Huh. He hadn’t even noticed me.
I deflated a little. I was that overlookable? I glanced around the café at the other silk feathered hats. None of them had noticed me, either. I deflated even more, until I was about half my original size.
My gaze passed over Neil’s identical twin brother, Sahil Roy, who apparently had noticed me and was now smiling, his face bright and happy. He sat at a table with his best friends, Skid (white, short, and wiry) and Aaron (the only black and openly gay person in our class; seriously, diversity, PPC. Look it up). They were being quieter—and geekier—than Neil’s group while discussing that new alien movie, which goes without saying. They’re total groundlings too. I smiled back.
“Can I help you?”
The thirtysomething mustachioed barista behind the counter was staring at me in a way that meant he’d probably had to ask that more than once. His name badge read STAN.
“Hi, Stan,” I said. “Can I get a small iced mocha? I have this.” Rummaging in my pocket, I fished out the coupon I’d gotten for winning an essay contest before winter break and handed it over.
He barely looked at it before handing it back. “It’s expired.”
“No, no, it’s not.” I pointed to the fine print, my palms getting sweaty even at this tiny amount of confrontation. “See? It says June first is the last day to claim this. And it’s June first.”
Stan’s mustache twitched spitefully as he pointed to the finer fine print. “See that? It says June first at five p.m. And it is now”—he checked his wristwatch—“five twenty-four p.m.”
Twenty-four minutes. He was denying me for a lousy twenty-four minutes. “Okay, Stalin,” I muttered as I stuffed the coupon back into my pocket.
He leaned toward me. “What did you say?” Oh God. His mustache quivered indignantly, almost independent of his face.
“Uh … nothing. I said, um, thanks, Sta-an.” I stretched his name into two syllables to make the lie more believable and smiled weakly.
“So, are you gonna get anything or not?” he asked, eyeing me like I was a bug he’d found swimming in his perfect coffee.
I looked at the menu and sighed. It was almost five dollars for the coffee, which was my lunch allowance for the week. If I bought it, I’d have to do without at school, and hungry Twinkle was hangry Twinkle. “No, that’s okay,” I said, my cheeks hot. In that instant, I was kind of glad about my invisibility powers. At least none of the silk feathered hats had heard how Twinkle Mehra couldn’t even afford an iced mocha.
In my hurry to escape, I almost smacked face-first into a muscled chest. OHMYGOD, my brain shouted as I tipped my head back and took in those light-brown eyes, that thick lacy fringe of eyelashes. IT’S HIM IT’S NEIL OHMYGO—oh, wait. My brain registered more details, like the red skull on the black T-shirt. The smile that was half shy, half awkward, not at all like Neil’s full-on, sear-your-retinas-with-its-strength-but-you-won’t-even-notice-the-pain-because-it’s-so-glorious smile.
“Oh, hey, Sahil,” I said, trying to go around him. “’Scuse me.”
“Wait. I could buy you that coffee?” he said, pivoting to see me. “Um, if you want?”
I stopped and looked at him, feeling that cringy-hot feeling I always get when people call attention to money. Specifically, how they have it and I don’t. “That’s … nice, but you don’t have to do that.”
“No, no, I want to,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets and then taking them out again. “Um, heat wave.”
Huh? Was that supposed to make sense? “You … what?”
“I … just meant there’s a heat wave outside. You definitely need an iced coffee.” Then he grinned suddenly, this thing that set all his teeth on display, and leaned back. It all had a very rehearsed vibe.
I opened my mouth to (a) tell him eighty degrees and a light breeze hardly qualified as a heat wave and (b) point out that he was edging dangerously close to the napkin holder. Sadly, I was too late delivering point (b).
Sahil sent it flying to the floor, and the napkins went everywhere. He stared at the mess for a minute in silence. And then we both ducked down to clean up the mess, knocking heads (of course; how else would two groundlings clean up a mess?) and groaning.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” Sahil said as I rubbed my forehead.
“That’s okay.” I stuffed the remaining napkins back into the holder and then stood up to face mustachioed Stan, who was watching this unfold with unadulterated glee beaming off his annoying, dictatorial face. “Um, yeah. I’ll have that iced mocha after all.” I figured it was easier to just accept than risk another mini disaster. I smiled at Sahil. “Thanks.”
He waved me off. “Ah, no, no worries.” And then I’m pretty sure he asked me a question, which I didn’t hear because it was then that Neil Roy began to walk toward me.