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Aly? My stomach knotted. What if it was a hate card? She’d written one of those once to this girl who’d accused her of stealing money from her purse. Which, of course, Aly would never do. She’d called this girl a pathological liar. Is that what Aly thought of me? Liam and me, we were both liars.

I couldn’t deal with it. Not today. I just wanted to check out — permanently. Sliding the card into my chem book on the top shelf, I gathered books and spirals for my morning classes.

The lab experiment today was called Stoichiometry. Great. I couldn’t even pronounce the title. I read over the instructions, which boiled down to mixing liquids and solids and determining the percent composition of each. The worksheet was one problem about figuring out the percent of each component in a Big Mac. Oh, brother. This was a calculation I’d need to know later in life, when I began my career as a high school dropout.

I couldn’t extrapolate the equation. It made me mad, frustrated. Bruchac purposely created these impossible problems to trick me. As he wandered the room harassing people, I surreptitiously glanced around to see if anyone was watching me. Like they would. I removed Liam’s Stoichiometry lab and worksheet from my backpack and slipped them inside my spiral. If it wasn’t for the fact he was ruining my life, Liam would be the coolest brother in the world. Or sister. Whatever.

I opened the spiral and skimmed down the lab. Then closed the notebook. I couldn’t do it; couldn’t cheat. What gratification would there be in earning an A for work I didn’t do?

I disgusted myself. I was such a nun.

There were five minutes remaining in the hour when Bruchac announced, “I have your tests graded. If the suspense is killing you, you can pick them up as you leave. Otherwise, we’ll review the answers tomorrow.” Did he intentionally zero in on me? Did he shake his head?

The masochists in the class, including me, trooped to the front. I waited until I was out in the hall to look at my test. All the way down the left side of the page next to every problem Bruchac had scrawled in red ink, “Nope. Nope. Nope.” At the top he’d given me twenty-five points. “For effort,” he’d written. Underneath, “Why don’t you ask your brother for help?”

Burn my nun’s habit. Bring on the Bruchac Papers.

As I jammed the test in my chem book, the note card from Aly sailed to the floor. I retrieved it and studied the envelope. Reread my name on the front: “Ray Gun.” It hadn’t registered the first time. Dad was the only one who’d ever called me that. His pet name. How could Aly have known?

Duh. We’d practically grown up together. She’d have heard it a million times. She remembered that, but she blocked out Liam’s bra? Denial runs deep.

I really did not want to know what Aly thought of me.

What did she think of me, though? Masochism may run deeper than denial. I sliced through the envelope and removed the card. On the front was a photo of Earth taken from space. The caption read, “Love makes the world go . . .”

It continued inside.

I opened the card. No words. Only the earth again, totally obliterated. What did that mean? There was no signature. Wait. On the back was scrawled a long message. “Dear Regan,” it began.

“I know you never want to talk to me again and I don’t blame you. I’m a total jerk and I know it. I don’t deserve you . . .”

Who was this from? I skimmed to the bottom. “Chris.”

Chris? He didn’t deserve me? The writing was cramped, itty bitty printing. I read the rest. “You probably don’t give a rat’s ass, but I’d at least like to apologize in person. Will you meet me before 6th period in the gym? It’s okay if you miss Skills for Living cuz girls already know how to cook.”

I snorted.

“If you don’t come I’ll understand. I’ll just leave your purse with Bruchac.”

My purse! Did he go back for my purse? All that way? How sweet. Thoughtful. Apologize. He wanted to apologize? For what? I studied the note, reread it, absorbed every word. I loved his handwriting. Before sixth period.

Sixth period? That was now.

The gym was cut in half by a rolling wall divider. The half I walked into was split again with a volleyball net. No Chris. I’d missed him. Panic rose in my chest. He’d given up on me. As I reversed direction to try the other side, a sound snagged my attention. Scraping. Clanging. Metal on parquet wood. I turned around. This ... this mechanical beast came barreling toward me. A full suit of armor: leggings, breastplate, helmet with feathered plumage.

My prince in shining armor, I thought. Stupid thought. The armor wasn’t shiny. It was tarnished and bent and falling apart at the seams.

The visor raised and Chris’s eyes twinkled at me. “Cool, huh?” he said.

I realized suddenly what the armor was about — he was protecting himself from me. He should. I was dangerous. “It looks hot,” I said.

“It is. If I sweat any more, I’m going to rust shut.” He lifted off the helmet and smoothed down his hair. We stood for a moment in awkward silence. Then we blurted in unison, “I’m sorry.”

Chris frowned. “What are you sorry about? I’m the one who screwed up. I assume you got busted for getting back so late and that’s why you’re not talking to me. One of the many reasons.”

“I’m the one who got you busted,” I said. “I broke your car window. I scratched your CDs and made you get a speeding ticket.” I hurt your feelings, I didn’t say.

“You didn’t do anything, Regan. Here I am with this totally hot girl I’ve been trying to get to go out with me for weeks. She finally says yes and my crappy car falls apart, then my driving about fractures her skull. Denny the dickhead scares the shit out of you. I risk your life driving like a maniac. I ruin your clothes. I get you busted. Stupid. I’m so stupid. I’m a spaz.”

“No, you’re not. It’s my fault.”

“It is not.”

“Is too.”

We looked at each other for a long minute, then cracked up.

Okay, it was funny, in a sadistic sort of way. But it felt good to laugh. In retrospect, the whole horror show played out like a comedy routine. Laurel and Hardy, the Two Stooges.

We stopped laughing, but couldn’t stop smiling at each other. It was making me warm. “You have my purse?” I said.

“Oh yeah.” He clunked a pivot. “This-a-way.”

I trailed him to the rear of the gym. “Did you know the theater prop room is back here?” he asked over his shoulder. “I found it just now when I was waiting for you.”

As he lifted off the breastplate and bent to unlash the leather thongs from behind the leggings, the room drew me in. It was larger than I’d imagined. I did know about the prop room. Last year the theater department organized a Shakespeare festival and Liam, Aly, and I bought tickets for Romeo and Juliet. Between acts, the two of them took off to find food while I shad-owed a couple of players down the hall and into the staging area. They’d disappeared inside this room.

My eyes adjusted to the dimmer interior light. There were racks of costumes, headdresses, hats, wigs, a long table with mirrors for makeup. “Luna would die and go to heaven here.”

“Huh?” Chris materialized at my side.

My face flared. “Nothing.” Shut up, Regan.

“It’s awesome, isn’t it?” He reached for a top hat on the shelf and popped it onto his head. He admired himself in the mirror.

Boys and mirrors.

I strolled down the racks of costumes, letting my fingers brush the fabrics: satin, brocade, chiffon. My hand came to rest on a velvet evening gown. Emerald green, strapless, with a hooded cape. For a moment I envisioned myself in this gorgeous dress, at a ball, dancing until midnight. No, not dancing. Sitting in the throne watching others dance. I might dance, if someone asked. Or I’d be on a stage, as Violetta, singing, “Ever free my heart must be.”

And I thought Luna was a drama queen?

A rustling from behind brought me up short. “Don’t look,” Chris said, peering over the top of a Japanese screen. “Oh, man.” His head retracted. “This is so me.”

A smile warmed me from within. I felt so comfortable with him. Relaxed, even hopeful. Like maybe this time I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself. At the end of the racks of costumes there was an umbrella stand and in it, a cache of weapons: swords, rifles, spears. All props, of course. I pulled out a cavalry sword from its sheath. Wow, it was heavy. This was no rubber dummy.

I slashed the air. Whish. Again. Swish. “En garde,” I said, lunging. “Take that.” I spun around and lashed the air. At that moment Chris stepped out from behind the screen and my sword whacked him on the shoulder.

He stumbled backward into a rack of costumes, which tipped over and crashed on top of him.

“Oh my God.” I threw down the sword. “Are you all right?” Frantically, I dug through the dresses.

“Move away,” he said. “Slowly. Move. Away.”

I obeyed. Stumbling backward, my arms stiff at my sides, I thought, You’ve finally done it, Regan. You’ve inflicted the fatal blow.

As if animated, the dress rack elevated itself. Chris’s face appeared between the velvet gown and a poodle skirt. He said, “We should take this act on the road.”

At least he was smiling.

“Ta da.” The costumes parted and he leapt out. “What do you think? Is it me?”

My heart seized.

Chris flipped a length of blonde wig over his shoulder and threw out a hip. “Why don’t choo come up and see me sometime.” He wiggled his hips. The fringe on the flapper dress swayed.

I felt dizzy. Nauseated. Had to get out of there.

“Regan, wait!” Chris called at my retreating back. “Where are you going? What did I do this time?”

That stopped me in my tracks. I turned around slowly. “Nothing. You didn’t do anything. It’s me. I’m —” What could I say? A prisoner in a parallel universe? I’m being held hostage by my life? Liam’s everywhere I go, everywhere I turn. He’s my living nightmare. There’s no waking up.

Chris exhaled a long breath. “Here’s a stupid question: Do you even like me?”

Do I like you? No, I don’t like you. I don’t think about you every moment of every day. I never relive the way it felt to have your hand holding mine, to be so close to you I could smell you, feel the warmth of you, breathe the air you breathe. I don’t remember your arm around me, making me feel safe, special, wanted.

My eyes found his. He searched my face, probing for an answer. I couldn’t say it, I didn’t dare. “Just once,” he said, “I’d like to get inside your head.”

I let out a short laugh. “You do not want to go there.”

He laughed. Then I laughed. Our laughter, it lifted me. The lightness of it, the release. Like a shaft of sun piercing a long-darkened window.

Chris folded his arms loosely, then unfolded them, looking uneasy in the dress. “Could we start over?” he asked. “Just blank out everything from day one? Pretend we’re meeting for the first time. We see each other across a crowded room —”

“A chemistry lab,” I said.

“Okay.” He arched eyebrows.

Why’d I say that?

“We feel the vibes,” he said.

“The chemistry.” I should shut up.

“Right,” he agreed. “The chemistry. I say, ‘Hi.’”

I ask, “How high are you?” God. Could I be a bigger dork? “Forget that. I say, ‘Hi’ back.”

“Would you go out with me? I promise it’ll be a safe place. No stupid raves. I’ll get you back on time. Door-to-door delivery, guaranteed.” He paused, waiting.

For what? Was he asking me out? For real? Was the game over? There was definite chemistry between us. I know we both felt it, along with the possibility of more developing. I wanted that. Like nothing I’d ever wanted before in my life. But could I? Should I?

“I say . . . ‘Okay.’” It felt as if I was diving off a cliff, taking a header into a bottomless sea. Fear of the unknown, the unexplored. I was nervous, anxious. More about screwing up than anything else.

The bell rang, yanking both of us out of this fairy tale. Footsteps thundered through the gym and Chris yelped, “Yikes! I gotta get out of these clothes.” He ripped the wig off his head. “I have practice in five minutes.” He dashed behind the Japanese screen and popped his head over the top. “Is Friday okay?”

“Uh, yeah.” For what? Whatever. “Friday’s great.”

He ducked down and added in a muffle, “I’ll call you.”

Casually, I strolled out the door, then broke into a run. I had the strongest urge to shout at the top of my lungs, “He likes me! Chris Garazzo likes me.” As I flew past the cafeteria, the world a blur, a dream, a magic carpet ride, my eyes took in two figures next to the south stairs.

A voice ricocheted in the hall, “Freaking pervert.”

I skidded to a stop. I knew that voice. Hoyt Doucet.

“Freaking fag pervert.”

I turned to see Hoyt reach out and smack Luna’s shoulder. He slammed her into the railing.


What was she doing here?

Hoyt screeched, “You f**king pervert!” Loud. It attracted the attention of a couple of girls who were clomping down the stairs. Hoyt jabbed Luna’s shoulder again and yelled, “Perv! You’re a perv. I always knew it.”

Luna spoke quietly, “Ow. Don’t.”

“Don’t? Don’t what? Do this?” Hoyt raised his arm and ripped off Luna’s wig. Clumps of Liam’s hair tore out with the bobby pins.

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