hook hidden at the bottom of the trash can in the last stall.
At the library, I push open the doors and scan the scattered tables already full of pairs of whispering students and see … Daphne. All alone. Grinning, she waves both her hands at me and I palm my face with a groan.
Daphne Sheffield, graduating senior, my sister in all ways but blood: I should have seen this coming.
“You’re joking,” I say, dropping down into the seat across from her.
She’s got out a notebook and a pen with a pompom on the end of it, a book on college essays at her elbow, and her grin is getting progressively sharper around the edges the longer she looks at me. Finally, she says, “I promised Mom I’d prep you for the SATs.”
“You did,” I say slowly. I fold my hands together in front of me on the table and try not to break eye contact.
Daphne has a scoop nose and wild dark ringlets around her head. There are deceptively adorable freckles along the tops of her cheeks. Her eyes are practically angelic, long-fringed, underscored with eyeliner, shiny with faux guilelessness. She clasps her hands under her chin and says, “I did, baby bird. We’ll even get you into some extracurriculars for your transcript, too.” She arches an eyebrow. “You owe me.”
“Oh?” I say faintly. I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Game night. December,” she says. “You owe me a favor. A boon.”
Boon is such a broad word when used by my adoptive family. Because, as I’ve learned many a time since moving in with them three years ago, they’re all competitive nut jobs. If Daphne hadn’t forgotten about the promise she’d forced out of me—my head smashed into the carpet, caught red-handed stealing money out of the till, but god almighty we’d been well into our third hour of Monopoly, can anyone blame me?—I was at least hoping for maybe a servant for a week type deal, like when Daphne’s mom, Marla, had to do all of Tom’s laundry after tanking at Mario Kart.
I spread my hands out in front of me. “I wouldn’t exactly call all this a favor.”
Technically, to any outsider, this might look like Daphne is doing a favor for me. Technically, any outsider would be wrong.
Daphne reaches out and pats my arm. “Don’t worry, baby bird. This is going to be fun.”
Fun for Daphne is relative. Daphne likes pick-up games of basketball and watching shark documentaries and hanging out with Dave and Missy, who are the worst. Missy, in pale button-downs and sweater vests, wavers between being a hateful jackal and a sophisticated T2000 sent back from the future to murder all happiness. Dave wears flat-brimmed caps and hides his feelings in paperback books.
So I have my doubts about every part of this.
SAT prep, fine, I can probably handle that, but I know it won’t stop there: Daphne is a hurricane.
Resigned, I pick up the book on essay writing and start to flip through it.
She slaps it down on the desk and says, “Hang on, baby bird, I have a list.”
* * *
In English, Evie says, “What’s wrong with your face?”
“What’s wrong with it?” I palm my jaw and rub my fingers along my cheek.
I force my lips up into a smile, but I don’t think it works.
“You were fine this morning,” Evie says, suspicious.
I was fine this morning, even though there was a fresh penis drawn on my locker (large, and encasing both the top and bottom doors—I was suitably impressed).
And look, I got to skip most of gym! That’s a point in Tuesday’s favor, even if I had to sit through a bulleted list of all the ways Daphne thinks I’m doing my life wrong. I’ve been trying not to take it too personally.
“There,” Evie says, stabbing her finger right in between my eyes. “You’re doing it again.”
“I have a headache.” It’s not a lie.
And then I notice that the seat next to me is filled with an actual body. That it isn’t the empty void it’s been for the better part of the year: a pale, institutional green chair paired up with a scarred desk that, if you look closely enough, was a hapless victim of my narwhal obsession. Weird.
The seat next to me in English belongs to Ira Bernstein, for the few times he actually decides to show up for class. I’m not sure how he’s passing, if he’s passing. The only class I’ve ever seen him reliably attend is our art elective.
I’ve had English with him all year, and usually he’s only in class when it’s raining.
A glance at the window shows the sun shining, with only a few fluffy white clouds mingling in the blue.
I risk a full look at Bern—he’s scowling down at his desk, and he turns to glare at me when he senses my stare. He’s got the raccoon eyes of a sleepless night, and I can’t tell if the redness of his eyeballs is from a bender or if he’s been crying.
When he growls, “What?” I realize I’ve been staring for too long—awkward—and blink and look away.
* * *
It’s all over school by lunch.
Metal Shop Gia and Bern were apparently one of the longest-running couples in our class, so their massive public falling-out and subsequent breakup is big news.
I feel bad about it for all of ten seconds, until Bern shoves me on his way out of the cafeteria. I stumble to the side and say, “Hey!” but all Bern does is grunt at me and stalk off down the hall, his shoulders hunched.
And then I feel bad all over again ten seconds after that. The room is buzzing with rumors about how Gia humiliated Bern in the parking lot before school. I shake off the odd feeling that I should go after him and—what? Offer a shoulder to cry on? A squishy body to punch? Bern spent all of freshman year low-key harassing me when I first came out, so we’re not exactly on the best terms.
When I finally make it across the caf, I’m the last one to arrive.
Each and every person at my lunch table is technically one of Daphne’s friends, not mine, since Evie refuses to drop French and switch lunches.
It’s like staring at blank-faced, black-eyed demons for forty-five minutes out of every day, but they’re the only things saving me from having to eat lunch alone in the bathroom or out back behind the auditorium, where some kids sneak off to smoke up and plot the downfall of mankind.
As I drop into the seat next to Carlos, Daphne greets me with another list. She says, “I’m starting you off slow,” and I stare at her like she’s a crazy person.
“Four hours ago, you shoved three SAT prep books at me.” I resist the urge to add, and gave me a point-by-point lecture explaining how I’m ruining my social life by sleeping too much. And now she’s giving me a list of … what, exactly?
She waves around the piece of paper. “It’s just two things,” she says. “I mean, how can you call yourself an artist and not be a part of the amazing and fulfilling Art Buddies program?”
Easily, I think. Art Buddies pairs teenagers up with kids ranging in age from six to twelve. They’re basically supposed to be mentors, and I have no business mentoring anyone that isn’t imaginary or my cat.
Warily, I say, “You said two things?”
“The GSA is having a plant sale this year.”
The GSA. The Gay-Straight Alliance club. Evie and I showed up once, at the beginning of our sophomore year, only to find ourselves surrounded by lacrosse jocks, cheerleaders, Mr. Boater, and a massive number of feather boas, tiaras, and condoms. I never really understood what was happening, but Evie had grabbed my arm and pulled me out of the room before GSA President Si O’Mara—a god who was sent down from the Mount to smile blessings upon us—could open his mouth to even say, “Hi.”
Carlos leans toward me and grabs my plastic bag of Oreos with a “Yoink.” He stuffs one in his mouth and says around it, “Doesn’t Evie have a rune tattooed on her hip to ward off the heebie-jeebies of the GSA?”
“That’s a lie,” I say. It’s a patch on her book bag, but only because her mom wouldn’t sign the permission slip for a tattoo.
Carlos shoots me a lazy finger gun and silently passes over his …
“Is this a block of cheese?”
He shrugs. “My mom was in a rush this morning.”
I take it. I’m never really picky about food.
Daphne says, “Just think about it. They do public works! And they’re always looking for art volunteers. I bet Parker Montgomery the Third has totally forgotten about that time you told him to fuck off.”
I had totally not forgotten that time I told P the 3 to fuck off. There had been poster demands and I’d been in the middle of a stressful still life and it’s not my proudest moment, but I probably wouldn’t go back and change my response, especially since I’m 80 percent certain P the 3 still has no idea who I am.
And then Daphne tips her head back and sniffs and says, “Is it meatball day?” and I have to listen to her romanticize about watery red sauce for the rest of lunch.
* * *
In the afternoon I have my art elective, which I take because I’m some kind of masochist, obviously. Our art teacher, Ms. Purdy, is a sour old lady who thinks she should have been famous. She wears a constant pinched expression and clucks her tongue over everything I do.
Which is fine. I don’t need her to tell me I’m awesome at drawing—I am, seriously—I just need her to not give me C minuses all the time, and maybe not act like Zamir Abadi is the second coming.
But what am I going to do, not take art class?
There’s a big poster in the front of the art classroom of a smiling, gap-toothed kid covered in paint, with a sign-up sheet next to it, ART BUDDIES spelled out in puffy lettering. It’s a constant all year—“New names are always welcome!”—and I stare at it with narrowed eyes and twitchy fingers. There’s only about three months left before summer break. How much would this actually help me?
Evie nudges me toward our shared table in the back and says, “Don’t even think about it.”
“Daphne wants me to,” I say, dropping down into my seat.
Evie rolls her eyes. “You have a problem. Daphne’s not the boss of you.”
It kind of feels like Daphne’s the boss of me. I’ve never really gotten over that summer I first moved in with the Sheffields, when I was thirteen and impressionable and Daphne was really good at climbing up on things to give me noogies.
And now I have to think about the fact that Daphne’s graduating and flouncing off to college. She’s arguably my soul-twin, my one great platonic love affair—the keeper of all those dark times, when I was on the cusp of fourteen and terrified that her parents were going to throw me back for being defective. We’ve since moved on to greater things, like our shared love of narwhals and Supernatural and the double-chocolate cheesecake from Modeen’s Diner, but memories like that stick: I was a wreck of hormones and nerves and foster woes, and Daphne showed me the brilliant weirdness that is the Sheffields’ impossible yet possible life. We watch movies in the backyard and have family game nights and day trips to the shore that involve too many hotdogs and inadvisable amounts of time in the sun.
And that’s all going to change. It’s inevitable, like Grandpa Sheffield shuffling off his mortal coil and Waffle Sundays and the living-dead thing under my bed eventually burrowing out through my mattress to eat me. But just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean I have to like it.
So. Art Buddies.
Flipping open my sketch pad, I say, “It could be fun?” Which convinces nobody, not even myself, that it could actually be fun.
Rob and Arlo drop down into their seats across from us at the long rectangular table. Rob says, “What could be fun?”
Evie says, “Fuck off,” without any heat, because she has this knee-jerk hatred of Rob that stems from his codependency on Arlo, and how Arlo is the devil. Arlo sculpts; he has no business being that defensive of Impressionism. Everyone knows he just does it to piss Evie off.
“Art Buddies,” I say, and Rob makes a face.
Arlo scoffs and says, “Good luck with that.”
And then Evie has a silent stare-down with him that ends with her turning to me and saying, “You know what? Let’s do it.”
* * *
Maybe it isn’t just today that sucks balls.
Maybe it’s every day, given that they’re inevitably all bookended by gym and chemistry. My lab partner in chem is Linz Garber. Linz Garber is a pyro, she probably needs actual help, but odds are nobody’ll do anything about it until she burns the whole school to the ground. Dr. Carlisle gave me my own personal fire extinguisher for under our table two weeks into the school year.
The only awesome thing about chem is that I have it with Si O’Mara, the school’s one and only openly gay football star. It’s possible that I’m still not over my freshman crush.
It’s possible that I’ve had it bad for him ever since he innocently helped me pick up my books and papers when my bag split open in the middle of the hallway between classes our first week in. It could’ve been a meet-cute. I had embarrassingly vanilla fantasies about sitting together in class, at lunch, hanging out at each other’s houses after school—Evie must never know about them. But meet-cutes don’t happen outside Hallmark movies that I definitely, absolutely don’t watch. The only class we’ve always shared has been science, and we always end up on opposite sides of the room.
Today, Si has a flush to his cheeks, like he’s been laughing. I slump down with my chin in my hand and catch myself in the middle of an audible sigh.
“Oops, crap,” Linz says, and the distinct smell of lit paper makes my nose twitch. It’s like—we weren’t even using our burners, what the fuck?
I automatically flap my notebook down on her crumbling paper so fast Dr. Carlisle doesn’t even notice.
Linz grins at me, sheepish. Sorry, she mouths.
I shrug—crazily enough, I’m used to it by now—and then shake ashes off my notebook and flip it open to a new page.
When the bell rings, I only stare a little creepily as Si packs up his books, scuffs a hand over the back of Mykos’s head, and waves to P the 3.
Linz absolutely can’t judge me for it.
And then Si’s gaze sweeps the room and he catches me looking and I feel my face freeze up. This … has never happened before. His ice blue eyes have never locked with mine, like he’s trying to figure out exactly where he knows me from, despite us both being right here, in the same classroom, at the same time, every day. Oh god.
His slow-dawning grin is blinding, and I’m pretty sure he means it for Linz; or for Steph Crane, who sits behind us; or for the happy, fluffy clouds floating past the far windows; but my mouth automatically twitches up to smile back.
And, okay, there’s a burn on my cheeks that can probably be seen from space when Tasha Carmichael elbows past me to saunter up to Si’s still-smiling face and hook arms with him.
Linz snorts and I mutter, “Shut up,” under my breath.
* * *
Instead of immediately delving into the world of after-school activities, Evie and I silently agree to go home and sleep on it. At least that’s what I think we’re agreeing to. She doesn’t stop me when I go for my bike, and I make my way home to watch Ellen and think about my life choices with my cat, Fuzzbutt McGundersnoot.
Fuzzbutt is completely unimpressed with me, in general, but he sleeps in my bed every night and is willing to rub his face on my face, so I’m sort of attached. He’s a longhaired floofy thing, brown-and-white tabby, and both of my hands are buried in his fur as he tolerates an enthusiastic petting when Marla knocks on my bedroom door.
She leans into the doorframe and says, “I hope you don’t think I’m meddling.”
Lifting my head up from where I was definitely not making kissy faces at Fuzzbutt, I say, “Meddling how?” Marla doesn’t usually meddle. Tom meddles, because he still thinks he can teach me how to catch a baseball. He counsels grade schoolers and likes to analyze why I’m partial to plants (spoiler alert: they don’t care if I sing to myself after hours at the nursery), and I’m pretty sure he looks at me sometimes and still sees the beanpole in worn Converse shoes they picked up in front of the group home almost three years ago.
Marla, on the other hand, has always respected my right to hate sports and own four different pairs of the same sweatpants and name every single jade plant I get Attila.
Moving into my room, she perches on the edge of my bed and pats my ankle. “I just want you to be as prepared for next year as possible.”
Oh, yeah. SAP. I shrug. “Okay.”
“To be fair,” she says, grinning, “all I did was ask Daphne to lend you her prep books. So whatever else happens is completely out of my hands.”
I muffle a laugh in Fuzzbutt’s fur, because what can you do? Fuzzy flicks his tail over my forehead and then shifts over onto his other side, away from my face, but still within arm’s reach.
“It’s fine,” I say. I don’t know how fine it’ll be when Daphne gets some real momentum behind her, but for now it’s not so bad. Some studying, some after school Art Buddies shenanigans with Evie—I can handle it. Maybe.
Marla squeezes my ankle and then lets me go. She says, “Your dad’s grilling steaks for dinner, and Daphne’s out with Adrian.”
I make a face, because Adrian, ugh. Adrian Fells is the worst boyfriend in the history of boyfriends, but Daphne is blinded by his lacrosse skills and shapely ass and probably his tongue, too. They’ve been dating since January. The only thing more terrible than Daphne dating Adrian—who has given me more than one bloody nose by “accidentally” tripping me down the school stairs—is that her best friend Missy agrees with me about it.
We shared a commiserating look of horror when Daphne announced their first date, and it was one of the strangest things that’s ever happened to me. I hope to god it never happens again.
“Dad could use some help with the garlic toast,” Marla says, and I sigh and roll up off the side of the bed and onto my feet.
Fuzzbutt jumps down, too, only he immediately disappears under the bed.
Marla says, “You might want to consider finding out what died under there, before it spreads to the rest of the house.”
It’s a heavy hint that I choose to ignore. Whatever is under there is starting to smell even stronger, and I really don’t want to know what Fuzzbutt is doing with it.
Copyright © 2019 by S. J. Goslee