Chapter no 9

My Life with the Walter Boys

“Whoa, is the world ending?” I heard a familiar voice behind me. “New York skipping class?”

I was still outside the math room, sitting against a row of lockers, but now the hall was empty and class was in progress. Never in my life had I skipped a class, but Mary’s words were crippling. It had taken nearly five minutes of heavy breathing just to contain my tears.

Looking up, I saw Cole coming down the hall toward me. At first I thought he was arriving at class late, but then I noticed that his letter jacket was slung over his shoulder and his backpack was nowhere in sight.

“I’m not skipping,” I told him quietly. “Just a little bit late.”

Cole stared at me for a second before squatting down next to me. “What’s wrong, Jackie?” he asked.

“Besides the fact that I’m pissed at you for messing with my alarm clock?” I said, brushing his hand off my shoulder. “Nothing.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Good for you,” I said, burying my face in my hands, “but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to talk to you about it.” Why did he always show up when I was on the verge of tears?

“If you don’t want to tell me,” I heard Cole say, “that’s fine. But at least let me make you feel better.”

“Why?” I mumbled. I wasn’t really listening to what he was saying anymore. I was just trying to get through the conversation so he would leave me alone.

“It seems to be my job lately. I should add it to the description next to devastatingly handsome. Cole Walter—professional cheerer-upper and sexiest man of the year.”

“I’m not in the mood, Cole,” I said, sighing.

“Okay, I’ll be serious,” he said, swinging the truck keys in his hand. “Just come with me, and I promise that I can help you forget.”

Startled by his words, I glanced up. Unlike the last time Cole found me an emotional wreck, this time I knew he was talking about my family. His face was not unkind, and the pity that I was afraid to see wasn’t there. It was such a relief that I barely understood the words that came out of my mouth next.

“You mean cut class?” I asked. “With you?”

He nodded. “Why not? You’re already twenty minutes late.”

I looked at my watch and saw he was right. “I don’t know…” I said, not really knowing what to do.

“Come on, Jackie. I promise it will be fun.” He gave me a puppy-dog look. Damn those gorgeous eyes.

In my right mind I would never cut class, but after what had just happened with Mary, the thought of being whisked away by Cole was a nice distraction. “Fine,” I said, climbing to my feet. “Lead the way.”

As soon as I spotted the truck and the people sitting in the back, I remembered the conversation I’d heard between Cole and Nick this morning. Sure enough, Cole’s friend was leaning against the tailgate, and I was starting to get the impression that the frown on his face was a permanent feature. Besides Nick, I couldn’t remember the names of anyone else, but they were all friends that sat with Cole at lunch.

“Cole, it’s your turn to drive,” said one of the girls as we approached. She had dirty blond hair with a strip dyed hot pink, and suddenly I remembered that she had come over to the Walters’ house this past week to swim with Cole.

“I never would have guessed, Kate,” he said, opening the tailgate so I could climb up. “Considering we’re taking my car and all.” Then he held

out his hand and offered me a boost up.

“If you’re driving,” I said quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear, “I’d like to ride up front.”

“Of course you would.” The satisfied smirk on his face almost made me change my mind, but I didn’t want to sit with all the strangers. Walking around the side of the truck, I opened the passenger door and climbed in. The truck felt strangely empty without the rest of the Walters in it, but Cole didn’t seem to notice as he got in next to me.

I didn’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t what Kate offered me after she slid open the back window from the bed of the truck.

“Want one?” she asked me, holding out a beer.

“No,” I replied instinctively. I didn’t even stop to consider it.

“Yes, she does.” Cole grabbed it from Kate and dropped it in my lap. “A cold beer always fixes a bad day.”

“What are you doing?” I hissed at him as he started the truck.

“Making you feel better.” He reached for the radio and cranked up the music.

The thought of unbuckling my seat belt and jumping out crossed my mind, because I didn’t want to get in any trouble. But before I could make my decision, Cole put the truck in reverse and we were moving. At first, as we ripped out of the parking lot, I couldn’t breathe. What had I gotten myself into? I let a girl I didn’t even know affect me with one sentence. I’d spun out of control and now I was in an even worse situation.

But then I turned to Cole. He had the window rolled down, his arm hanging out over the side of the door, and as the song we were listening to hit the chorus, he started to shout the lyrics at the top of his lungs. I heard a few hollers join in from the back, and somehow their mood was contagious. Cole smiled, the warm sun hitting his face just right, and then I was smiling too.

“You gonna drink that?” Cole asked, pointing at the beer in my lap. Glancing down, I stared at the can. It was melting in the warm air,

trickles of cool water raced down the aluminum. Skipping school was bad

enough; I didn’t need to add underage drinking to my list of crimes. But then again, I was already here…

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I said and popped open my first ever can of beer.


Sal’s diner was near the outskirts of town. Nick insisted on eating lunch there, because he didn’t want to get caught skipping school. The service was slow even though we were the only customers, and by the time we finished our greasy burgers, my English class was starting. Next we stopped at Kate’s house so she could grab more beer that she had hidden under her front porch. Our final destination was an abandoned warehouse with boarded-up windows, an hour outside of town, and when we finally arrived school was letting out. I didn’t know what I was expecting—maybe someone’s lake house or hunting cabin, but not somewhere so creepy. Cole assured me plenty of people hung out here when they skipped school, and that a few great parties had even been thrown here.

I didn’t discount that. On the inside, the space looked as if many generations of high school students had used it. The first thing I noticed was the layer of graffiti—hearts with initials covered every inch of the walls. There were crates and camping chairs to sit on, an assortment of plastic coolers, and even an old ping-pong table. In the corner of the room was a pile of sleeping bags and blankets, along with a box that had the words “Survival Kit” written across it in Sharpie. Inside was a collection of supplies: batteries, candles, plastic cups, a bottle opener, Band-Aids, and a flashlight.

Someone had taken the time to decorate the place, probably for one of the parties. Streamers hung from the ceiling and Christmas lights lined the walls, but they didn’t work because the building didn’t have electricity.

I had no idea how long we’d been at the warehouse, but almost all of the sun had disappeared, and a battery-powered lantern in the middle of the floor was our only source of light. The dull illumination cast shadows on

our faces, making everyone look sharp and spooky. I’d lost track of how many beers were running through my system, but they were enough to make my head buzz.

“I don’t think so, guys,” I said slowly, trying to clear my mind and concentrate. It was hard to think when my head felt so heavy.

“Oh, come on,” Nick said with so much enthusiasm that he knocked over the row of empty bottles next to him. “You have to play!” He was quite a different person when he was drunk. More friendly.

The group was trying to get me to play spin the bottle, and I felt uncomfortable.

Cole had introduced me to everyone when we arrived—two girls and four guys—but they still felt like strangers. There was Kate, the girl with the pink streak in her hair, and her friend Molly. Then, not including Nick, two of Cole’s friends from the football team had come. I couldn’t remember their names, maybe Ryan and Jim, but they also could have been Bryan and Tim. Then there was Molly’s little brother Joe who had a lip ring and insisted on being called Jet.

Besides the fact that everyone here was older than me, I didn’t want to play spin the bottle for one huge reason. I had never been kissed. Did I really want my first one to be some sloppy, tipsy train-wreck with a boy I didn’t know?

“I probably shouldn’t,” I said, shaking my head.

“Sounds like you’re thinking too much,” Kate said, grabbing me another can. It was her personal mission to make sure that there was a drink in everyone’s hands at all times. When I didn’t take it from her, she stuffed it into the cup holder on my chair.

“Maybe we should do something else.” It was Cole. He was lounging back in one of the camping chairs, and the way the light from the lantern hit his face, he looked sexy, dangerous.

“Why not? You love spin the bottle.”

“I do, but I don’t think it’s Jackie’s kind of game.” “What do you mean, not my kind of game?”

“You’re a Goody Two-Shoes.” “Am not.”

“Prove it.”

In the back of my mind, I knew he was baiting me, but the alcohol made words that I normally wouldn’t say come out of my mouth. “Oh, you’re so on.”

We all sat cross-legged on the floor in a circle and placed an empty bottle in the middle. Kate spun first, and when it landed on Ryan-Bryan, she laughed and spun again.

“Hey!” Ryan-Bryan complained. “You can’t do that.”

“I’m instigating an ex-girlfriend rule,” she said. “I’ve kissed you enough to know never to do it again.”

“What are you talking about? I’m a great kisser.”

“Ryan, you’re a biter. Seriously, what was with all the tooth action? It’s not like my face is a midnight snack.”

Jet was up next, and when he spun the bottle, I silently prayed that it wouldn’t land on me. When it came to a stop on his sister Molly, they both made a face, and he ended up kissing Kate instead. I was beginning to understand that people just kissed whomever they wanted instead of the person the bottle actually landed on.

Then it was Cole’s turn, and the bottle landed on Nick.

“Ah, hell no,” Cole said, looking at his friend in disgust. Everyone laughed. “I’m going again,” he said, giving the bottle another spin. It twirled on the floor in front of us, and I felt my pulse quicken. Did I want Cole to kiss me? Sure, he was attractive. There was no denying that, but I just couldn’t figure him out. What if everything Alex said about him was true? Even worse, what if I was falling for him anyway? What did that say about the kind of person I was?

When the bottle started slowing, making one last circle, I realized that it was going to land on me. However, just as the nose pointed in my direction, the bottle wobbled one last time and finally stopped between Molly and me.

“Well, now what do you do?” Jim-Tim asked Cole as we all stared at the bottle. It was quiet for a moment, but then Cole answered.

“I get to pick,” he said, before sweeping across the circle with a quick step and crashing his lips onto mine.

For one small moment I let him kiss me, his body pressed up against mine, and a wave of heat washed over us. Then my dulled senses kicked in. I could hear Riley’s voice in my head: That’s boy’s gonna eat you alive, and you won’t see it coming…

Frightened, I shoved Cole away. “Get off,” I said, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand.

Cole laughed and moved back to his spot across the circle. “It’s okay, Jackie,” he said, winking at me. “I got what I wanted.”

It was quiet. Everyone looked back and forth between Cole and me as the boom box crackled in the background.

“God, Cole,” Kate said, breaking the silence. “You’re such a pig.” “That’s not what you were saying the other night,” he shot back, without

looking away from me.

“Dammnnn!” Nick jeered, covering his mouth with his hand. All of the guys were snickering.

Kate said something back, but it was like my ears had popped, and I could hardly hear what she was saying. Cole was still watching me with a look that I couldn’t figure out, at least not with how my head was spinning. I needed fresh air. With some difficulty, I pushed myself to my feet.

“Jackie?” someone said, but the words were muffled, barely there.

Standing up, I realized that I was drunker than I’d originally thought. My head was throbbing as everything around me reeled. I made it to the door without falling over, even though my steps were unsteady at best. Turning the rusty handle, I pushed open the heavy door to the warehouse and stepped outside.

The pavement was uneven, broken up in chunks. As I made my way to the truck where I planned to curl up until everybody was ready to leave, I stumbled on a crack. Suddenly it was as if the earth had moved, slamming

into me as I stood still, not the other way around. Laying face-first on the ground, I could taste a trickle of blood where I bit my lip, but I was too dizzy to feel the sharp bite. I rolled over onto my back and gazed up at the sky. The sun was lingering just below the horizon and the sky was royal purple, but the stars had already come out for the night. Never in my life had I seen so many clear, sparkling dots against the dark canvas.

It was then that I finally let the tears flow. I wasn’t crying because my knee was surely torn up and bloody. I wasn’t even crying because of Cole. The tears were for the people I missed. I wanted to hear my sister laugh at this horrible situation, my mom to yell at me for my bad behavior, and my dad to hold me tight as I cried.

The warehouse door slammed shut as someone followed me outside. The crunch of the gravel warned me of their approach, but I continued to stare up at the sky, water slowly leaking from my eyes. For the first time since arriving in Colorado, I didn’t care if someone saw me cry. I was too worn out.

“Jackie, are you okay?” I couldn’t see him since he was standing behind me, but I knew it was Cole.

“The sky looks like diamonds,” I said instead.

“It does,” he answered. His hand appeared above me, held out to help me up. I tried to lift my own hand to put in his, but it was just too heavy and my head was really spinning now. The diamonds above me were a blur.

“I like it down here,” I told him, letting my hand fall back down at my side.

“Okay.” Cole sat down beside me, and then, when we were closer and he could actually see my face in the dark, he added, “Is that blood?”

I winced in pain as he brought his sleeve up to my face and gently wiped the trickle away.

“Tripped,” was the only word I could get out.

“I’m sorry, Jackie,” Cole said then. He gently pulled me close to him, cradling my head in his lap.

I didn’t know exactly what he was apologizing for. It could have been for convincing me to skip school and drink, something I had never done before. Or it could have been for kissing me. Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter.

“I want to go home,” I said softly.

“All right,” he said, pushing back my hair. “I’ll take you.” But he couldn’t. Not really.


There must have been a pothole in the road, because the truck lurched forward and I fell off the backseat, snapping awake.

“Shit!” I heard Cole say from the driver’s seat. “Knew I should have buckled you in.”

“It’s like a roller coaster,” I giggled as I let my head roll back.

“Jackie, can you do me a favor and just stay right there on the floor? I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Coley, don’t worry about me,” I told him. “It’s really comfy down here.”

The windows were rolled down, letting in the cool nighttime air and a chorus of chirping crickets. My toes and fingers tingled, and I smiled to myself. I was trying to remember how everything ended up so dizzy, but I only saw flashes of strange faces, an old building, and…a kiss?

The truck hit another hole, making my stomach jump. “You good?” Cole asked.

No. My happy feeling was without doubt gone. “Nuh-uh,” I said, as my insides turned. “I think I might throw up.”

A few choice words hissed out of Cole’s mouth, but he pulled over to the side of the road. I heard the car door slam and then Cole was helping me out. As I emptied my stomach into the bushes, he held back my hair.

“Is that it?” he asked when I stood up and wiped my mouth. “There is a strict no-puking policy in the truck.”

“All better,” I told him, before trying to stumble back to the truck.

“Well,” Cole said, “your stomach might be empty, but you’re definitely not sober.”

After I got back inside and lay down on the backseat, we were quiet for a long time.

Finally Cole spoke. “We are so grounded,” he said as he pulled off the road and into the driveway.

“I’ve never been grounded before,” I told him with a yawn. I should have felt a sense of panic, but my head was too empty and exhaustion was starting to take over.

“You’re in for a treat,” he said, as he parked the truck. It took a moment for him to climb out and shut his door quietly, but finally mine clicked open and he helped me as I pushed myself up into a sitting position. “I need you to be quiet when we sneak in, okay?”

“Shhh!” I said, putting my finger to my lips, which were tugging up in a sleepy grin.

“Exactly,” Cole said. “Now how about I help you outta there?” He put his hands around my waist, and as he lifted me from the truck, his finger brushed underneath the jersey on my bare skin.

“My legs feel funny,” I said when he set me down. My knees buckled as I tried to take a step.

“Whoa there,” he said, and suddenly my world tilted as Cole scooped me up in his arms. I let my eyes flutter shut as he carried me up the front path, his strong arms supporting me easily. It was a bit tricky for Cole to open the door while I was in his arms, but finally he managed to jiggle the handle enough for it to turn.

The hall light flipped on. “Care to explain what’s going on?” “Ah hell,” Cole mumbled, and I opened my eyes.

“‘Ah hell’ is right,” Katherine said. She was standing at the bottom of the staircase in her robe. It looked as if she had been waiting for us.

“Hi, Katherine,” I said, lifting my head so I could smile and wave. “Is she…?” Mrs. Walter said, trailing off in disbelief.

“Drunk?” Cole finished for her. “Yeah.”

Katherine just stared at the two of us, mouth hanging open.

“Mom? What’s going on?” Alex asked, appearing at the top of the stairs. Katherine closed her eyes and put a hand to her forehead in frustration. “Hello?” Alex asked again when nobody answered.

“Alex, help Jackie to her room, and then go back to sleep. Okay?” Katherine said in a non-negotiable voice.

He nodded and took me from Cole. I closed my eyes and snuggled closer to Alex, taking in the smell of his body wash.

“You stay where you are,” I heard Katherine say. Cole must have tried to follow Alex up the stairs.

“Aww, come on,” I heard him complain. “I was the responsible designated driver.”

Alex turned the corner and headed toward my room, cutting off Katherine’s response. He pushed my bedroom door open with his foot and then rubbed his back up against the wall for the light switch. Once it was on, he gently laid me on my bed and reached over to take off my shoes.

“You’re only in your boxers,” I said, giggling at him.

“What? Oh yeah,” he said, looking down at himself as if he’d just noticed the lack of clothes. He blushed but continued to untie my laces. “Do you need a glass of water, Jackie?”

“No,” I said and yawned, “but I’d like a kiss.”

“Go to sleep, silly,” he said before quickly pecking me on the cheek. “Night, Alex,” I told him as he turned off the light.

“Night, Jackie,” he responded and shut my door.


I quickly learned that Mr. and Mrs. Walter were not afraid to punish me. The next morning I woke up to a wicked hangover and Katherine sitting on the edge of my bed.

“How are you feeling, Jackie?” she asked, offering me a Tylenol and a glass of water.

“Um, I’ve been better,” I replied, slowly pushing myself up. My head was pounding, but I was more uncomfortable with the fact that Katherine was smiling at me.

“I don’t doubt,” she said with a knowing look as I popped the medicine into my mouth. “But school starts in two hours, so you need to get ready.”

“Thanks,” I said, nodding my head nervously as she stood up. Katherine should be yelling at me, not helping me nurse my headache.

“Of course, dear,” she said, crossing my room. She dropped the bomb when she reached the door. “Oh, and, Jackie, honey? You and Cole are both grounded. Three weeks.”

It meant we were restricted to the house with the exception of school, no watching TV or playing video games, and absolutely no friends. Truthfully I didn’t mind that much, as I figured it would give me time to refocus my priorities. My real punishment was the guilt. I could feel it in my lungs and chest, and in the heat of my blush. Something about skipping school with Cole had been so fun, so…liberating. For a few hours, I’d forgotten about my family and what Mary had said. That thought alone was terrifying.

How could I possibly have forgotten feelings that were so painful that they felt like a permanent scar? Although spending time with Cole gave me this new, thrilling feeling I couldn’t quite explain, I never wanted to forget again. My family was the force that drove me forward. I needed to refocus my attention on grades and my Princeton application.

The ride to school was awful. Every bump the truck hit was a hammer to my temple, but it wasn’t just the pain that was bothering me. Most of the guys weren’t angry that Cole stranded them yesterday after school, as they evidently were used to it. Isaac was bummed that Cole didn’t invite him along, but when I told him how long we were grounded for, he changed his mind. Alex, however, was avoiding me. He didn’t say a word to me during the drive, and when we got to school, he rushed inside without waiting for me. I knew he was mad, but he would have to face me in anatomy.

When I walked into class, Alex was sitting in our usual spot, his face blank as he stared straight ahead. I took a deep breath before crossing the

room, and when I sat down, he didn’t move or acknowledge my presence. Up close I noticed that his skin was pale and glistening—maybe he was nervous about getting our test back?

“So,” I said after an awkward silence. “How long are you going to ignore me?”

His lips pursed, but he didn’t say anything.

“Okay, fine,” I said, scooping my stuff up into my arms. “If you’re going to be like that, I’ll sit somewhere else.”

“I can’t believe you skipped school with him,” he said. “It wasn’t like I planned on it, Alex. It just happened.”

“That’s kind of hard to believe coming from Ms. I Need a Schedule for Every Second of My Life.”

Okay, I was so done with this damn sibling rivalry war or whatever it was. “Alex, I know you have issues with Cole, but don’t take it out on me. You can’t expect me to never talk to him, and he was only trying to cheer me up.”

“There’s a difference between talking to him and getting drunk with him!”

“You know what, Alex?” I snapped, sick of how unfair he was being. “Maybe if your damn ex wasn’t such a bitch, I wouldn’t have ended up in that situation to begin with.” The words tumbled of my mouth out before I realized I didn’t want him to know about my confrontation with Mary.


“Nothing. Never mind.”

“No, I want to know what she said to you.”

“Well, I don’t want to talk about it, so just forget it.”

Alex looked like he was going to argue, but then Mr. Piper appeared at the front of the room.

“Who’s ready to see their grades?” he called cheerfully. Everyone groaned.

For the next fifty minutes, I barely listened to the lecture. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to, but I could practically feel the anger pulsing off Alex in

waves, and it made me so tense that I couldn’t think. When the bell rang, he shot out of his chair, not waiting for me to pack up my bag. The rest of my morning went just as terribly, and by lunchtime, I was desperate for the break.

“How you feeling?” Cole asked me as we walked out of math.

“Like shit,” I grumbled, adjusting the strap on my bag so it wouldn’t slide off my shoulder. “I’m never letting you talk me into doing something so stupid again.”

“How about I buy you lunch to make up for it?”

I sighed. “Look, Cole, that’s really nice of you. It’s just…” “Just what?”

“Alex and I are really starting to get along. He hangs out with Kim and likes the rest of my group of friends, and it just kind of makes sense, you know?”

I don’t know exactly when I made up my mind to distance myself from Cole, but I think it had something to do with my fight with Alex. When I was with him, everything was so different. He didn’t make me feel like that strange, adventurous girl that emerged through my cracks when I was near Cole. With Alex, I felt comfortable, not anxious. Calm, not restless.

“So what exactly are you saying?”

“It’s no big secret that you guys have issues. I just think that we should, I don’t know…chill out?” It was half true, but I wasn’t going to tell Cole the real reason that we needed to keep our distance. The part about how being with him was so exciting that it scared me.

“Chill out?” he repeated as if he couldn’t quite hear me. “Yes, does that make sense?”

“Oh. Um—yeah, sure.”

“Cool, so I’ll see you later, I guess.” “Yeah, later.”


I should have asked Cole for directions to the computer lab. Alex always picked me up after math class and we walked to the lunchroom together, but today he didn’t show. He was probably sulking and playing Gathering of Gods, and I really wanted to smooth things over between us. If I didn’t, I would be pissed at myself for letting a drinking mistake ruin our friendship. Some teacher tried to point me in the right direction, but I was definitely lost. There was a wide set of double doors in front of me, which I was positive didn’t lead to the computer lab, but I pulled them open anyway, not knowing what else to do. The room was huge, with rows and rows of red theater chairs. The space was dark, except for a spotlight on stage, and I realized that this must be the auditorium. I was about to turn back around

when I noticed someone pacing back and forth down below.

“‘O, speak again, bright angel! For thou art as glorious to this night.’” It was Danny, and he was reading from a script I knew by heart. “‘Being o’er my head as is a winged messenger of heaven…’” He trailed off, leaving his line unfinished as he pulled his hair in frustration. From the way he spoke, I knew that he had every word memorized, so it must have been his line delivery that was upsetting him.

“‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’” I called down Juliet’s next line, hoping to inspire him. Danny’s head snapped in my direction, and he stared at me as I made my way down to the front of the stage. “‘Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love. And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.’”

“‘Shall I hear more,’” Danny whispered Romeo’s response, “‘or shall I speak at this?’” He sounded breathless—my sudden appearance was clearly a surprise.

I clapped my hands, a huge smile on my face. “Romeo and Juliet, huh?” “Yeah, it’s this year’s spring play. I didn’t know anyone else was in here

with me.”

He looked away from me, and I took the opportunity to study his face. He had all of the beautiful Walter facial features, but in more of a rugged way with the usual scruff covering his face. He was just as good-looking as

Cole, but it was subtle—something I had to study to notice. It was a silent, softer beauty.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt,” I told him as he shuffled his feet. “I was trying to find the computer lab.”

“That’s on the other side of the building.”

“Figures,” I said with a sigh. “So you’re the male lead? That’s pretty cool.”

Danny shook his head. “Not yet. Callbacks are next week.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll get the part,” I told him, as I pulled myself up onto the platform. I sat on the edge and let my feet dangle over the side. “It sounds like you have everything down.”

“I don’t know,” he said, sounding agonized. “Something is off. I’m having a hard time getting into character and this part…” He sighed. “This is the most important play I’ve ever auditioned for.”

“Is it your favorite or something?”

“No, but our drama teacher told us that one of his friends is coming here to watch it. She’s a talent scout.”

“Maybe you just need someone to read lines with,” I said, trying to look casual. This was by far the longest conversation I’d had with Danny since moving in with the Walters, and I wanted to see how far I could take it. “I can help if you want.”

Danny looked unsure, as if he thought I would rather give myself a paper cut. “You’d do that?” he asked.

“Well, Romeo and Juliet isn’t my favorite Shakespeare play,” I said, giving him a hard time. “But I suppose I could spare some time.”

It took Danny some time to warm up to me. At first, when he spoke, his lines were clumsy. But after one run-through of the famous balcony scene, he forgot I was standing there with him. He transformed into Romeo and I was Juliet.

The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch period, and Danny shook his head as if waking from a daydream. I could see why he was the president of

the drama club. Danny didn’t just act out a role; he submerged himself in it until he believed he was the character.

“That went well, don’t you think?” I asked, hopping off the stage.

Danny followed me down and walked me to the auditorium door. “It did.

You’re pretty good. Ever considered acting?”

“Heck no,” I laughed. “I get way too nervous in front of crowds. I don’t understand how you do it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know…” I said, unsure of how to verbalize what I was thinking. “You’re just so—”

“Shy?” he said bluntly. “Yeah, that.”

“Most people think I’m unfriendly,” Danny explained, shoving his hands in his jean pockets, “but I just have a hard time talking to people I don’t know.”

“Me too,” I told him.

Danny gave me a look. “That’s not true. You talk to everyone.”

“It’s not like I have much of a choice. I don’t know anyone here,” I said. There was a distinct note of grief in my voice, so I quickly changed the subject back to Danny. “If you have such a hard time talking to people, how do you stand up there in front of so many of them?”

“That’s different.” “How?”

“For starters, I don’t have to interact with them,” he told me. “But also, there’s something about playing a character, slipping into a different skin, that gives me this rush of confidence. It’s like I know that the crowd can’t judge who I am because I’m just performing. The person I’m pretending to be isn’t really me.”

“That makes sense,” I said, “but why do you care what people think?” He made it sound like everyone would hate him if they got to know the real him.

Danny raised an eyebrow. “What about you?”

“Me?” I asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Yes, I liked to make sure I looked presentable and I was a little uptight about my grades, but those were both key ingredients in becoming a successful person. It wasn’t like I avoided talking to people.

For a moment, Danny held my gaze, staring at me as if he was trying to figure something out. “Nothing,” he finally said and looked away. He pushed the auditorium door open a crack, and a beam of light poured into the dark room like molten gold. “Anyway, thanks for helping me out today. It was super cool, but I should probably get to class.”

“Right,” I said, confused. Why was he suddenly clamping down?

“See you at home,” Danny said. He slipped out into the hall, the door swinging shut behind him, and then I was alone.

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