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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

In Real Life

A Novel

Jessica Love

Thomas Dunne Books

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

CHAPTER

1



FRIDAY

My best friend and I have never met.

We talk every day, on the phone or online, and he knows more about me than anyone. Like, deep into my soul. But we’ve never actually seen each other in real life.

Sometimes, when I’m talking to Nick, I wonder how we managed to get ourselves into such a bizarre, complicated friendship. At first glance, our relationship probably doesn’t seem all that odd. Like right now, it’s the Friday afternoon that kicks off the spring break of my senior year. I’m lying out next to my pool with my feet dangling in the chilly water, my back flat on concrete, and I’m talking to him on the phone. This is how I spend pretty much every Friday from 3:30 to 4:25-ish, before he goes off to band practice and I have one of my various school or family obligations. Sounds pretty normal.

But the thing is, Nick lives in a different state, 274 miles away. Yes, I looked it up.

“Ghost,” he says, because he never calls me Hannah, “you know I will do anything for my best friend, and this is no exception. I’ll have this girl killed for you without a second thought. Just give me twenty-four hours.”

I laugh as I swish my feet back and forth in the pool. “There’s no need to resort to murder. It’s just a stupid student government trip. I’ll be over it by the end of the week.”

As tempting as it is to plot Aditi Singh’s violent end, the only reason she applied to go to the national leadership conference when it should have been a given that the senior class president (aka me) was going was because I got into UCLA and she didn’t, so a big ol’ middle finger to her. But she can’t see my middle finger, because she’s in Washington, D.C., for spring break and I’m at home with no plans like a big loser.

“Well, if you change your mind,” Nick says, “just let me know. That’s how much our friendship means to me. The code word is ‘Platypus.’ Just say it, and—poof!—I’ll make her disappear.”

I sit up and pull my feet from the pool, crossing them in front of me. “And how can you do that?”

“Hey, I live in Vegas. I have connections to the mob. Everyone here does.”

“You’re a senior in high school, and you live in a tract home in Henderson. You’re not exactly Al Pacino.”

“You don’t know. Everything I’ve told you for the past four years could be a front. I need to have a cover. No one suspects the quiet, nondescript white boy.”

“You’re right. There is a lot I don’t know about you. I mean, there are any number of huge secrets you could be keeping from me.” I say it just because I’m playing along, but it’s not true at all. I’m pretty sure I know everything there is to know about Nick Cooper.

I know when my sister met his brother at a concert four years ago and they told us we should start talking online, he thought I was one of his brother’s friends playing a joke on him until I e-mailed him a picture. I know in the middle of junior year, he shaved his head when his favorite English teacher started chemo. I know the gravelly scratch of his voice when he wakes up in the middle of the night to answer one of my random “I’m bored, talk to me” phone calls. I know the hole in the sleeve seam of the lucky Rage Against the Machine T-shirt he inherited from his brother, Alex, since I’ve seen so many pictures of it. I know his middle name (Anthony), the date and time he was born (September 24 at 3:58 A.M.), and his favorite color (gray). And he knows more about me than absolutely anyone else, even the über-embarrassing stuff. We’ve IM’d, texted, sent a million pictures, mailed each other packages, video-chatted, and talked on the phone.

We’ve just never been in the same place at the same time.

I don’t think it’s strange to be so close to someone I’ve never met. Yeah, he’s in Nevada and I’m in Southern California, but I talk to him more than to people I’ve been in classes with since kindergarten. I do wish we could go to the movies together or something normal like that, but we watch the same movies at the same time and mock them over video chat, which is pretty much the same thing.

On the other end of the phone, his laugh stops abruptly and his voice changes. “Secrets? What kind of secrets could I have?”

“Who knows!” I try to sound shocked and serious, but I can’t keep a laugh from creeping in. “For all I know, you do have a secret mob life. Do you have some sort of gangster name I’m supposed to call you?”

His voice lightens again when he realizes I’m joking. “Oh yeah. Knuckles Nick. Or, no. Wait. Nick the Click.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I don’t know. It rhymed. Don’t those names always rhyme?”

“I know nothing about mob names, Nick the Click. But rhyming names do make mobsters seem a bit less murder-y.”

There’s a shuffle, a thump, and a squeak on his end of the phone, and I imagine him collapsing backwards onto his twin bed. “I just hate that you’re still bummed over missing out on the trip.”

“It’s not that I’m bummed, it’s just … I followed all the rules, Nick. I did exactly what I was supposed to do. Serving four years as class president means I go on that trip, not Aditi Singh. Onetime vice-presidents don’t get to go! It’s supposed to be my year. She broke the rules, but she got picked. How do you break all the rules and get what you want like that? It isn’t fair.”

“Well, you know what they say.…”

“Life’s not fair?”

“Well, that, too. But I was thinking rules are made to be broken.”

Yeah, that is what people say, but it goes against my Good Korean Girl DNA. Rules are made to be followed—at least that’s what my parents, who aren’t Tiger Parents or anything but are still pretty serious, drilled into me starting the second I learned to crawl. And I’ve always followed every rule, done exactly what I’ve been told, and it always worked out to my benefit.

Until it didn’t, and I found myself at home over spring break, trying to figure out how to make an Aditi Singh voodoo doll.

I hate rules.

A door slams somewhere in Vegas and echoes through my phone. “Oh, crap,” Nick says. “I have to go, Ghost. The guys are here.”

“Getting ready for the show tomorrow? Are you nervous?” Nick’s band Automatic Friday landed a huge gig opening for a popular Vegas band by entering and winning a Battle of the Bands at UNLV back in February. I always knew they were awesome, aside from their dumb name that I tried all junior year to convince him to change, and I was stoked that other people would have a chance to fall in love with their music, too.

“Ummm, let’s see. Instead of our usual backyard birthday party, Automatic Friday is opening for Moxie Patrol at the House of freaking Blues on the Strip. This will probably be the one and only chance to perform at a legit venue like a real band. I’d say ‘nervous’ doesn’t quite capture the level of sheer terror going on over here.”

“I’m coming to your show, by the way,” I say. “I’ll be in the front row. With an ‘I Heart Nick’ sign. Will you throw a guitar pick at me?”

“Even better,” he says. “I’ll throw the guitar at you.”

“Hello? Concussion!” We both laugh. “I do wish I could see your one and only real show, though.” He doesn’t say anything, because we both know the odds of me ever seeing Automatic Friday play are right up there with me piercing some body part that’s never meant to have a hole in it. “Okay, thinking about this is bumming me out. I’ll let you go. Say hi to Oscar for me.”

“I will. Did you get our package?”

“Oh yeah! I love the T-shirt. I wore it to school today.” Yeah, after I slept in it last night. The black T-shirt with the band’s name in the middle of a hot pink bass drum, the A and F made from drumsticks, is the best present he’s sent me so far. I guess the box of cake balls I sent last week decorated to look like my cat, Bruce Lee, was a hit.

“Oscar designed the shirt. He wanted you to have it.”

“Tell him thanks.” I smile down at the T-shirt as I smooth the front of it. “Now I’ll have to find something extra creative to send you back.”

“I’ll be waiting at the mailbox. Talk to you later, Ghost.”

“Text me when you’re done with rehearsal.”

It never feels like our conversations are over when we say good-bye. I always think of a hundred other things I want to say after I hit End on my screen, but I save it all for later, because there’s always a later with us.

I crawl back to the grass and flop down, letting the afternoon sun warm my face as I drift off into my typical Friday 4:26-to-4:45 post–phone-call daydreaming. After we hang up, I always zone out and imagine what hanging out with Nick in real life, knowing each other in-person instead of being only online friends and phone buddies, would be like. Today I’m actually picturing myself at one of their shows, cheering and dancing like a maniac in the crowd as he plays guitar, when—

“What are you dreaming about, weirdo? You have a huge grin on your face. It’s creepy.”

The sliding glass door slams shut, and I know my real-life BFF Lo will be standing over me in a matter of seconds. She’s spending spring break at my house, along with my older sister, Grace, who is a senior at UCLA, while my parents celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary on a cruise down to Mexico. Mom and Dad said they wanted Grace to keep an eye on me and Lo, but knowing my sister, I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around.

“Oh, you know,” I say as I stand up, trying to shake the mental picture of Nick out of my head as I brush grass off my jeans. “Just thinking about hiring a mob boss to dispose of Aditi Singh for me. No big.”

Lo has changed from her school look of jeans and hoodie into a short floral dress that covers her bikini, and she let her long, wavy black hair out of its usual ponytail. She looks me up and down and shakes her head. “You were talking to Nick, weren’t you?”

I shrug. Being my real-life bestie, Lo knows all about Nick. Well, not all about him; I’m selfish when it comes to my friendship with him, and there’s a lot I keep to myself. Even without knowing everything, though, Lo has insisted for years that I must be secretly in love with him. Lately she’s been getting snippy when I bring him up, like she’s jealous or something. Lo isn’t the type who likes to come in second.

She drops her overnight bag on the grass, and she lowers herself to perch on top of it.

“Girl, you know what I’m going to say. It’s high time you did something about this situation. Grace and I were literally just talking about this in the kitchen.” She stretches back onto the grass and screams for my sister, who had been raiding the fridge when I walked outside to answer Nick’s call. “Grace! Get out here! We need to powwow!”

I moan. “You really don’t need to get Grace involved.”

But it’s too late. It’s only a few seconds before my sister, Grace—clad in her usual uniform of black jeans, black T-shirt featuring some obscure punk band with a weird name, and wearing thick black eyeliner—is outside, too. She throws herself on one of the chaise longues next to the pool, a turkey sandwich hanging out of her mouth.

“What are we talking about?” she asks through bites of sandwich.

“We need to debrief about Hannah and Nick,” Lo says. “Hannah, what is the deal here? Why haven’t you guys met? You’ve been talking to this guy online for, what … four years? That’s a long time. Are you sure he’s legit?”

I shake my head, as if I could shake away this line of questioning. “He lives in Las Vegas, Lo. It’s not like he just goes to a different school. And of course he’s legit. I met him through Grace. Ask her.”

Grace throws up her hands, sandwich flailing. “Oh no. Don’t bring me into this. I met his brother one time at a show when I was in high school and talked to him for, like, a minute. I’m absolutely not vetting this dude.”

“But you know Alex is real,” I say. “And Nick and Alex look exactly the same, so you know he’s not a troll or anything.” I’ve shown Grace photos of Nick. She agrees that with his messy brown hair, thick-rimmed black glasses, and wide open smile, he’s a dead ringer for his older brother, who caught Grace’s attention at a concert all those years ago. The full-sleeve tattoo on Alex’s right arm is the only visible way to tell the Cooper brothers apart at a quick glance.

Grace shrugs and goes back to mauling her sandwich. “Whatever.”

I gather my hair and twist it into a bun. “I mean, Las Vegas is four hours away, across a state line. You know how Mom and Dad feel about this.”

Lo stands and paces along the edge of the pool. “Here’s the thing, Hannah. You’re almost a legal adult. You have a car. I assume he drives. If you wanted to, you could make this happen. It’s not an impossible distance.”

“We tried once,” I say. “It didn’t work, and…”

“And what?” Grace has finished her sandwich now, and she picks the crumbs off her black jeans like she’s hunting for treasure. “Yeah, that one time was a total disaster. And it was mostly my fault, which I still feel bad about, by the way. But why didn’t you ever try again?”

Lo stops pacing when she reaches Grace, and she stands shoulder to shoulder with my sister. A united front. “That was years ago, girl. Things have changed.”

That day is one of my huge regrets. Once I got over being half-relieved that our plans fell through, I used to wish there were a way to go back in time and have a redo. But Lo knows how my parents are. Mom said I wasn’t allowed to drive out and meet Nick. And once Mom says no to something, I can’t just go and do it. I mean, I’m not Grace. Far from it.

Grace and Lo keep staring. I never react well under pressure like this, with people in my face, trying to pry me out of my cozy comfort zone. The urge to run from their interrogation is strong, so instead of answering, I do the super-mature thing and roll my eyes. Then I do a nonchalant shuffle toward the house for a safe haven from their badgering. “I have to pee,” I call back over my shoulder.

I don’t have to pee, though, and I head upstairs to my bedroom instead of to the bathroom. I just need a break from Grace and Lo, so I flop down on my bed and click through my iPod until I find Ghost in the Machine, one of the playlists Nick made for me. It’s a mix of Automatic Friday songs and other indie bands with the same mellow style. This particular playlist is my go-to because it has a lot of the angsty unrequited-love-type songs that have always been my favorite. I click Play and smile as the first familiar notes of the lead singer and songwriter’s raspy voice fill my room.

I can’t count how many times I have fallen asleep to these songs or driven around in my car with them blaring in my ear, taking over my thoughts. And there have been times, especially recently, where a lyric struck me in such a deep way that I wished it were Nick who had written it, and that he’d written it just for me. It was an unusual thought, because that’s not how things are between us. Not at all. But there’s something about the music that takes my head to strange places.

I asked Nick about the lead singer once, if the passion in Jordy MacDonald’s songs was inspired by a girlfriend or some big lost love. Nick said Jordy’s a total player, and I know he didn’t mean of instruments. He said Jordy was with a new girl every weekend, and the other band members don’t even bother to learn the girls’ names anymore. I yelled at Nick about that because it made him sound like a total jerk, and he assured me he was just kidding, then proceeded to name the last twelve girls Jordy brought around, first and last names, told me what they all looked like, and added something degrading Jordy had said about each one the following day. I gave up on Jordy’s sensitive side after that and stopped searching for a meaning behind the songs. But I didn’t stop wishing.

Since Nick is on my mind, I pull out my phone and text him, even though I doubt he’ll answer because he’s at practice.

I HOPE YOU GUYS ARE PLANNING ON PLAYING MY FAVORITE SONGS AT YOUR BIG DEAL SHOW TOMORROW.

I always beg him to at least play the guitar parts of my favorite songs on our video chat sessions, but he’s too embarrassed. I make do with imagining him playing my dream set list at his gigs.

My phone beeps his reply almost immediately. Odd.

WE PLAY THEM EVERY TIME, GHOST.

I look out my window and see Lo has stripped down to her bikini and jumped in the pool. She floats on my inflatable dolphin and talks to Grace, who made herself comfy on the lounge chair. From Grace’s bobbing head, I assume they’re rehashing Grace’s recent breakup with her long-term live-in boyfriend, Gabe, for the millionth time, because it’s all she seems to talk about these days. At least my sister isn’t crying anymore. That’s a happy development.

And this is my wild and crazy life, everyone. Spring break of my senior year, and I’m going to spend it sitting around the pool with Lo and Grace, swimming and hanging out, like we’ve done every weekend since Grace’s breakup. My parents are out of town, college is around the corner, and I should be doing something exciting. But I’m staring down the barrel of the most boring, predictable spring break ever while Aditi Singh is on my student government trip and my best friend plays with his band at the House of freaking Blues in Las Vegas like a rock star.

Following the rules for the past seventeen years has gotten me absolutely nowhere.

I really need to do something about that.



Copyright © 2016 by Jessica Love.