Extra Better YA romance by Lucio Lina Buy a paperback copy on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087L4NG6H Watch me write book 2 in the series LIVE on Youtube Chapter 1 “If you were a demon, what five objects would I need to summon you?” “Five objects?” “One for each corner of the pentagram, Kailani, keep up!” I’m sitting on the floor of Oakland International Airport, leaning against my backpack, waiting on a connecting flight to Phoenix. Next to me, someone’s put a sticker of an outlet on the wall. “It’s a sticker,” I say, as an elderly woman smashes her phone charger against it. “What?” says Kell’s voice in my ear. We’ve been on the phone for forty minutes already, and my flight just got delayed another ten. “Sorry, I was talking to someone here. Okay, I’m thinking...” Five objects to summon me...if I was a demon... One for each corner of the pentagram... “Do they have to be able to get through TSA security?” I joke. “No, I have to have them here!” “And where are you again?” Kell’s ten years older – twenty-seven – and traveling abroad. Last time she called me I was living in middle of nowhere Washington state and she was in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle. “Vietnam on a slow route to Transylvania!” she says. “Monster hunting, from ghosts to ghouls to vampires.” “Why’d’you need to summon me then?” “Because little sisters are the scariest creatures in the world! Hurry up and pick! My train leaves in ten minutes.” My phone beeps and I check my battery. Ten percent. Pushing myself to my feet and heaving my backpack onto one shoulder, I circle the terminal looking for a real outlet. “Hoop earrings,” I say, adjusting my backpack and feeling my clear lucite J. Crew hoops rustle. “You could summon me with hoop earrings and... dark chocolate... and sunscreen...” I find an outlet on the floor below the terminal’s glass wall and sit with my back to the sun, pulling my hair over my ears so they don’t burn. “What else?” Kell prompts. Across the room, I watch a little boy with a ladybug backpack start crying because he can’t plug his iPad into the wall. Stooping down to inspect the sticker, his mother scowls and peels it off the wall. Then she picks him up, patting him on the backpack. “Cool bugs,” I decide. “Like a handful of centipedes or giant pill bugs or a scorpion.” “Noted,” Kell says. “And easy to find in Vietnam. And what’s in the last corner, little demon?” The gate attendant makes our first boarding call. Reflexively, my hand reaches into my pocket, making sure I haven’t forgotten my ticket, passport, and wallet. The latter I pull out and open, looking at a shiny orange laminate card. “My last object is my Arizona Fall League season pass.” Kell snorts. I keep hold of my passport and ticket but pocket the card again. “Baseball tickets?” It was my parents’ way of bribing me to move: eight weeks of games, and I could see doubleheaders on the weekends if I was willing to drive between stadiums. Sure middle of nowhere Washington was boring, and very nearly out of radio service, so it was hard to listen to Mariners games unless I sat on the roof, but at least I’d had the same group of friends since pre-k. I might not be afraid of bugs or demons or flying alone but I was terrified of starting my senior year of high school as the new kid. “I’ve got to go,” Kell says. In the background, I hear a train whistle. “I’ll try to check in from –” her words are garbled. “Or summon me there!” I say. “I’ll travel with you!” Kell says something else, but our connection gets cut off. I think it might have been, “I have something new for the book!” but I hope not. Chapter 2 On the plane, I cram my backpack into an overhead bin and pull down my window shade, leaning my head against it and trying to nap. My parents should be in Phoenix by now – they road tripped down with all our stuff. Two more hours and I’ll be with them, but it’s a whole other month before the Fall League baseball season starts. My passport is digging into my hip so I pull it out of my pocket and flick it open, studying my picture and imagining it displayed on a scoreboard, alongside my stats: Kailani Kramer, born in Hawaii, brown hair, brown eyes, tall, flexible enough to be a shortstop (but so uncoordinated I’ve never been able to play organized sports)... I think about Kell and monsters and baseball, and I pull out my phone and send myself a reminder to text her: “What’s the opposite of a vampire? Not a werewolf, because it’d be too hot for those in Phoenix. But I’m doing a reverse-Twilight: Washington to PDX. Clumsy brunette falls in love with a monster and –” Embarrassed, I delete everything and pocket my phone again. Kell is obsessed with falling in love, if I even mention the word around her she’ll go into a frenzy. I sink as low as my seat belt will allow me and wait for take-off with my head buzzing. This year, I just want to keep my head down, make a few friends, and watch a few baseball games. I’m not interested in romance. Besides, it’s been barely a week since Robbie and I broke up... Kell and I never lived together – she’s my dad’s kid from his first marriage – he left her mom for mine. But she was always involved in my life. When I started middle school, she’d give me “homework.” She’d just graduated college, where she’d mastered taking color-coordinated notes in handwriting so perfect it looked like a font, and she’d send me pages and pages of instructions on how to get through fights with friends, how to deal with my crushes, and how to take the initiative to ask someone out. On the last day of seventh-grade, she surprised me at school (she was supposed to be in New York) and helped me clean out my locker. She wouldn’t let me throw out my science textbook. She took it home, held inside her jacket so it would be protected from the rain, and then sliced it open with a box cutter, taking out all the pages so she could replace them with her handwritten notes. “This is now your bible,” she said proudly. “How to be in love. From an expert.” I was thirteen and only interested in “dating” on certain pre-ordained days, when the cafeteria was decorated with streamers and punch bowls, like Valentine’s or Spring Fling. The rest of the year boys were still too immature. They didn’t wash their gym socks and they still played with finger skateboards on the bus. But Kell was adamant: one day I’d want to fall in love, and she wanted me to do it right. “Loving someone else might be the most fun you ever have in your life – but loving yourself is the most important...” I mostly ignored her advice. As my Lyft pulls up to the new house I realize I never told her about my breakup with Robbie. He’d like this place – because it has a pool – and it’s one-story – and he’s always fantasized about getting his own place and being able to ride his skateboard between the kitchen and his room. “Kailani! How was the flight?” My mom takes my backpack, squishes me with a hug, and hurries me inside. I’m hit with a blast of AC and new paint-smell. “We’re almost done with your room – I mean, just with the boxes–” she holds up her hands in surrender, “We didn’t open them! Or arrange anything! That’s all for you to do. But we’ve finished the mudroom and our bathrooms and the couch is moved in, although we’re gonna need your help to position it correctly. Dad’s set it down crooked...” As she gives me the tour, I grimace, realizing how poorly our old furniture fits into its new home. Everything we own is heavy dark wood with extra padding and overstuffed pillows. Cold weather stuff – for sitting in front of a fire while you listen to the rain. Phoenix gets dust storms – haboobs – but it’s sunny most days. I’m hot just looking at our couch, next to a ladder hung with heavy blankets sitting atop a furry rug. I give it a week before they’re moving things out again, replacing everything with wicker and glass. “Did you talk to Kell?” Mom asks, showing me to my room which has been painted lilac. “She was getting on a train.” “Has Robbie checked in?” I tell her my phone’s dead, and I haven’t checked yet, but I’ll let her know as soon as I’m unpacked. She drops my backpack at the foot of the bed and walks off, calling, “Honey? Do you remember if we packed the candles? I want to light the evergreen one, so the house smells like normal!” Sitting on my bare mattress, surveying my view of the pool and the neighbor’s yard and a hill of cacti in the distance, I wonder why I’m not more upset. Robbie and I had been dating for a year and six months. We spent nearly every day of the summer together – until it got too sad for him to watch my room be slowly devoured by moving boxes. Kell had left me strict instructions for what to do when I fell in love, but I hadn’t followed them with Robbie. She’d wanted me to avoid heartbreak but our break up had barely registered. I stretch my legs and crack my neck, trying to work out a kink I’d developed on the plane. Maybe I was numb, because of the suddenness of our move. Maybe in a week or two, the pain would hit, and I would realize Robbie was my true love and I miss him and I should promise to apply to schools in Washington state to be close to him again. When that happens, I promise myself, I’ll check Kell’s bible. Until then, I get to my knees, pull open the closest box and start piling books onto my shelf – hiding my seventh-grade science textbook at the very back. But then the smell of evergreen wafts toward me from the hall and it hits me: just like the smell of pine leaves in the desert, Robbie and I didn’t fit. Chapter 3 Peanut butter pretzels, black coffee, mascara, amber perfume, and a camera. Kell texts me. And add this question to your list, it’s a need-to-know with boyfriends! I don’t. She sends me a gif of a sparkling pentagram. By the way, guy on the train is so cute. Screenshot this in case he’s my future husband! I unload dinner – plates of chicken shawarma from a place called Pita Jungle – onto mismatched plates. We eat our first dinner together sitting on couch pillows on the dining room floor. “We’re obsessed with this place,” mom says through a mouthful of hummus. “We’ve gotten it every night we’ve been here! And we’re on an iced tea kick, suddenly. I never thought I could do it – doesn’t ice just taste weird?” (She’s also on a take half a CBD gummy before bed kick because moving is stressful and always makes it hard for her to sleep. It also makes her loopy.) “Ice doesn’t have a taste, baby,” says my dad. “Yes it does. It tastes dusty. But the ice at Pita Jungle–” she rattles her cup like it’s a coin bag at the casino and her eyes light up – “it’s money.” (Money is my mom’s new word for “good.”) “Please stop saying money, mom.” She loves when I play the annoyed teenager. When they were newly-weds, Kell was just starting that phase and one of the things my parents bonded over was all the ways they could annoy her, lovingly. My mom and Kell get along great but I’ve never liked that part of my parents’ origin story. They act like everything Kell and I talk about is “the cutest thing in the world.” They love us, but it feels patronizing. I’ve asked Kell to send me pages for the bible on how to deal with my parents but she’s only interested in dating. (“So we can end up just like them?” I asked her once. That shut her up for a few weeks.) The good thing about my mom taking CBD gummies is, the second they kick in, she blows out the evergreen candles. “They make me think of campfires!” she says. “But if a fire started here, all this chaparral would burrrrrrn.” (Then she realizes she’s getting paranoid and decides to clean up and get to bed as quickly as possible.) By 8:00 pm my parents have reset the couch cushions and are brushing their teeth, getting ready to turn in. At 8:01, the doorbell rings and my dad opens it, dripping tooth paste down his shirt. “Hello?” “Hi,” says a dark-haired girl in a plaid skirt. “I’m Ruja – the school ambassador?” “Right,” says my dad, swallowing his toothpaste. Ruja and I both grimace. “We thought you’d be coming by in the afternoon–” “I was supposed to, tomorrow, yeah. To give Kailani an early tour of the school. But a bunch of us are going to the movies tonight and we thought she might want to join.” My dad steps aside, to give me a better view of the girl. Mom pokes her groggy head around the corner of their room, down the hall: “I didn’t realize the school had uniforms!” she says, blearily eyeing Ruja’s skirt. “I’ll have to sew Kailani’s uniform!” Ruja laughs, politely, and it sets off a fit of giggles in my mom. Leaving the front door open, my dad joins her in their room and I grab a jacket and meet Ruja on the porch. She lifts her windbreaker to show her skirt’s been rolled at the waist. “It’s not a uniform, I got it for a rave.” I follow her down the driveway, expecting her to lead me to a car but we continue walking down the block, towards the base of the hill I can see from my bedroom window. “Hope you don’t mind I showed up early. Thought a school tour sounded really boring. You should get to know everyone before the back-to-school blues set in,” she rolls her eyes and laughs, then realizes I don’t get the joke. “Oh! I mean Adderall – blue pill – everyone acting weirder than normal. Did you eat? We could run to Pei Wei...” “I did, yeah.” Suddenly regretting my choice of garlic hummus, I feel around in my pocket for a stick of gum and realize I left my phone at home on the dining room floor. “We’re going to a movie?” I ask, wondering if she’ll spot me a box of Junior Mints. “‘The movies’” Ruja says, winking like I’ve missed something, again. Ruja leads me to the base of the hill with all the cacti, lit in the last rays of a quickly fading sunset against a deepening blue sky. Some look like they’re waving – and I imagine my dad behind the wheel of the Uhaul, days before, eagerly waving back at them to make my mom giggle. Then – one of the cacti raises both arms and flags down Ruja – and I jump. “Hey!” Blobs that I’d mistaken for rocks stand up, and a few silhouettes that I thought were cactus reveal themselves to be humans as we walk closer. Ruja runs ahead and takes a seat, facing back towards my house. She pats the ground beside her – “C’mon, Kai, pick a movie.” Elevated by the hill, we can see inside every house in my neighborhood. “All the TVs face the hill,” Ruja explains, taking a beer that a boy with kohl-lined eyes hands her. “So that it blocks the sun during the day – no glare – you know? At night we like to spy on people.” Besides the boy with the eyeliner, who sits down on Ruja’s other side, there are five or six people milling around the hill behind us, drinking and laughing. “I’m Hazeem,” says the boy, extending a hand over Ruja’s lap. He’s wearing fishnet arm warmers and a heavy silver chain around his neck. Kell’s question swims in my head, What five items would summon you? But I don’t want him to think I’m stereotyping him, assuming he’s into the occult just because he looks goth. “Are you from Stephanie Meyer Washington?” Hazeem asks. “Ruja said you’re from Washington.” She offers him a sip of the beer but he refuses it. “I was from a really small town in the woods,” I say, taking a sip when Ruja offers it to me, next. “Now we’re in Stephanie Meyer Phoenix,” he says. “Did you know that? She lives over on that hill–” He points behind us, across a little league baseball field. “Can we see into her house?” I ask. “I bet she watches those movies every night,” Hazeem says. “I do – but with my own face DeepFaked as Jacob.” Ruja laughs. “That’s the future of movies anyway! Be your own superhero!” “Jacob’s a simp, not a superhero,” says Ruja. “If you wanna have powers you have to be a vampire. What would your powers be, Kai?” I’m reminded of Kell’s questions again. Ruja and Hazeem watch me, eagerly. Robbie and I never played games like this when we were getting to know each other. Kell chastised me for it but it never felt important. I never followed her rules with him and everything turned out fine, anyway. “I think I’d pick teleportation,” I tell Ruja. “It’s a trick question,” she says. “It reveals what you care most about. You want freedom, more than anything else. If you say invisibility, that’s a tell that you’re kinky and you want to be yourself without judgment. If you say shapeshifting... You’re probably also just kinky. If you say you want lazer-beam eyes or to shoot fire from your hands, you need power. If you want to be able to read minds–” “You’re kinky?” Hazeem guesses. “You want to be the best lover in the world because you can always anticipate what your partner wants next?” “Hazeem, don’t ever say the word ‘lover’ again.” “Then how are we supposed to talk about Taylor Swift? How do I order your meat-mhhhm’s pizza at Domino’s? How do I describe to you that scene in It–” “Are you guys dating?” I ask, catching Hazeem's eye and giving him an encouraging smile. “Are you lo–?” “No!” Ruja snaps, loudly, getting the attention of the rest of the group. All heads turn towards us, until she says, “Hey, look! Someone’s watching Ratatouille!” and we all go back to peering into houses. Ruja pulls her legs to her chest, shivering slightly. “Bet you aren’t even cold yet– not compared to Washington.” She doesn’t look that chilly either. In fact, I think she’s blushing. Hazeem stands and pulls off the flannel he has tied around his waist. He offers it to Ruja but she laughs and waves it away. “What? It was just for fashion, anyway!” “You won’t even recognize him on Monday,” she says, gesturing to his chains and black platform shoes. “His parents are cool – they let him wear whatever he wants after hours but school’s sacred, a mecca of learning–” “Racist!” jokes Hazeem. “–and he has to dress to impress.” “So do you,” he points at her skirt. “With the school-girl outfits.” “I like the slutty schoolgirl aesthetic. If my parents saw how high I roll these skirts up they wouldn’t approve of me wearing them–” “So you can see where her mind was at with the superhero question,” Hazeem says. “Kinky, kinky, kinky. Anyway –” he ties his flannel around his waist again. “I have to get to the bakery. You wanna come with?” “Not tonight,” Ruja says. “We can show Kailani next weekend – his parents have an amazing bakery. Sometimes we help them work the nightshift, just for fun. You get to eat all the baklava flakes that fall off when you take ‘em out of the pan!” “Bye, Roo. Nice to meet you, Kailani,” Hazeem says. Someone throws a soft frisbee at the back of his head as he’s leaving and it rebounds into my lap, spilling the beer Ruja’s nursing. “Hey!” “Sorry!” A blonde-haired boy comes to retrieve it. “Sorry,” he says again, close enough to my face that I can smell the beer on his breath. Suddenly self-conscious that I never found any gum, I turn my face away from Ruja to say: “Hey, look! Someone’s watching that Twilight fight scene where it turns out everything was just a vision!” “You know what that part always makes me think about?” says Ruja, yawning. She gets to her feet and reaches out a hand to help me, almost sloshing beer onto my shoes in the process. “Maybe I’ve done too much bullshit lit-analysis in my life but it always strikes me: everything in our lives is kind of made up, isn’t it? I have woo-woo superstitious grandparents and they’re like: ‘It’s all a dream. It’s just how you see things.’ “You could be in the same relationship and one person could love it and the other could be suffocating. There’s no objective reality, just whatever you believe. Do you think that’s what Stephanie Meyer was going for?” She turns her head towards where Hazeem said her house was, hopefully, as if the author’ll be standing on her balcony, with a megaphone, ready to shout back the answer. “I don’t think she was thinking that deep,” I say, laughing. “You know why there’s that baseball scene? I heard an editor told her she didn’t have enough action, and she heard ‘action’ and thought ‘physical activity!’ ‘Sports!’ So that’s why they randomly play baseball in the middle of a thunderstorm.” Chapter 4 Before we leave the hill, after standing around through the Ratatouille end scene and half of a Harry Potter movie, Ruja tries to give me her phone number but I remember I left my cell at home. She promises to put me and Hazeem into a group chat and to be in touch about coordinating my school tour (“But let’s do it Monday instead of tomorrow. I’m not giving that place an extra second of my energy!”). She’ll meet me out front, early, and make sure I know where all my classes are before homeroom. “And if you only have cold-weather clothes I can lend you a slutty schoolgirl skirt to borrow!” Back home, I collect my phone from the dining room floor and rifle through my boxes until I find linens and pillows. My phone died while I was gone. I plug it in and as I make my bed I watch it light up with missed texts from Kell: Definitely my future husband! You meet anyone yet? Remember the rules but also: you can’t win if you don’t play. So mom must have told her about my breakup with Robbie... Bed made, I lie back on it, kicking my shoes off towards the closet. I wonder if I should tell her I’ve met friends, already. Hostel-hopping, perpetually chatty Kell would be proud of that. I think about how I’d describe them: lover Hazeem, with his eyeliner and lifted boots... and skeptic Ruja in her slutty schoolgirl costume... I sit up, peering at my bookshelf to make sure the bible is well hidden. But from this angle, it looks suspicious: too obviously crammed behind the rest of the books. Too big not to get its own space on the shelf... I stand and examine it from other vantage points: the doorway, by the window, looking into my mirror. It’s too obviously “concealed.” I rifle through my boxes again, looking for magazines to set on top of it... But there’s a nail sticking out of the bookshelf that makes the bible sit at an odd angle... The magazines overtop just make it look worse. I could just leave it out, can’t I? Surely no one would ever want to flip through my seventh-grade science textbook! I pull it out and set it on top of the shelf, obscuring the cover with a bowl of jewelry and a candle. It didn’t make sense to drive my old car down from Washington since it already had so many miles on it and my dad thought it was unlikely to survive the trip. Our old town was hardly two miles long and I’d bought the car myself – off Craigslist – but I didn’t need it. Anywhere I needed to go I could have walked. But my high school here is down the freeway, so first thing Saturday morning my parents go looking for “for sale” signs parked around our neighborhood. I’m not allowed to join, in case I reject something good based on color alone, but they promise whatever they bring back will come with a bag of Pita Jungle. I bring my phone with me into the bathroom to shower, so I can listen to music, where I’m interrupted by a call from an unknown number. Suds in my hair, I wipe my elbow on a towel and use it to press ‘answer.’ “Hello?” “It’s Ruja! Sorry for calling – I need both hands or else I’d text.” “Where are you?” It sounds busy. “Hazeem’s parents’ bakery! You want to meet us here? It’s some kind of – Hazeem, is it a festival or a wedding or what? It’s some kind of party!” “I’m kind of waiting on my parents,” I lie, not feeling up to socializing yet. “They’re picking up my car so I can run errands.” “Totally understand!” Ruja says. “Can we drop by and bring you some shit?” While she talks about the party, I tune her out, rinsing the soap from my hair. Then I turn off the water, wrap myself in a towel and study my face in the mirror. I haven’t unpacked my makeup yet, or bought sunscreen, or found my sunglasses... “Anyway, is now a good time to come by?” “Sure,” I say, trying to remember where I packed my hair dryer. Half an hour later, Ruja pounds on my door. “Sorry!” she says, pushing past me with arms full of white pastry bags. “Had to knock with my foot!” Hazeem follows behind her with a travel tray of iced mint teas and a container of figs. “The tea’s better hot, I think, but honestly – you can’t drink it like that in Phoenix.” His forehead’s as sweaty as the condensation on the cups. I grab three mismatched plates and a stack of leftover Pita Jungle napkins from the kitchen on the way to my room. Inside, I tell Ruja and Hazeem it’s fine if they sit on my unopened boxes, or my bed, wherever they’re more comfortable. “Oooh! Can I help set up?” Hazeem asks. “I love decorating!” I set the teas on my book shelf. “I can see your priorities,” Ruja says, noticing my books are the only box I’ve fully unpacked. “Well, we used to live in the middle of nowhere,” I explain. “With TV that buffers every two and a half minutes and barely within radio range...I used to have to sit on the roof if I wanted to listen to baseball. It was no use watching the games because you’d always be a few minutes behind.” “Why’s that matter?” Ruja asks. (Again with the subjective reality shit!) And Hazeem and I both shush her, so I know he must also be a sports fan. “Why’d you move here, then?” she asks, offering me the container of figs. I take two and sit on my bed. “My dad’s job was letting him work remotely. He wanted me to grow up in a small town like he and my mom did, with all the same kids all through school... But with me about to leave for college they realized they needed to be somewhere with better cell service. I was going to have a great excuse not to have to FaceTime them, but now... “When my dad mentioned he was thinking of moving, his job found him a raise to come here. ” “What are you thinking of studying?” Ruja asks. “You mean, ‘What’s my dream job?’” I say, screwing up my nose and thinking again of Kell’s endless questions. Hazeem laughs. “You’re a capitalist pig, Ruja!” He opens the bag of baklava and passes it between us. “It’s a normal question!” she smarts, taking her time choosing a sweet. “Hazeem’s going to expand the bakery,” she tells me, shoving a baklava into her mouth. “I want to be in finance for, like, three years and then just day trade and ride a motorcycle around–” her mouth’s so full of honey, it takes me a minute to figure out that she says, “–Asia.” “In your tiny skirt?” I joke, taking a handful of pastry for myself. “I want boys up and down the South China sea to have pin-up tattoos of me!” She strikes a pose, sitting on her knees and sticking out her butt on top of my ‘Summer Clothes’ box. I cover my mouth to laugh and Hazeem snorts. “Anyway,” I say. “I don’t know what my dream job is but I know what my hobby’ll be.” “That’s a much better answer anyway,” says Hazeem. “What is it?” “I love...” I hesitate to admit it, “...weird bugs, actually. Like giant beetles and scorpions and spiders – which aren’t technically insects–” “They’re aliens,” nods Hazeem, motioning for me to continue. “–and I want to breed weird colored things and pin them and make huge framed collages. Like paintings but they’re made out of bugs.” “Like mandalas and things?” Ruja asks. “Or like what Chuck Close does, with the little dots – but all the dots are ladybugs. You know there are something like five hundred different colors they can be? Or a Chris Uphues heart but colored with butterfly wings, with roaches for the eyes and centipedes lined up end to end for the outline.” Hazeem shudders and Ruja laughs at him. “So you’re going to be the weirdo with a garage full of bug-breeding-tubs?” she asks. “I guess!” I shrug. “And I’ll make you send me things from the jungle,” I tease her. “You’ll be my buyer.” She scrunches up her nose. “And your squisher.” Hazeem shudders again. “Have you made any of this art yet?” he stands and peers into the box he was just sitting on. “Hidden under these towels? Or behind the book shelf?” I’m suddenly relieved I had the foresight to move the bible, as Hazeem’s eyes scan my room. “No weird bug painting yet,” I say fake-sadly. “But my sister’s overseas right now. I told her to be on the lookout and send anything weird she finds back. I do need some artwork above my bed. I was thinking I could do a beach-scape but the palm trees are made of tarantu–” “Stop!” Ruja and Hazeem say together. I smile, satisfied I finally got under her skin. Hazeem reaches for the iced tea on top of my bookshelf – giving an exaggerated body shake to illustrate how much I’ve creeped him out – and knocks over the tray. He manages to hold onto one tea, and catch another as it topples off the shelf, but a third goes crashing onto my jewelry bowl and its lid pops off, soaking the bible! I lunge for it but Ruja is closer. She moves the candle off its top, shaking out the wet pages and says– “Hey–?” Holding the soggy book upside down, so the pages splay out, she notices they’re all different colors. It’s clear that my seventh-grade textbook has been hollowed out... “What is this?” Ruja asks. I throw myself back onto the bed, hiding my face behind a pillow, resigned to the fact they’re going to look through it. “Ugh! Don’t! It’s my sisters! Don’t look – it’s so embarrassing!” Every few pages are a different kind of paper. Sometimes Kell wrote on airplane napkins, or graph paper, or colored card stock... Whenever I get a new piece, I shove it between the bindings – and whenever she visits, she takes the time to carefully glue them in and number the new chapters in silver gel pen. At first, because so many of the pages are pink, Ruja seems to think this is a Mean Girls burn book thing. “Keep yourself busy with friends...” she reads. “Ruja, seriously, don’t. It’s not that interesting.” “Is this a guidebook to something? It’s like a girl manual...” she says, passing it to Hazeem to inspect. “My sister Kell’s ten years older than me. When I hit middle school she went on an advice kick. This is... so embarrassing... but it’s... her rules for being in...” I whisper the last word: “love.” “Ooooooh!” Hazeem and Ruja say, in unison. “Does it work?” Ruja asks. “I don’t know!” I say, snatching it out of Hazeem’s hands. It barely got wet – the thick cover absorbed most of the spill – and I’m half-relieved, half-annoyed with myself for caring that the book isn’t damaged. “Kell lives her life as if someone’s going to make a movie about it. Everything she does is very purposeful. If I’d followed her advice to a T I’d have gotten my first boyfriend in eighth grade, and fallen in love every year since, so that by senior year I’d be ready for a real relationship – whatever that is.” I think the explanation is stupid, but Ruja and Hazeem are riveted, their eyes glued to me. So, I continue, begrudgingly: “Then, we break up for college. Another four boyfriends in four years. One really serious one after that, break off an engagement next–” “Jeez,” says Ruja. “Is that what Kell did?” “She’s got these very strict rules for not losing yourself when you’re with someone – that she totally didn’t follow when she was young – she just wants to make sure I don’t mess up.” “Aww,” says Ruja. “She’s like your sister-mom.” “My parents don’t know about this!” I snap. “Please don’t tell them, they think everything Kell and I do is so cute. Cute! I’ve never consulted the book before, and I’m afraid, if I ever did need it I’d be too embarrassed to use it if everyone knew.” “It’s not embarrassing!” Hazeem says. “It’s solid advice.” “But my parents used to tease me for being a control-freak. I like to know how things are going to turn out before I commit to them. They wouldn’t see this as savvy, they’d tease me for needing to be in total control of something as intangible as –” I can’t bring myself to say love again... “So this book is a huge secret.” “But it was right out on your desk!” Hazeem says. “Like, very accessible. At the ready.” “It wasn’t!” I snap again. “Oh my god, I would have hid it better but I didn’t know where! I didn’t want it to look suspicious if my mom came snooping...” “What?” asks Ruja, “If she was sniffing around for weed or something?” I laugh, even though I’m trying to be serious. “Exactly, yeah. Not to confiscate but just to use for herself.” Briefly, I explain my mom’s newfound interest in CBD gummies. Stupidly, I call it a “love affair” and that gets us back on the topic of the bible again. “You call it the bible?” Ruja grins. “Kell calls it the bible. I never think about it this much, I promise!” “Yet you unpacked it first...” Hazeem says and Ruja pounces, pointing at me: “Exactly!” She jumps to her feet and gestures to the neatly arranged bookshelf – aside from my bed, it’s the only finished part of my room. “This is like the superpower question all over again! What do you care most about? Your books! It’s the first thing you put together in your new room, with the bible right on top!” “Guys, seriously. I didn’t think about it that hard.” “But subconsciously you did!” Ruja says. “Your kink is that book,” Hazeem giggles. Ruja stands excitedly. Today, her schoolgirl skirt is hot pink and she rolls and unrolls it as she paces: “We should do an experiment! All three of us should use this book to fall in love this year and –” “That’s not even how it works.” I interrupt. (I hate that I’m even indulging them!) “It’s not a guide for falling in love. It’s just a list of things you should do when you’re already in it.” “To keep your man?” Hazeem asks. “No, not at all. To keep your...” I search for the word. “Sanity!” Ruja shouts, pointing, like it’s an SAT prep quiz. She grabs the book off my lap and flips through it again. “Keep yourself busy, develop a new hobby, compliment yourself...” She reads the chapter headings. “Ask yourself: ‘Am I doing this because it makes me happy or because it distracts me from being sad?’ Ooh I could get a tattoo of that... But this all sounds like stuff you do in a breakup, not when you’re still together.” A picture of Kell shakes loose, tumbling onto the floor at my feet. I bend and pick it up: Kell smiling, next to an elephant; the cute elephant handler in the background smiling at her... “That’s exactly Kell’s point,” I say, studying the photo. “Act like you’re broken up, as soon as you’re together. Make more time for your friends, work on yourself. Don’t get wrapped up in the relationship, just let it be a nice extra. A relationship should fit into the life you already have. You shouldn’t let it change anything fundamental, and you shouldn’t have to force it.” “Right,” says Ruja sarcastically. “Don’t let it inspire big life decisions like having babies, moving in together, or getting married!” She rolls her eyes and snaps the book closed. “Oh sorry,” she says, noticing the photo on my lap. “Let me put it back in there...” “I get it,” Hazeem says. “She’s not saying don’t make big changes, just don’t lose yourself when you do it. You have to still be your own person, totally. You just happen to be in a relationship, too. My parents are like that,” he tells me, taking the book from Ruja and resetting it on my shelf. “They work together and they have the same hobbies. My mom used to tell me, Hazeem, marriage is like business. I have a job but it’s not who I am. I’m in a relationship but I’m not just one half of something. I’m a whole person who goes to work and stays in love and has a family – but I could leave it all in a moment so go clean your room!” I laugh, wanting to change the subject, but Ruja and Hazeem are still hungrily eyeing the book. Chapter 5 My parents find a car and make a verbal agreement to buy it. “It’s yellow! A little yellow truck!” says my mom. I think of telling Kell because it’s an excellent color for the movie version of her life (where I make a brief cameo, maybe dropping her off at an airport...) but my last text to her didn’t go through. Wherever she is, she must not have service. Mom says the car’s three blocks away but something’s wrong with the air conditioning. The owner can’t in good conscious sell it without replacing it first because the temperature’s going to be in the high-nineties this week. “He was really nice,” my mom says but I ignore her, picturing a sweaty, greasy- lipped middle-aged mechanic in a wife beater. “As long as I have it in time for baseball season, I’m golden,” I say. “And school,” my mom says, with a raised eyebrow. Sunday I avoid Ruja and Hazeem until 7:30, trying to enjoy my last minutes of silence before the summer’s over. My new school is nearly five times bigger than the last. Our lockers are going to be outside, in the heat, and suddenly I’m worried about things I didn’t have to think about in Washington – Will I smell weird? Sweat through my clothes? How will my hair look in the humidity? Ruja wanted to take me back to school shopping but I’m used to wearing jeans and a windbreaker every day – I don’t think I know how to walk, or sit, in belt-length skirts and platform sandals. I was never nervous about the transition between elementary and middle school, or middle to high school because I was with the same group of kids my whole life. But now, by the end of dinner on the last night of summer, my stomach is fully sour at the thought of being the new kid. I text the group chat and ask them to meet me at the baseball field I saw on the other side of the hill. There’s a t-ball practice going on, with nine or ten-year-olds. “This is fun for you?” Hazeem asks. “Even when they’re so uncoordinated?” He’s wearing extra-thick eyeliner, and it’s so hot outside it’s smearing under his eyes. We watch a kid swing a bat that’s almost as long as he is – and miss. “It smells fun,” I say, leaning back in the bleachers and closing my eyes. “The cut grass and the infield dirt and eyeblack – not the kind Hazeem’s wearing...” I grin at him. “It reminds me of the good stuff.” “She’s bibleing us,” Ruja says, knowingly. “We’re in a new relationship with her but she’s not going to let us forget her old self! She’s got to introduce us to everything she likes, put it all on the table straight away, so we can take it or leave it–” “I’m not doing that!” I smirk. “I just don’t have a car and it’s not dark enough yet to go to the movies. Where else could I have walked?” “Oooh look!” Ruja raises her sunglasses, pointing to a blue-black beetle crawling alongside the dugout. “What’s that one called?” “It’s a stink beetle.” We watch it cautiously climb the rungs of chain link fence behind home plate. “Or,” she overemphasizes, “It’s a smiley face’s eyebrow or a piece of the lines of a peace sign. Right? See, Kai, I’ve got you figured out.” “Sure, Ruja. Go collect a couple dozen and I’ll make some artwork for you.” The kid loses his grip on his bat and it flies behind him, slamming into the fence. The stink bug falls off and gets stuck on its back. Hazeem reaches out with his foot and pokes it gently back onto its belly, and it sets off towards the shade of the dugout again. Hazeem pulls out his phone, putting a hand to his forehead to shield out the sun and squints. “What’s that? Ruja snaps and he jumps, anticipating another bug. She grabs the phone from his hand. “You’re on dating apps?” “I’m eighteen next weekend! I just logged in a little early to check out the offerings. I haven’t been messaging anyone yet.” “The offerings?” “What’s your bio?” I ask. As Hazeem darts for his phone, Ruja dodges him, checking him with her elbow. Using the shade of their bodies to read, she scrolls quickly through his profile, laughing. “Give it back!” She lets him take it. “It’s too late, I saw everything.” She turns conspiratorially to me, peering over the top of her sunglasses and smirking. “His main photo’s a picture of him holding a tray of pastries – it’s actually a really cute one–” “Thank you–” “–and the bio says something like, ‘I’m even sweeter than these–’” “It does not!” “Read it to us then,” Ruja teases him, but Hazeem shuts off his phone and shoves it back in his pocket, pretending to be mad at her. He sticks out his tongue. “And you need more goth photos,” she suggests. “So you aren’t a catfish.” “I had one.” “I didn’t see it.” “Have you ever thought about your bio?” I ask Ruja. “Sometimes I’ll think of really good one-liners and I email them to myself, just in case I’m on an app one day.” “Like what?” she takes off her glasses and polishes the lenses against her skirt, nearly flashing the baseball practice. “I’m a Kinsey 2 and a Fenty 460.” “Ooooh I love that one!” “What’s Fen–?” asks Hazeem. “Like her foundation shade,” Ruja says, interrupting him. “But you need a third thing to go with it,” she says to me. “I know. I haven’t thought of what it should be yet. Also,” I gesture to Hazeem. “Boys don’t get the Fenty reference, so maybe I should change it. And I don’t know if I want to talk about makeup when it’s not something I’m really obsessed with.” “Right, you should talk a lot about bugs though,” Ruja jokes. “I’m a Kinsey 2, a Fenty 460 and I raise and kill bugs to make artwork!” “Super like,” Hazeem says. “Just because you have to be curious about that kind of crazy.” “I think the third thing should also have a number,” I say, shaking my head. “It should be a baseball thing,” says Ruja, turning her attention back to the practice. “Maybe...” I think for a minute, watching as the kids abandon their bats and run into the outfield to practice shagging fly balls. The word shagging gives me an idea... When the kids are out of earshot I suggest, “How about, I’m a Kinsey 2, a Fenty 460, and I’ll let you get to third base on the first date?” Chapter 6 In Washington, my school had a No Hats on Campus rule. It sucked when it was raining and you had to use your binder if you forgot an umbrella. In Phoenix, we’re required to wear hats from eleven to three, whenever we’re in the hallways, parking lot, or outside at lunch, because of the intense sun and heat. “If you forget one,” Hazeem says during my tour, “you have to borrow a loaner from the nurse’s office. That’s how I got adult lice last year.” “They were his junior prom date,” jokes Ruja. “No,” he says, “that was you.” “We went as friends,” she tells me. “But I didn’t get as close to him as the lice did...” Luckily, I have an old Mariner’s hat in my backpack. I’m shy to put it on, thinking it’ll single me out as New Girl from Out of Town! But Ruja assures me the school’s so big no one knows everyone. No one even gives me a second glance, but a couple boys check out Ruja, and some people that I recognize from our night on the hill rib Hazeem for not wearing his eyeliner to class. My dad had dropped me off an hour before homeroom, so Ruja could give me the full tour. Her aunt’s the principal, I found out, which is why she’s tasked with being my welcoming committee and telling me all the school rules, even though her outfit breaks dress code in at least three different ways. (“Dress codes are oppressive,” she said when I mentioned it. “And we shouldn’t shame boys for being interested in shoulders and tits and legs, either. You’ve read Brave New World? They got one thing right: let kids experiment without judgment. If I want my legs out because it’s hot, go me. If I want to show my legs to be hot, go me.”) I have three classes with just Ruja, one with just Hazeem, and two by myself. We’re all together for chemistry and there isn’t assigned seating, so we claim a table to ourselves. “Fuck!” says Ruja, “I forgot to wear closed-toed shoes!” “Go you?” I joke. “No, I’m an idiot. I don’t want to lose a toe... Hazeem, if we weren’t in the same class I’d ask to borrow yours.” Glancing under the table, I realize they both wear the same style platforms – except Ruja’s show her toes. I wonder if they’re the same size, and think about making the joke that they could double their wardrobe if they ever started dating, but then our teacher arrives and I forget about it. At lunch, wearing our baseball hats low like we’re doing surveillance, Ruja gives me the rundown on the school’s most popular kids: “There aren’t really cliques since it’s so big. I mean, there’s probably one most popular group of kids, but if you don’t want that experience there are lots of smaller pockets you could get lost in. That girl – Shelby Gatskill–” she points to a leggy brunette in a purple dress. “Is prom queen, easily. She’s the only girl every other group agrees is hot. Like there’s a hierarchy among the soccer girls and band kids and theater kids too, but a guy in every group has a crush on Shelby. “And she’s kind of following your sister’s advice! A new guy every year, totally in love with them across the high school seasons – from homecoming court to spring fling – they stay together most of the summer and then riiiiight before back to school shopping she decides it’s time to upgrade her man.” Shelby has perfectly straight teeth and perfectly straight hair, despite the humidity. She reminds me of a spray-tanned Victoria Justice. “So who’s she with at the moment?” “You know I have a theory?” Ruja says. “I think her boyfriends are reflective of her celebrity crushes. Last year she was dating this cute blonde named Henry Owens – and she was going through this phase of watching – and dressing like – old 90s movies. She always wore her hair like Sarah Michelle Gellar, with the little bangs, and Henry looks just like the boy from Cruel Intentions. You know – the one who was married to Reese Witherspoon? “She was still into old movies that summer and her next guy was Murray from Clueless. And everyone knows her eighth-grade boyfriend, Jim Danner, had all the mannerisms of Jim from The Office! He even has the same name! I swear that’s why she picked him...” “I wonder if she’s watching Four Weddings and a Funeral?” Hazeem says. “The Mindy Kaling version? Pakistani love interest?” He stands up a little taller, flashing a smile in her direction. “I could totally be her next boyfriend.” The rest of our day is divided evenly between Hazeem and I pestering Ruja to tell us who she likes, and me listening to the two of them plan Hazeem’s eighteenth birthday party. Since it’s only the first day, we barely have homework, besides reading each class’s syllabus. “You want to go back to Hazeem’s?” Ruja offers when the final bell rings. “Scope out the venue?” As we walk to her car, Hazeem explains that he hasn’t thrown himself a birthday party since fifth grade: “I’m not a superstitious man, but there’s something weird going on around my birthday. Do you know what a haboob is? It’s the craziest dust storm you’ve ever seen, with clouds a mile high! Sixth, seventh, and ninth grade there was one on my birthday! They’re so dangerous, zero visibility, so no one can drive or go outside. Then the next year, no storm, but I saw a black cat! And the next year I think it was raining? And my dotty aunt opened her umbrella inside! One time I broke a mirror the night before...” “And he says he’s not superstitious,” laughs Ruja, unlocking her car. As we buckle in, Hazeem insists: “Something in the universe doesn’t want me to have good birthdays! My childhood was cursed! But on Friday, my childhood is over and I want to start my manhood off on the right foot. I’m hoping my luck turns around... I’m buying lotto tickets, wishing for a fantastic hair day, and inviting Shelby Gatskill to the party.” Backing out of her parking spot, Ruja slams on her brakes. “What! Shelby’s not going to come to your party!” “Not if I don’t invite her! What do they say in baseball, Kailani, you can’t win if you don’t play?” “I don’t think that’s baseball-specific. They do say, ‘Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes it rains.’” “See, Roo? Sometimes I’ve lost, sometimes it’s haboobed, but this time maybe Shelby will come to my birthday...” Chapter 7 Hazeem lives in a gated community with a long back yard that butts up against a golf course. We sit in his kitchen, with the back doors open, watching tiny dots putter around the green, trailing golf carts the size of ladybugs on the horizon. “I like how the sky in Arizona looks so much taller than normal,” I say, sipping on an iced tea. “The clouds go all the way up.” “Now imagine if those were dark orange-brown,” says Hazeem. “And that’s a haboob.” His large house is spookily quiet. Both his parents are at the bakery, and his older sisters and aunt, who live with him, aren’t home. He applies eyeliner in the reflection of a steel knife, then checks his teeth for leftover bits of fig and pastry, while telling us about his party’s theme: “Ruja, my mom says if we help out at the bakery on Thursday night we can make enough extra snacks for the party. I told her I want ‘breakfast for dinner’ too – with parathas and hot tea. Everyone wears pajamas, we play Light as a Feather, Ouija, do fortune tellers – just like when we were kids.” “Your fortune is unlucky, apparently. Why tempt fate on your birthday?” He waves the knife dismissively, “This year my luck’s changing! I can feel it!” “Are you tearing up from emotion or because you drew in your waterline, again?” Ruja asks. Hazeem checks his reflection, frowning. “I want to help at the bakery,” I offer. “I don’t know if I’m good at baking, but–” “There’s lots of other stuff to do. Cutting, packaging, measuring,” says Hazeem. “And you come home smelling like warm butter and sugar. That’s what Shelby should like about me! I’ll never understand why my auntie pushed her sons to be doctors – one of my cousins is a geriatric podiatrist! Can you fathom coming home every night to a man who smells like old people feet? The other does colonoscopies! Imagine your husband doing a thirty-six-hour shift, coming home smelling like hospital butts or old shoes.” Ruja and I look towards the tiny moving dots on the golf course – assuming they’re mostly old people – and grimace. “Lots of clients out there,” she says, pointing. “Getting their bunions nice and sweaty for your cousin.” “Stop,” says Hazeem. “I was getting hungry and you ruined it.” He carries the knife with him to the fridge, twirling it absentmindedly as he decides what to eat. “Should I make samosas?” I get excited to learn a new recipe but then he pulls out a frozen pack from Trader Joe’s. Slicing it open with the knife and dumping the contents onto a plate, he says, “Ruja! You have to help me with the guest list!” And then we’re pestering her for information on who she likes, again. Ruja’s only had one boyfriend, in tenth grade, that lasted for almost the entire school year. Her parents own an SAT-prep franchise, and he was one of the math tutors. She couldn’t drive yet, so they were stuck together most afternoons after school. “Stuck together is the wrong phrase,” she explains. “He really was cute and sweet – but it was definitely a case of just getting used to someone because you’re around them a lot.” “Stockholm syndrome?” asks Hazeem. “No.” She throws a corner of samosa at his nose. “Hazeem always pestered me to start dating, until I actually met someone–” “I wanted gossip! He was boring! The only triangles I want to talk about are these–” he takes another samosa “–and he was so into math, Kailani, it was crazy. It was his only personality trait! God, his parents must have been so proud of him. I bet his dating app profile is going to be, like, ‘Let me measure the volume of your boobies!’” “It definitely won’t be,” laughs Ruja. “Or, ‘Let’s subtract our clothes and multiply–” “Please stop.” Ruja feeds Hazeem a triangle to shut him up. I stay for dinner and we read our syllabuses together. After deciding on a game plan for Thursday – we’ll meet at the bakery after hours, from 7-10:30 to make treats for Hazeem’s party – Ruja drives me home. “And when he says pajama party, he means pajamas!” she calls after me, hanging out the window as I walk across my front lawn. “If we need to go shopping together, I’m down! He won’t accept you showing up in an oversized t-shirt, if that’s what you sleep in. Hazeem wants a matching set, the bathrobe, fluffy slippers – everything!” “Alright,” I laugh, waving at her. “We’ll go shopping, then!” I watch her speed off, waving, walking backwards – and trip over a package by my front door. Bending to pick it up, I hear a skrrrrt and a thud. Chapter 8 A yellow truck has collided with my mailbox. “I’m sorry!” a boy yells, out the open window, quickly reversing and leaving the mailbox standing, but at an odd angle. “Shit!” He parks, jumps out of the car and runs to push it upright, checking the bumper of the trunk for damage. “I wasn’t going fast when I hit it,” he says blushing. “I was only.. uh... Making sure I had the right house number. I glanced down for a second and... um... Do you live here?” He puts up a hand to shade his eyes from the sunset and, seeing me more clearly, his cheeks get even redder. “The couple who bought my old car said they were buying it for their daughter... I put a new AC in it. I was just delivering it.” “Yeah!” I drop the package on the porch again and cross the lawn to meet him as he holds out the keys. “That’s for me. Thank you.” “I thought you’d be a kid,” he says, awkwardly shaking my hand as he pushes the keys into it. (He looks young, I think. Blonde, blue-eyed, with dimples that give him a mischievous appearance.) “A driving kid?” “I mean, fifteen or something. Your parents seemed weirdly nervous about it. Are you a bad driver or something?” “I’ve never hit a mailbox, if that’s what you’re asking.” He laughs, relaxing slightly. His hand leaves mine, I pocket the keys, and then he says, “I’m Henry,” and offers his hand for a second handshake, awkwardly. “Kailani. Why did my parents seem so nervous?” “The truck’s a little beat up – and they said they didn’t mind, like they expected you to give it a few bumps of your own – but they wanted to make sure it was safe too. I just assumed it was a first-car thing.” “Did they seem nervous or was my mom just giggly?” Henry nods. “She’s been taking... gummies... because of the stress of moving.” “I see.” Henry raises an eyebrow at me. “You’re new in town? Started school today?” “Yeah–” I’m about to say, I’ve got the syllabuses to prove it. But that would sound stupid. While I’m trying to think of something else, Henry blurts out: “Well let me give you my number! I had to fix the AC, you know, but if I didn’t– or I mean, if it goes out again – you’ll have a way to contact me.” I unlock my phone and hand it to him. “I wouldn’t feel right about selling your parents the car without AC,” he says again. “So if anything happens with it, call me. Promise?” I think he’s flirting with me, but when he hands me my phone he’s put his contact name as just “Henry” next to a car emoji. If he was making a play for me, wouldn’t he have added a last name, so I could find his social medias? Thrown off, I put my phone in my pocket next to the new keys. “Well, thanks,” I say awkwardly. “I’ll run inside and grab my parents, ok?” Burning with embarrassment, I hide in the kitchen while they finish the transaction. When I hear the door close behind them, I realize Henry doesn’t have a ride home. I reach for the keys in my pocket – but hesitate. Didn’t my mom say he lived in the neighborhood, anyway? He could be halfway home by the time I start my car... But his cheeks were red, and it’s so hot and humid... I wouldn’t want him to be uncomfortable... If I ran outside and offered him a ride, that wouldn’t be flirting, would it? It’s just the polite thing to do! And it would give me a chance to test the AC and show him I know it’s working... Or would he think this was all just a ploy to be alone with him? But he brought the truck to me! I wasn’t expecting it! The longer I wait, the more awkward chasing him down is going to be, so, cursing myself, I run to the truck and start it up, rolling down the street after him. “Hey! Henry!” He’s barely made it to the end of the block, walking with his head down in the heat. “Let me give you a ride home!” He looks up at me and grins. “Since I noticed you didn’t have a hat...” I unlock the door for him and he climbs in to the air conditioning, gratefully. “Did your parents make you come back for me?” “No! It just occurred to me you wouldn’t have a ride... Sorry, I should have offered in the moment. First-day-back-to-school-brain-fog, you know?” “Huh.” He says, turning in his seat to study me. “Do you always keep your eyes on the road?” “What?” I wait until we get to a stop sign and then look at him, embarrassed. “What do you mean? Yes?” “When I’m driving I sneak glances at the person I’m talking to. Not long ones, but you know, it’s polite.” “I never do that!” I say, snapping my attention back to the road. “And which way am I going?” He points to the left and says it’s one block further. “It’s funny how hard you’re concentrating, you know.” “I’m being safe!” “Your parents don’t have to worry – you’ll never hit a mailbox driving like this.” I risk a glance at him in the rearview mirror and notice he’s blushing again. “This one’s me.” He jumps out before I can point out the working air conditioning, and waves over his shoulder without a backward glance. I might feel slighted, except his comment about the mailbox reminded me: I was bending over to get the mail when he crashed. The reason his eyes weren’t on the road was because he was looking at my butt... If I were more like Kell I’d call Ruja and Hazeem instantly. “A cute boy crashed my car!” I’d yell. “Maybe he loves me!” I remember my last text from Kell: my future husband! Kell never drives, even when she’s in the states, because she’s too busy “looking for her next adventure” – by which she means, giving every boy a long up and down glance. She could never keep her eyes on the road. Three of her last hookups are people she’d met on trains, in airports, or waiting for the bus. Kell loves striking up conversations with strangers. I get antsy and a little claustrophobic while traveling but she loves nothing more than being stuck in a moving vehicle, packed in like sardines, for hours and hours. She says there’s nothing more romantic than watching a sunset on a plane with a stranger – even if you decide to spend the rest of your trip together, it’s never more exciting than that first meeting when you think about spending the rest of the trip together. I’m not going to text Ruja and Hazeem about Henry, but I consider telling Kell. A cute boy crashed my car because I think he was checking out my butt! It might have felt creepier, if he wasn’t so obviously embarrassed. If he’d leered I’d be put-off, but Henry had seemed just as flustered by touching my hand when he gave me the keys, and he’d blushed just sitting next to me in the passenger seat... I wonder if I smell like pastries from Hazeem’s house? Maybe that’s why he seems so attracted to me... My phone rings. Speak of the devil, Kell is calling me. “Sorry for the wait! I meant to call from the train but I met the most amazing man! Matt’s a videographer, so my trip’s sped up a bit. We’re in Burma already – flew in last night. He’s got an assignment here, then we’ll finish out my Transylvanian tour. I told him I’m doing a monster-history thing, my plan was to hear ghost stories from every country along the route, just for fun. But now he wants to turn it into a documentary together, so we have to double back to Vietnam and record the stories he missed! “Hey, I thought of a new question too: What was your best Halloween costume? Last year, we were both burritos – isn’t that crazy! And it totally makes sense for us, because we’re both on the road so much: a silver safety blanket is easy enough to find, that’s what we made the ‘foil’ out of, and then you just cut up some craft paper for lettuce and tomatoes – remember I made mine into a headband? And Matt wore a brown shirt under the blanket, to represent beans and steak, and stuck a bunch of strips of post-its to himself for cheese! Great minds think alike, don’t they? Easy Halloween costume, and funny, and I can’t believe we were the same thing! Write it down in the bible.” Kell insists, over an ominous clap of thunder. To me, matching Halloween costumes doesn’t seem like a good enough indicator of compatibility but I trust Kell’s judgment. Although I do wonder what the bible would have to say about her rearranging her travel plans for a guy... “If you go back to Vietnam, isn’t that cheating?” I ask, curiously. “You know, changing your plans for a man?” “No, Kai! It’s ‘develop a new hobby!’ Isn’t it? Matt’s a videographer – I’m not – but he’s been teaching me. And still, don’t worry, I’m following the book: every morning I get coffee by myself, last night I got my own hotel so I could have some space, and the woman at the front desk said she new a great ghost story and would tell me over a beer – I went alone to listen! Why are you suddenly so interested in the bible anyway?” she asks suspiciously. “Have you met–?” “No! I’ve just never known you to double back on a trip before.” “Well, he’s excellent with a camera. We really have something here! I’ve never been one to miss an opportunity, either... Don’t tell anyone, but I keep thinking, If he’s the best videographer in the world, who will do our wedding! How could it ever compare? It was the first thought I had when I saw his videos: Oh no, our wedding album will never be that good! That’s how I knew this was really something real! Not that my other guys weren’t, but this one I can actually see long-term, you know? When I had my own hotel room last night I missed him. I didn’t feel like I needed space once I was away from him. And as much fun as our project is, if I’d met him on a bus to Phoenix I think I’d like him just as much...” She insists we FaceTime, so I can see the view from her balcony – even though it’s dark and grainy, and all I really see are smudges of lantern light – and she shows me some polaroids Matt took in her room. “Hey,” she says, after another half hour of talking about him. “I have something else for the bible. Haven’t quite written it down yet but I’ll send you pages soon. For now, here’s a teaser. You know that part about Am I doing this because it makes me happy or because it distracts me from being sad? Someone left a psych book in the bus station and I picked it up, it’s Freud I think but the cover and first couple of chapters are missing... Anyway, there’s a bit about how it’s human nature is to be discontent, right? It makes sense: when we were on the savanna you couldn’t get too cushy, because you never knew where your next meal was coming from. And still, we get a little grumpy. A little vaguely unhappy, even when things are good. I want to add that to the book: know that you’re always bound to feel a little grumpy and be aware of it so you don’t attribute it to your relationship, or your body, or your accomplishments or anything. Like when you’re in a vaguely-bad mood, not feeling horrible, just blah, and you think ‘It’s because something’s off with my guy,’ or, ‘if I just got my body the way I want it...’ No! We shouldn’t do that. We should think, ‘If I’m always gonna be a little dissatisfied with something, do I want it to be this?’ “With me and Matt, the first vow I’m making is: I won’t be dissatisfied with this.” The FaceTime connection cuts out and she calls me again. I forget where she said she is now, but I can tell it’s raining. She must have left the door to her balcony open because I can barely hear her over the downpour. “Kell,” I say, loudly, a few times, to interrupt her. “Kell, sorry, it’s getting hard to hear. Send me the new pages when you’ve worked it all out, alright?” “Fine,” she says, over a clap of thunder, “But promise you’ll glue them in yourself this time?” “I never do!” I grin. “This is gold, Kailani. It’s a gold mine! I want you to be as happy as I am with Matt. I mean, as I am without him but then having him in my life is just extra better.” We say goodbye and hang up. Normally, I wouldn’t write add to the bible on my own but I like how she called Matt ‘extra better’ and want to remember that phrase. I open the pink-paged book, find her list of ice-breaker questions and add, “What was your best Halloween costume?” too. Has anything supernatural ever happened to you? Who’s your favorite villain? If the apocalypse happens tomorrow, what’s your first move? I read the list, wondering if there’s anything on here that could have spared me the embarrassing conversation I had today with Henry. Why couldn’t I have been cooler? Why couldn’t I have pretended like he didn’t make me nervous? How could a guy, that I’d met for only a minute, make me nervous? (Maybe I wasn’t! I think hopefully, maybe my heart was only racing because of the sound of the crash!) But just like Kell had thought, If he’s the best videographer in the world who will we get to do our wedding? – now, remembering how Henry blushed, I think clearly: What if I have a crush on him? I reshelve the bible, wash my face, and get ready for bed. As I’m climbing under the covers, there’s a knock at the front door. Chapter 9 “I found this in my pocket,” Henry says, holding up a screw. “I must have pulled it out of your truck, but I don’t remember where. You can’t drive it until I figure out which part I didn’t screw in correctly.” I yawn. “You have to fix it now? I’m not going anywhere tonight.” I’m not trying to be coy, or respect the bible – after talking to Kell I’m just genuinely tired. Still, my heart flared wildly when I opened the door to him and I found myself suddenly cursing my lack of cute pajamas. (Fine, Hazeem, I think. I’ll buy a matching set for your party!) “Can I come back early tomorrow then?” Henry asks. “Before school? We can take apart the AC together and make sure that’s all it is. I wouldn’t want the screw to be important, like, to be holding the car together.” “Sure,” I say, yawning again. “Just text me when–” “I can’t. You didn’t text me back your number.” “Oh sorry.” I don’t have my phone on me, so we stand in the doorway awkwardly. I notice he’s blushing, again. “I will,” I promise. “As soon as I get back to my room. So...?” “Tomorrow, then.” He says. “Good morning. I mean, see you in the morning. Goodnight. Goodbye!” I shut the door between us, watching through the glass as he shakes his head, embarrassed, and hurries back to his own truck. I have a dream he honks when he gets here, which I think is rude, and one where he never left – he sleeps over – he cuddles me all night and whispers into my hair, “Baby, it’s time to fix your car,” in the morning... I wake up early, wanting to be dressed and ready whenever he arrives, and make two toaster waffles. When he texts me (I’d sent him my number last night) I meet him in the driveway. We eat our waffles, first, listening to music coming from his phone on the dashboard. “How was the first day of school?” he asks. “Meet anyone cool?” I wonder if he wants me to say, him. Or if he’s testing to the water to see if I met any other guys I’m interested in. “It went really well! I got a tour from Ruja Hoàng and Hazeem –” “Oh, I know them!” “Yeah, but we actually met over the weekend, so we were already friends. It was a way better first day than I could have imagined. I didn’t have to worry about who I was gonna sit with at lunch!” “You wouldn’t really worry about that, would you? You’re way too–” It feels like he wants to say pretty... Or is that just wishful thinking? The song changes, to something slower and more romantic, and Henry quickly scrubs past it. “Have you watched movies with Ruja yet?” he asks. “On the hill? Yeah, my first night here.” “On Friday? I was there!” “Oh, weird that we didn’t meet.” I won’t tell Kell about that part – she’d think if our paths had crossed already and we didn’t notice – it must not be fate. “Which movie were you watching, Ratatouille or HP?” We talk some more about the hill, and how good Hazeem’s parents’ bakery is, and then, accidentally I think, Henry’s hand brushes mine as he’s reaching for the vent in front of me. “I hope it’s just a piece of the AC,” he says, removing the grille with the screw held between his teeth. He feels around for a moment, says “Damn! Doesn’t look like it!” and spits the screw into his hands. I open my door, wiping waffle crumbs off my pants, and close it again. Already, the day is starting out to be hot and humid. The car quickly fills with the smell of Henry’s shampoo and deodorant. I unstick my legs from the seat and sit forward, looking into the AC component with him. “Well, what else did you work on?” “I’ve rebuilt everything over the last few months. I didn’t want to sell the truck if it was scrap.” “So the screw could have come from anywhere?” Our heads close together, I force myself to turn and make eye contact with him. His eyes are so blue I can see my reflection in them. “Ok, actually –” he glances away while he fits the AC back into place, then looks squarely at me again. “I know what it is. I thought it would be a good idea to... look, it’s just a screw. Saying it now seems so creepy but I didn’t mean for it to. I knew it wasn’t a problem with the car but I thought how we met was awkward – my fault – and I wanted an opportunity to leave a better impression on you, so I pretended like... I mean... It seemed cool and now it feels stupid, and I didn’t mean to mislead you. I just didn’t think it through–” “Wait, you’re saying you fake broke my AC?” “Yeah. This screw doesn’t go to anything.” He puts the screw in my hand, and in spite of myself, I think, Maybe I’ll turn this into my wedding ring! “That was a pretty weird thing to do–” “I know,” Henry shakes his head. “I swear, if I’d thought about it longer I would have noticed it was creepy. I’m not a liar, I was just embarrassed I hit your mailbox, and then I couldn’t stop acting weird in front of you.” “I didn’t think you were weird.” “Oh.” He turns to face forward, blushing, like he’s doing an imitation of me driving, eyes locked on the road. “Well, you must think I’m weird now.” Instinctively, viscerally, all I can feel is affection for him... I don’t think he’s weird or lame or creepy. I can’t think anything besides cute. For a long time we’re quiet, and then: “Maybe you should drive me to school today, just in case my truck doesn’t work...” I say, nudging his arm as a peace offering. He smiles gratefully and we move to his truck. The whole drive I keep my focus on him, through my peripheral vision, but despite saying he always looks at passengers when he’s talking to them, he doesn’t glance at me once. He chatters the whole way, about favorite books and music (without me having to ask any of Kell’s leading questions) and when we get to school he says, “So, do you want to do something fun on the way home? Since I’m your ride now, you know?” We decide we’ll both be hungry and I should try Pei Wei, and though he blushes bright-red he refrains from saying It’s a date! Ruja remembers to bring a pair of close-toed shoes to keep in her locker and Hazeem starts composing a party invite text to Shelby. I let them steer our conversations, never feeling like the time is right to mention my maybe-date with Henry. Until Hazeem and I are alone in English, and I mention it accidentally– “Roo said you haven’t got cute pajamas yet. Do you want to go shopping after school? I want to get something really Hefner to impress Shelby. Ruja would say I should go black, obviously, because it’s goth and everything – but I think red is a better look for a party. Wouldn’t I look like some kind of king? Or like an emperor from Game of Thrones or something? Black’s too predictable–” “I can’t, I said I’d–” I cut myself off, burying my nose in A Tale of Two Cities. “Are you doing something with your parents?” I should shake my head yeah, but I hesitate, and Hazeem pounces on me. “Who else do you know?” “This boy dropped off my car yesterday and we–” “Stop,” Hazeem said. “If I hear this story before Ruja, she’ll kill me. Whatever you’re going to say, save it for her.” He taps his foot impatiently until the bell rings. In the hallway, on our way to chemistry with Ruja’s change of shoes held in the crook of her arm, they grill me: “What’s his name?” “Henry something. He gave me a ride this morning.” “Henry Bellinger? Football Henry with the ear–?” Ruja says, incredulous, nearly dropping her shoes when she stops dead in her tracks, and the people behind us bump into her. “What ear?” “He’s got a cauliflower ear – his helmet came off at the end of last season, during a diving catch, and someone’s cleat got it and–” “Oh, no,” I say, as Ruja shrugs and we start walking again. “I didn’t see anything weird about his ear.” “Henry Han, then,” Hazeem suggests. “Asian?” “Blonde.” “No fucking way!” This time, they both stop walking, pushing me into the shade of the lockers, cornering me with their bodies like I’m under investigation. “Does he look like a young Ryan Phillippe!?” Ruja demands, her shoes poking into my chest. “Who?” “From Cruel Intentions! Reese Witherspoon’s first husband!” “Oh my god–” I say, as it dawns on me that I have a lunch date with Shelby Gatskill’s ex. “Exactly!” says Hazeem, “This is perfect, we can grill him about her – figure out exactly what went wrong in their relationship, so I don’t make the same mistake! What are you guys doing?” “Something without you,” I insist, skirting away from them. They half-run behind me on the way to class. “But I need help!” Hazeem insists. “You never answered me about the text, should I tell her it’s my birthday or just say it’s a party? I don’t want to be misleading!” I think of telling them about Henry’s awkward overture last night, where he’d pretended there was something wrong with my truck, but then felt bad about lying to me this morning... “Please fall in love with him!” Ruja whispers, “I just want to use that book!” I regret ever mentioning him, or meeting them, and I spend the rest of the day giving them the silent treatment. Chapter 10 Henry Owens – Shelby’s Henry – is leaning against his car after school, his blue eyes shaded by a baseball hat. “Hey.” “Hey.” “How hungry are you?” he asks. “We’re going to Pei Wei, but could you eat or do you want to do an experiment?” “Depends,” I smile, relieved that he’s got a plan. I was nervous we wouldn’t have anything more to talk about until he said experiment. “Pei Wei’s got Thai donuts – these good little cinnamon sugar rolls, with condensed milk dipping sauce. But Taco Bell’s got Cinnabon Delights – you know those? I’ve always wondered which ones better but they’re never in season at the same time...” He unlocks his car and opens the door he was leaning on, which happens to be mine. As he walks to the driver’s side he continues: “But I know Pei Wei’s got donuts because I had them last night and Josh Khal brought Cinnabons to class today, so...?” “We should get them both?” “Yes!” He climbs into the car and claps his hands above the steering wheel, excited. “Even though you had them last night?” “They’re so good, Kai!” We hit Taco Bell first and get stuck in a drive-thru that’s ten cars deep. Three cars ahead of us, a boy hangs out his window to wave at Henry. “So what did you tell Ruja and Hazeem you’re doing right now?” he asks, side- eyeing me hopefully. “I told them we’d met. Didn’t mention donuts though, or else they’d insist on crashing. I think they’re shopping for outfits for Hazeem’s birthday party.” “Damn, you got an invite already? You just got to town and you’re already popular.” “If you count Mr. Anderson–” the chemistry teacher “–I know four people,” I smirk. “But you know the right people,” Henry promises. “I’ll teach you about Pei Wei, Ruja showed you the hill, Hazeem’s bakery is... honestly it’s better than Cinnabons and Thai donuts. When’s his party? Do you need a plus one?” I’m reminded of his stunt with the fake-missing screw, and think, If I don’t confess now, it’ll only get awkward when he finds out... “Actually,” I say, feeling suddenly confined by the drive-thru line, “He was going to invite you because he wants intel on Shelby Gatskill. He’s got a crush on her, and he knows you went out.” Our cheeks darken at the same time. “Oh,” Henry says. “That was a while ago. She is single now, and Hazeem’s cool, I could put in a good word...” He looks at me seriously, as if studying my reaction to see if I’m worried that they’re both single, or jealous that they used to hook up, or relieved he’d be cool with Hazeem starting to see her. The line starts moving and we inch forward. “Unless you want Mr. Anderson to be your escort...” he jokes. “You are definitely invited to come, but I have to warn you it’s a pajama-thing.” “Are you gonna wear the ones–?” I remember the oversized, toothpaste-bleached shirt I was wearing when he showed up on my doorstep and cringe. “Probably not, but it’s a toss-up between that shirt and another one I have where the armpits are all ripped and the collar’s sort of frayed off...” We reach the window and Henry laughs, before ordering. While he’s busy, I try to think of the cutest pair of pajamas I can imagine: should I tell him I ordered a feather-lined robe, like an old- Hollywood starlet? Or should I get a set of shorts with a tank top in...what’s his favorite color? “Ok,” he says, passing a bag into my lap. “These smell amazing,” I say as the car fills with cinnamon. “Don’t be biased. We haven’t gotten Pei Wei yet – and don’t sample them. We have to do a blind experiment – seriously, I’m going to cover your eyes and make you taste both and guess, and then decide which is better.” He rolls down the window, so the smell disperses. “So you aren’t too tempted,” he jokes. “Have you ever tried funnel fries?” I set the bag on the center consul and watch him struggling not to look at me while he drives. I can’t stop myself from smiling. “What’s that?” “It’s a ballpark thing, up in Washington. Minor league teams do them – they’re like funnel cakes, or elephant ears, whatever you call them – but they’ve got strawberry sauce, vanilla ice cream, and powdered sugar on top. And they’re shaped like french fries.” “Oh that sounds amazing,” says Henry, “like dipping fries in a milkshake, but next level! I’ve always thought concession stands should stay open year-round. Nothing compares to a ballpark ice cream – they’re so deliciously shitty. Up next–” He pulls into the Pei Wei parking lot and tells me to wait in the car while he runs inside. Five minutes later, he’s got a takeout carton of Thai donuts. He moves his truck to a shadier parking spot and takes off his hat, settling it on my head and pulling it low over my eyes like a blindfold. “Alright. Taste test.” “Are you feeding them to me?” I giggle, thinking of wedding cake and kicking myself mentally for the way my stomach flutters. “I’ll put one in each hand. Wait –” He tears open both bags and all I hear is rustling as he prepares the experiment. “Ok, don’t worry if the sauce drips in my car. Your eyes are closed, it’s not your fault. But eat them quick while they’re still hot.” He puts a sugary sphere in each hand, then pushes the ball cap lower on my forehead, to check that I’m not peeking. Laughing, I eat the sweet in my right hand. It’s filled with tongue-blisteringly hot icing and deliciously doughy. Licking sugar off my lips, I try the other one. “Both are incredible,” I say. “But you don’t have to see them to tell the difference.” “Damn! How?” “You said Pei Wei’s has condensed milk. The Taco Bell ones taste like they’re loaded with grocery store frosting. Both amazing, but the Cinnabons are like shitty ballpark ice cream. The Pei Wei ones are fancy.” “Wow, can’t fool you. You have such a refined palette.” “I am a connoisseur of fried foods...” He takes his hat back, smoothing my hair for me since my hands are sugary, and I pass him the bags of food. While we finish both sets of donuts, licking sugar off our fingers, Henry tells me about how he got into fixing cars. He was new to Phoenix, too, a few years ago and he wanted to play football but kept getting heat-sick at practice: “And then I read a story about how Lynyrd Skynyrd used to rehearse in a metal- shed out in the woods. When they first started touring and they’d be packed into steamy little clubs in the middle of summer, other bands would pass out, but they didn’t even break a sweat! They’d gotten used to it. So I realized I needed an outdoor hobby that could build up my heat tolerance. There’s nothing sweatier than being stuck under the hood of a car, so I bought a beater off of Craigslist and started fixing it up. By my second tryout season, I could stand the heat, and it’s a good skill to have because you never want to get stuck on a broken-down bus before a game with all your padding on...” “Have you ever had to fix the bus on the side of the road?” I laugh. “No, but I could if I needed to...” “Kind of sexist of you to assume I couldn’t,” I rib him. “What if I’d taken one look at that screw and known it didn’t belong in my air conditioning?” “It was a terrible plan,” he agrees. “But I hope our donut experiment makes up for it.” He licks sugar off his lips and I think he’s going to lean in to kiss me, but he doesn’t. I think about pushing his hat down over his eyes, saying, See if you can tell what this one is! and then kissing him – but I hesitate, too nervous, and before I can muster the courage I hear a familiar voice say, “Yooooo!” and knock on my window. I turn around to see Hazeem, beaming, holding up a bag of clothes. Ruja shakes her head behind him. I roll down my window while she says, “We just finished our shopping. Hazeem got himself a red robe and matching pajama sets for you and me. I told him that makes us look like we’re all a weird couple–” “Like you’re my favorite concubines, I said. Like I’m a cool warlord and you’re my–” “Whatever,” says Ruja. “The problem is, we match. Hey Henry.” They wave at each other. Then, she leans in the window to whisper to me, “Please accept the pajamas so I don’t have to match with him alone! I don’t want it to look like a couples’ costume!” “I don’t want it to look like a couple’s costume either, babe,” says Hazeem, climbing into Henry’s back seat. “Bro, tell me: does Shelby like red? Everyone likes red undies...” “They’re pajamas, Hazeem! Kailani, do you want to let the boys talk and get a ride back with me?” I try to tell her with my eyes, No! I absolutely do not! Why are you guys trying to cock-block me!? But before I can, Henry says: “You guys sure you don’t want to get Pei Wei donuts first? We just had some. They’re amazing today.” Hazeem is easily convinced, and I’m surprised and relieved when Ruja follows him into the restaurant to place their order. Making my decision quickly, I turn to Henry, push down his hat and blurt out: “Guess which one this is!” And then I kiss him before I can talk myself out of it.