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Dissimilarity: Preview (1-16)

by kookzer


Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.

AS OF: JUNE 2020

DISSIMILARITY

A MESS OF A TEENAGE NOVEL

[SETTING: FALL, 2017]

Chapter One

Felicity

I, for one, really like rain. Disagree with me if you want, but I could go on and on about rain. The sound of it hitting the windows after a long day is so relaxing. The scent in the air after a big storm is pleasant as well.

That same scent surrounds me as I crouch down behind a bush of fountaingrass on this warm night. The dew on the grass has a cooling touch. Downhill from here stands an old, rotting barn. A truck pulls out from behind the tragedy of a building, outlining the field grass with its broken headlights.

The grass crunches underneath someone’s feet from behind me. The noise is startling, and I jump up and look over my shoulder.

“Relax. It’s just me,” my friend Percy whispers. He looks to his left at Xavier, our so-called leader, who waits beside his car watching the truck up ahead. I hear the passenger door shut, and watch as my cousin Alexis walks around to our side.

Alexis and I were never close, but she’s the one who got me into this. She knew I needed money, and told me I could make some if I worked for Xavier. I never realized that she was part of a “gang,” but it doesn’t really matter to me now.

We call ourselves the “Tigers,” which is a namesake I will never understand.

This is my first “mission” with them. While I’m still a little fuzzy on how these things are supposed to work, I trust that it will go alright.

“You don’t need to hide, y’know.” Percy gives me a sympathetic look. “No one can see you. It’s too dark out.”

“Sorry,” I tell him, standing up. I’ve known Percy for a while. He’s Alexis’s best friend, and he used to do community theater with me. He’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, so I was surprised to find out he was a part of what I can only think to be a group of criminals. But I’m no better.

My feet almost slip out from under me due to the wet grass. “Careful,” Percy whispers, grabbing my shoulders and stabilizing me.

“Aww.” Alexis is leaning against the car, watching me like I’m a comedy act. “Is my baby cousin scared?”

“I just slipped,” I retort, shaking Percy’s hands off of my shoulders. “I’m fine. Not scared at all.”

“Keep your voice down,” Natasha mutters, with her eyes fixed on the horizon. She’s another friend of Alexis’s, standing by her with an unreadable expression. I fear her in a way. She’s so composed and relaxed, while I can’t even light a match without being scared. It sinks in how I may not fit in with these people.

The truck pulls onto the main road, audibly sputters, and drives off into the night. We’re all silent for a few moments after the headlights disappear.

“What the fuck are we waiting for?” Biff’s voice echoes extensively, and he’s shushed by everyone else around him. “Oh, quit it already. The man is gone,” he sighs.

I didn’t even realize Biff was here, but I can make out his figure sitting on the hood of the black car. You wouldn’t have been able to tell he was there without the dim moonlight reflecting off of the chain around his neck. He insists on wearing it everywhere he goes. I don’t know him too well yet, but he seems to carry himself like he’s royalty.

Xavier looks to Alexis. “Is everyone out of the car?”

She nods, pulling her jacket hood over her head.

“Remember the plan,” Xavier continues. “Alexis and Percy, you guys search the perimeters of the property. Take anything of value. The dude’s a rapist and the courts don’t believe it, so don’t give a shit about his feelings. Rob the fucker.”

Xavier’s a very explicit person. His motives have always been a “for the greater good” kind of thing. We’re robbers, of course, but we only rob bad people... I think. It’s a weird manner of social justice, but what matters is that I’ll get paid for it. I need money. And Xavier’s a good guy, and I don’t think anyone here’s actually a bad person. So it’s fine. Everything we’re doing is fine.

It’s illegal. But it’s fine.

“Biff, you can go do… whatever it was you wanted to do.” Xavier rolls his eyes while adressing him.

Biff hops off of the hood of the car and reaches for a bottle of lighter fluid on the ground.

Natasha looks over her shoulder at him. “So that’s why you brought that thing?”

“Gotta go,” Biff chirps, disregarding her question. He jogs off.

“Wait, I didn’t say to…” Xavier sighs. “Never mind. He’s a lost cause. Percy, Alexis, you two should get moving.”

Percy turns to me before he goes. “Stay safe, okay? You’re gonna do great.”

“Do great? At what?” He’s gone before I can ask anything else. Alexis hurries after him, playfully punches him in the shoulder, then sprints off before he can swing and retaliate. They then both vanish into the darkness of the night like it’s natural.

Almost everyone else is gone, and I suddenly feel out of place. “So, uh…” I can’t help but ask about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Xavier’s answer is to sit back while everyone else does the hard stuff. “What about me?”

Xavier stares at me for a second, puzzled. He looks to Natasha innocently, who’s still at the top of the hill with us. “Was she there when we went over this? Or did I not tell her?” Natasha shrugs at him, and he turns back to me. “You’re actually doing the most important part.”

I am? I swallow down my dread. “What is that, again?”

“You’re going into that barn. Barn, house, whatever that is.” He points to it as he speaks, as if I don’t know of the barn-house-whatever he’s referring to. “The man has a marijuana home-grow. I think he keeps all the harvest in there. If you guys can get it, I’ll sell it off somewhere and split the profit between everyone. I couldn’t tell if there’s a security system in the place or not, so be cautious.”

What the fuck?

All of a sudden this whole thing sounds crazy. I almost want to tell him no, but that would look bad. And it would make me feel even worse. All I can bring myself to do is nod. “Okay.”

He tosses me a pager, which I barely have the reflexes to catch. “That will contact me. Ring it if you need anything.” He turns to Natasha. “Are you ready?”

“I cannot stand your undercut,” she says plainly.

“Well I, for one, really like it.”

“Bye Xavier,” she laughs, moving past him and walking to me. “I’ll have your back,” she says. “Ready to go?”

I can’t find the words to respond, so I just start walking. After a few moments I hear Natasha following behind me. My feet begin to sink too far into the mud, and I stop for a second to pull myself out. Natasha waits with me and watches my struggle with a plain face.

“It’s okay, just be more careful.”

Her words don’t help.

We arrive at the barn’s front door. It’s accessorized with a “No Soliciting” sign hanging by a nail.

“Stand back,” Natasha tells me, stepping towards the door. She fiddles with the knob for a few seconds, listening for the noise it makes.

An ominous whooping and hollering echoes through the hills. Natasha looks with wide eyes towards where it came from. She relieves her own panic, then sighs, “That’s Biff.” She turns back to the door, and lifts her crowbar to the knob.

I had no idea she brought a crowbar with her.

There’s a snapping noise as she breaks the door open. The wood splinters unattractively and I flinch away from it.

“Sorry,” she says quickly. “I could have opened that a lot better.”

Nonetheless, the door swings open. I almost choke on the musty smell of wood that comes out. It’s hard to see anything inside. There’s no way I can navigate through such darkness. “Can I use a flashlight?”

Natasha considers the question. “Not a bright one.” She reaches into a rucksack she brought down with her. She takes out a flashlight of her own, and flips the switch. The light is yellow and dim. “Will this work?” She holds it out to me.

“It’s better than nothing,” I answer, taking it from her.

She turns to look behind us at a smaller but equally rotten structure on the property. “Alexis hasn’t gotten over there yet. I’m gonna look in that shed for anything that could help us. Are you okay on your own?”

“Yes,” I tell her. I’m lying.

“Okay. Well, be careful.” Natasha starts to walk off. “You have the pager. Call for help if you need it.” She turns and starts jogging out towards the shed.

Isolation in the unknown is scary. That should be obvious, but this is a new kind of fear for me. I turn back towards the open door and hold the light up. It’s hard to make out much, but I can at least see the floor in front of me. I step in, and the floor creaks eerily with my weight. Be brave. Come on, be brave.

My eyes adjust after a few moments of waving the light around. The inside of the house appears much more refurbished than its outside. Beside me now I can make out a flight of stairs leading to a second floor. I know better than to try to go up there, so I should probably continue searching this floor.

I reach into the darkness in front of me as I continue to walk forward. The flashlight has proven to be of little help. Suddenly, my shin sinks into what feels like a burlap bag. It’s probably a bag of the harvest Xavier was talking about. Along with this, my fingertips brush into a wall.

I turn around to see if there are any more of these bags along the perimeter of the room, but it proves to be a useless effort. I only stare into a dizzying black void with a near indistinguishable outline of a door at the end.

This is stupid.

I toss the flashlight on the ground and take out my phone, turning its back-facing flashlight on. The new brightness is a little hard on the eyes, but I can see the entire room now. It’s small, and there’s four or five of these bags lying around. It feels like the distant cousin of a jackpot.

Once Natasha gets back, we can probably get the bags to Xavier’s car. His intent was only ever to rob the guy, but if something profitable comes from this it’ll just be the cherry on top. He said he’d cut the profits between all of us. I have to admit to how much that excites me.

There’s a creaking noise from above me. I jump out of my skin at the sound, turning the light up towards the roof. Frozen in fear, I don’t see anything. I must’ve panicked over nothing. This is just me losing my head over stupid little things… again. I always do that.

I take a step away to try to relax, but I back straight into a door. It caught me off guard, so I’m shaky as I step away to observe it. What the hell? I didn’t even see a door there. But it’s just a plain, white door. I turn the knob to see if it’s unlocked, but the door is inclined and heavy enough to swing away from me as soon as I unlatched it.

The room lights up as the door’s shadow migrates across the walls. There’s a wail and a scratching noise, and I watch in horror as a large, brown animal writhes in the middle of the concrete floor. With an abrasive grunt it pushes itself onto its hooves, and faces me with its horns affront and lips sputtering.

That’s a very, very scary cow.

With a roar, the bull skids and charges forward. I scream and try to jump aside, but my feet slip. I land hard on the ground to the left of the door, scrambling to get back on my feet while my heart pounds in my throat. I try to catch my breath, but the sound of running hooves behind me signals no time for that. Clambering back onto my feet, I turn towards the bull, but it’s in a blind, primal rage and doesn’t appear to see me.

I try to make a break from the corner I pushed myself into, but the cow whips its head around and glares at me when I do.

HELP!!” I’ve never screamed louder in my life. “Somebody HELP ME!”

I suck in my breath upon realization that no one will hear me. The animal charges at me once again, and adrenaline rushes through me as I try to outrun it to the door.

This is how I die. Trampled by a cow.

I reach out for the frame of the front door and grip it, but I hear someone else’s voice behind me and I freeze.

The sound they make is akin to a battle cry. I can’t tell who it is, I don’t recognize their voice…

Just run, I tell myself. Don’t turn around, just run. But I can’t run. I’m human enough to not bail on someone, whoever, came to save me. I turn back around.

The flashlight on my phone shines from where it lies face-down inside the barn. I didn’t even notice I dropped it. It sheds light upon the shape of a person gripping the bull by its horns and pushing back against its will.

“Down!” They shout this as they push the bull’s head towards the ground. “Down!”

The bull rips free from their grasp, and adamantly thrusts its head toward them. The person steps aside to dodge it, and places their hands around the jaw and head of the bull. They start pushing it down with all of their weight. There’s a second of pause in the bull’s behavior, which opens opportunity for the person to grab a rope attached to its neck. I didn’t notice the rope.

They shout another command as they yank the rope back towards the inner door. The same bull, which almost killed me earlier, trots dejectedly back into its cage at that simple notion.

My own breathing is suddenly the loudest thing in the room as the ambiguous bull tamer pulls the white door shut. They stand still for a bit and lower their hand to their side. They don’t move.

The adrenaline is making my head spin. It’s hard to think, but I can at least think this: How did Xavier not think anyone else lived here? I need to leave before they notice me, but I can’t just leave my phone inside. It’s incriminating evidence. It’s also my phone.

I’m going to slip under their radar before they even notice the phone or I there. This needs to be quick.

My phone lies about six feet from the door frame. I could crawl, and hopefully they’ll stay turned around or react too late to stop me. I get on my hands and knees and step through the door, only for the same floorboard from before to echo the same creaking noise.

They turn around and look directly at me. Shit. I stumble back onto my feet and grab my phone from the floor.

“No, no!” The person calls after me innocently rather than with aggression. “Don’t leave.” Their humility makes me hesitate for a second. I’m reminded of what we came here for.

The bags. Money. It would look horrible if I came back empty-handed on my first “mission,” or whatever the group members call these things.

Be brave. Be brave, you idiot.

“Don’t hurt me, please,” I beg. I didn’t mean to sound as desperate as I do right now. “This isn’t what it looks like.”

“Who are you?”

My head still spins. It has become difficult to translate my thoughts into words. “Lost.”

Someone’s voice echoes from outside the house. The stranger looks out towards it. “You’re not here alone. So why are you really here?”

Wow. I might as well just hide my tail and run at this point.

“We were trying to rob you,” I admit. “Everyone else has probably left without me, at this point. Sorry to break into your home.” I get back on my feet and note that I scraped my knee. “Ow.” I look down at the tear in my jeans and the open wound behind it.

The stranger doesn’t say anything for a moment. I look up at them, debating whether to make a break for it or not. Putting weight on the one leg has begun to hurt.

“This... isn’t my home,” they tell me awkwardly.

“Oh! Oh, thank god,” I gasp. I shouldn’t be relieved. I’m a felony-committing deer in the headlights. “But… why are you here?”

They gesture to the second floor. “I just spend the nights here where no one can find me. The man who owns this place is too old to walk up the stairs, so he has no idea I'm here. Sorry about the cow. Can I help you with your knee?”

“No! No. No,” I assure them. I don’t trust them like that. I note their disheveled and dirty clothing. They adorn dirt and ash on their face. “Are you… homeless?”

They shrug. “Essentially.”

Oh, god. Now robbing them looks even worse, even if it’s for bags of pot they can’t even smoke. I feel bad now.

“Are these what you wanted?” They grab a bag beside them and toss it in front of me. “You can take it. I’m going to head out of here in the morning anyway. I can’t stay in one spot for too long.”

“Wait, don’t you need shelter?” I start tripping on my own words. “I could see what I can-”

There’s a loud wisping noise. Bright flames suddenly jump out of the gap where the floor meets the right wall.

The stranger shouts and jumps away from it. Fear courses through me as I back away, but the pressure on my skinned knee makes my ears roar. I only feel worse as I breathe in the smoke. My lungs burn, and I can’t control the cough.

“Here!” The stranger tosses another one of the burlap bags towards me. “Take this and run!”

I’m frozen in beads of sweat and fear. Too much has happened in the past five minutes for me to have a sharp reaction time at this point. The stranger stares me in the face and realizes this. The flames spread rapidly and smoke clouds the room as they turn to another bag. “Come on, go!” They rush over and hold it out to me.

I shake off my fear and take both bags out the front door. Relief washes over me as colder wind hits my face. I swallow down the fresh air as if I’ve never taken a breath in my life. The burlap bags drop out of my hands. I look back for the stranger, but they didn’t follow me out.

“Felicity!” I turn to my right and see someone running towards me. “I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were in there!”

“You wh-” I choke on my own words and let out a wheezing cough.

“I’m so sorry. I’ll take these,” he says, grabbing the bags.

It’s Biff. He lit the wrong building on fire.

“We have to get back to the van, now!” He starts to run past me.

“Someone’s in there!” I shout after him, using whatever breath I have left.

He turns back around, panting. “What?”

“Someone was in there, they tried to save me…” I buckle over as I cough up more smoke, and Biff grabs my shoulders.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry.” He’s trying his best to be reassuring, but he has no control over his apathetic tone of voice. He looks past me. “Alexis!”

I hear her run up from behind me. “What’s happening?!” She pushes between him and I and shoves him off of me, pulling me into her arms as if I can’t stand without support. “What did you do?!”

“I swear, it was an accident…” There’s hurt in his eyes. “You need to get Felicity and the bags to the van.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I have to do something. Just go!!” He pivots and runs back towards the flaming barn. I try to yell after him but the effort proves futile as I cough again.

“Biff, stop!” Alexis lets go of me and shouts after him. “Biff, you idiot! Stop!”

“There’s someone in there,” I repeat. “Someone was in there, Alexis.”

Alexis looks at me in horror. She turns back around to watch the fire, but quickly tears her eyes away. “Come on, we have to go.” She takes one bag in her hand and holds the other under her arm. She pushes her other arm under me and across my back to support me. “What is in these? Grass?”

“Marijuana.”

“So, grass. Okay.”

She starts walking, almost dragging me with her. I stumble along the way but figure out how to keep pace. I definitely wore the wrong shoes for this. Alexis is in hiking boots and I’m in beat up sneakers. I never expected anything violent like this to happen and I obviously underestimated.

We’re halfway up the hill when I hear someone shout my name. In the firelight I can see Xavier running down towards me. Alexis lets me go, and Xavier picks me up like a baby and starts carrying me the rest of the way.

“I can walk,” I argue, but it’s too late as he sits me down on the grass.

“You’re fourteen years old and I’m not taking chances.” He makes the age fourteen sound like it's equal to age nine. “Can you breathe?”

“If you would just give me room then maybe I’d have a shot.”

Xavier steps away from me quickly. I didn't mean to sound as aggressive as I did, but he seems to disregard it. He starts to count heads to make sure everyone’s there, but his eyes light with panic.

“Biff ran into the fire,” Alexis tells him. “Felicity said someone was in there.”

“What?!”

“I swear on my life, someone was there. We spoke to each other. And then…” My words escape me as Xavier ignores my statement, running his hands through his hair and turning to watch the fire in anticipation.

I suddenly feel at fault for this. If Biff doesn’t come back, then… never mind. I won’t think about that. He’ll come back.

I barely even noticed Natasha and Percy were here. Natasha’s watching the fire in shock. I realize now that had she stayed behind with me she would have been caught in the fire as well.

I pretend not to see Percy watching me out of the corner of my eye. I’m horrible at receiving pity. The burning in my lungs was temporary and the scrape on my knee is no more than sore now. I understand that he’s worried, but I’m fine. I don’t need to be pampered like a baby. Like a 14-year-old baby.

A voice calls to us from downhill. It’s almost inaudible at first but grows louder.

“We’re okay!”

The light hits Biff’s sweat-drenched face unattractively as he appears from the lip of the hill. He turns around almost aggressively. “Come on, you can walk,” he scolds.

Relief washes over me as the stranger from before follows him gingerly into the light. They’re frightened by us, but Xavier jogs over to them anyway. They flinch away.

“Are either of you hurt?” he asks.

Biff scoffs and doesn’t answer.

“We’re sorry,” Xavier says to the stranger. “We didn’t mean to trap you, we had no idea that anyone was here. No fire was supposed to happen in the first place.” He shoots a glare at Biff.

“What does that mean? You weren’t trapped!” Biff is almost spitting venom at the stranger. “You stayed in there on purpose. Saving some cow.”

“I couldn’t just let it die,” they plead.

“The cow that tried to kill me?” I blurt.

I bite my tongue as everyone turns to stare at me. Shit. Me and my ever running mouth.

Xavier’s eyes are popped out of his head. “A cow what?” He throws his hands in the air. “You know what? This was a failure. We were supposed to be out of here in ten minutes, and instead we’re watching a house burn down.” His eyes flare with realization, then he turns to the stranger. “You,” he says.

They nearly jump out of their skin. Please, don’t hurt them.

“Sincere apologies for the damage to your home. I hope you understand that we did not have to save you, but we did anyway.”

Biff scoffs audibly. “Yeah! I didn’t have to!”

“Shut up!” Xavier addresses Biff without looking at him. “This entire thing is your fault, Biff.”

In the light, I can make out Biff’s hurt face. He steps back from the conversation, and walks around to the other side of the car. Alexis’s eyes follow him, and she rolls them back into her head once he’s out of sight.

“So, we’ll only ask one other thing of you,” Xavier continues. The stranger doesn’t answer, and the anxiety in Xavier’s face escalates. “We pay all reparations to your home, so long as you don’t tell a soul we were here. Got it?”

“This isn’t my home,” they state plainly.

Xavier’s face falls. “Oh.”

I can’t stand this anymore. The smoke is reaching to top of the hills, and cars have begun to pull off of the side of the highway to watch the ashes of the barn fall.

“They’re homeless, Xavier,” I tell him, pushing onto my feet. “They were hiding in the barn for the night.” Guilt crosses his face as I speak. “If we want to get out of here before a news chopper crosses over this place, we need to go now. People are watching us.”

Xavier takes note of the cars pulled over from the highway. He has accepted defeat. “Damn it. Okay, everyone get in the car. You too,” they tell the stranger. “I’ll get you somewhere safe. Someone please get the bags.” The stranger does so, to Xavier’s surprise.

I move past Xabier to get into the van. I always sit in the third row back, because I’m “new,” and new people sit in the back. Contrary to this, the stranger is apparently riding shotgun. Percy would normally sit there, or Derek, who isn’t here. I don’t think anyone cares too much about seating arrangements at this point.

Biff proves me wrong- I opt to ignore his complaining as to why he has to sit in the back with the “lower ranked” persons.

“Just sit down,” Percy growls at him. Percy gives an apathetic look to Alexis, who sits parallel to him. She puts a finger pistol to the side of her head and blows the trigger.

Natasha climbs in and sits between the two. She seems unnerved. Alexis reaches down and squeezes her hand reassuringly.

“I don’t want to hear a WORD from any of you!” Xavier shouts from the front seat. “I’m so tired of this.”

I’ve never heard Xavier raise his voice, and to hear it now is frightening. He floors the accelerator before the car doors can even shut.

To think that all of this happened in fifteen minutes is bizarre to me.

Chapter Two

Percy

I wipe sweat from my brow as I stare out blankly from my front lawn. Xavier’s van races out of my neighborhood, leaving a reek of gasoline in its wake. Xavier was too out of his head to drive everybody home, so I told him to drop me off at my house and I could drive four of the people home in my car.

He let me take two.

Fortunately for me, one is my best friend. And the other is… her cousin. Who, while we do know each other, is not someone I wanted to spend any more time with tonight. It’s not even because of anything she did, it’s because I’m just burned out. And that’s not a pun.

“Felicity, I am so, so sorry,” Alexis begs her. The two of them stand under my porch light. “I had no idea something like that would happen. I never would have deliberately put you in a situation where you would get hurt. I feel so, so horrible.”

“Yeah, maybe you should,” Felicity growls. She forces herself away from Alexis, who remains desperate to reach her. “Natasha made me go into that house alone, and I was attacked by a cow! Not to mention the stranger I met in there, which of course made me feel so much better about being left alone in a random shed.” She holds her trembling hands in front of her. “And then your friend almost killed me! For fun!”

“Biff isn’t our friend,” Alexis explains.

“She’s right,” I add. “No one likes nor listens to him.”

“That doesn’t change what happened, though,” Felicity protests. “You can dislike him all you want, but you still work with him. It doesn’t change anything.”

“Felicity, hey,” Alexis says, attempting to console her. “We’re sorry. We’re all sorry. And you have every right to be upset.”

“Yeah, I do,” Felicity snaps. She wipes tears from her eyes, while Alexis seems at her wit’s end.

Alexis always reaches to resolve conflicts with people, even if they never cooperate, which gets her feelings stepped on a lot. It’s painful to watch.

“I’ll come to the meeting on Monday in case I get paid a thing for near-death-by-fire. And then I’m done with you all,” Felicity tells us.

Alexis looks hurt, then sighs. “You do that.” Silence hangs in the air as they both look away from each other.

“You know what? I’m not okay with this,” I interject. “I’m not driving anyone anywhere until we’re all calmed down. Tonight wasn’t good, but…”

Felicity’s eyes burn into me and I lose my train of thought. Painfully, I try to save my statement.

“But you know what is good? Brownies. Everyone likes brownies.”

Alexis stares at me questioningly. Trust me, I don’t know what I’m doing either.

“My dad made brownies,” I continue. “They’re inside. They’re… very good. So maybe we can all just sit down, eat some fudge, not have to be afraid of being caught on fire…” What the fuck am I saying? “... And then I’ll drive everyone home.”

They’re both speechless. Damn it. Why did God give me a mouth?

“Actually, um, I can get my own ride home,” Felicity suggests. “I have a friend who lives nearby. You don’t need to drive all that way.”

Nope, nope, nope. Not happening. “Are you sure?” I ask. “I have to drive Alexis out there anyway, so it’s no problem. Your friend doesn’t have to come get you. Don’t bother anyone.”

“Too late,” she retorts, dialing a number into her cell phone and walking to the other side of the lawn. “Go get your brownies.”

Alexis shoots me an empathetic look as I step up onto the porch.

“I’ll just bring the tray outside,” I say.

Alexis leans against the siding on my house and slides down. “Yup, that’s a good idea.”

I rush and grab the brownies from the kitchen- piled sloppily on a porcelain plate under cling wrap. Why did I think eating food would resolve an argument? Why do I do these things? I seem to set myself up for failure no matter what.

When I come back outside with the plate, Felicity is on the tail end of her conversation.

“Okay,” she giggles through the phone. “See you soon. Bye.”

“That’s suspicious,” Alexis comments under her breath as I sit down beside her. “The girl never laughs like that.”

“Not helping,” I reply. I put the plate down on the porch floor as Felicity hops up beside us. “Is someone able to pick you up?” I ask.

“Yep,” she answers while sitting down across from us. Her mood has jumped exponentially. “It won’t be long before my ride’s here. Can I have one?” She points to the plate.

“Yes. That’s why he brought them out,” Alexis answers blankly. She tosses the cling wrap to the side and takes one off the top, while Felicity stares at the pile for a bit.

“This one looks good,” she says, pulling a brownie from the bottom of the pile without second thought. I catch the rest of them when they almost topple off of the plate. She doesn’t notice.

“You feeling any better?” I ask Felicity.

“Yeah, I do. Sorry for earlier,” she sighs.

And just like that, she finally apologized for something. A very rare occurrence.

“Mmm. Props to your dad, dude,” Alexis prods me. “The man makes a mean brownie. Living proof that white people can cook.”

“My mom can cook,” Felicity refutes.

“Oh, yeah, you’re right,” Alexis concurs. “Aunt Lindsay mixes great drinks.”

“Ugh,” Felicity groans. “She never lets me drink. I guess she just likes you more than me.”

Felicity acts like she doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom, which is far from true. They get along well, from what I’ve seen of her mom at our old theater productions. Maybe Felicity feels a need to act edgy about it because her mom had her when she was 15 years old. She doesn’t like to talk about it.

“Lindsay’s like, the cool aunt,” Alexis tells me. “We used to text about The Bachelor every night it came on. The people on there are idiots. They make me feel so much better about myself.”

I laugh. “Well it must take someone real dumb to do that.”

“Shut up, dickwad,” Alexis hisses, then shoves me.

Felicity laughs at this. “I’ll tell Lindsay you said hi.” Her laugh is nice and innocent. Something I could listen to all day.

“You’re not one of those kids that calls your mom by her first name, right?” I ask. “Like how the students at New Mill call our dean ‘Glinda’ instead of Mrs. Henderson?”

“Yes I am. I call both of those people by their first names. Glinda is the bad witch,” Felicity jokes.

Our dean could not have a more ironic name. She changed the bell schedule once and pushed lunch back by two hours, and the student body took no time at all to rename her “Glinda the Bad Witch.” These are stories you just can’t make up.

Felicity’s the only person from the Tigers that goes to New Mill Academy with me… and will probably be the last. Everyone else in the group attends some public school. They think our school is preppy, but all of our students hate it there. At least our sports programs are good.

“Do you think everyone else got home alright?” Felicity asks us amid taking a brownie bite.

“Oh, yeah, I’m sure they’re fine,” I reassure her. “You don’t have to worry.” She smiles at me. Damn, I love her smile.

A silver SUV rolls down my road. “Oh, there they are,” Felicity says. She stands up, but hesitates when the car drives past my house. She turns to me. “What’s your house number?”

“614,” I answer.

Felicity bites her cheek. “I told them 618 on accident. I’d better go meet them down there, then.” She points to me with her brownie-free hand. “I got all of my things from your car, right?”

“Sí, señora.”

“Okay, cool. Thanks for the brownies, Perce.” Perce was always her nickname for me. She shoves the rest of the brownie in her mouth and picks her jacket up from the floor. “Bhhh!” she says through a full mouth, then jogs off.

“How flattering,” Alexis scoffs, then turns to me. “She calls you Perce? I like that.”

I watch Felicity meet the SUV two houses down from here. The lack of light makes it difficult, but the street lamp is enough to help me see to the end of the street.

A girl steps out from the SUV’s passenger’s side onto the sidewalk. She and Felicity wrap their arms around each other affectionately. Felicity lets go and covers her mouth- obviously still chewing the brownie. The girl ruffles her hair and hops back in the passenger’s seat. Felicity goes into the back of the car. Its lights flare, and it pulls out and away from the curb into the night.

“I don’t know that girl,” Alexis remarks. “Do you?”

“I couldn’t tell,” I answer. “I’m just glad the friend wasn’t, y’know, a boy.”

“Of course you are,” she laughs. “God, you’re a trip. We’re over here punching the shit out of each other and then every time she talks to you, you get all ‘Ohhhh Felicity are you okay- did you get your ride- do you want a brownie- don’t worry about our friends- I’m totally in love with you- SÍ SEÑORA!!’”

“I can and will break your jaw,” I tell her.

She laughs maniacally. “You’re way too anxious about Felicity. As if you have any competition. Felicity can barely score anybody.”

I look away.

“Male or female,” she specifies, “If that was your concern.”

“Well, it wasn’t, until you brought it up,” I mutter.

“My bad,” Alexis sighs. “But you’ll be fine.” She leans against my shoulder. “She’d be lucky to have anyone who puts up with her like you do.”

“Well, she’s leaving the Tigers now, so I’m shot,” I tell her. “Biff burned both that barn and my chances with Felicity to the ground tonight.”

“Bruh, how does Biff find a way to ruin everything?” She groans. “Even Adrian.”

“What?” I say to her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Not like that,” she corrects me. “I meant how mean Biff always was to him. Ever since he came out, Adrian hasn’t spoken to us. Does he think we don’t like him?”

Adrian was a member of the Tigers, who came out about his transition around a month ago. He broke up with Biff the day before that, and he hasn’t attended any meeting since. Biff was always terrible to him, but none of us knew whether to step in between it or not.

“I think he’s just doing what’s best for him,” I tell Alexis. “He probably needs space.”

Alexis sighs. “I miss him. Can we talk about something else?”

“Felicity probably hates us now,” I say with defeat. “She was pretty upset with you earlier. I’m sure she was mad at me too.”

“Percy,” Alexis interjects. “You gave her brownies. That is the key to a girl’s heart, I swear. You have no idea how many guys have tried to bait me with food- and almost succeeded.”

“Really? I thought you’d be dumb enough to marry them on the spot for that.”

“You’re lucky that I’m too tired to punch you right now,” she sighs, closing her eyes. “I’m totally sleeping in your car on the way home. The seats in there are soooo comfy.”

“Well, I won’t keep you waiting.” I push her off of me, waking her up out of her half sleep. “Let’s get on the road.”

“Mmkay,” she says. “Oh, are you going to that dude’s party tomorrow? Because you guys play Shoreline High next week?”

“His name’s Shane,” I tell her. “And yeah, I’m going. Biff’s going too, unfortunately,”

“I’m already sorry for you,” Alexis says as she stands up. She hesitates for a second, and seems to think of something. “I’ll race ya to your car,” she says, jumping past me.

So much for her being “tired.” “Lex, I have to put the brownies away,” I call after her. She keeps running, and turns around to me while colliding with my passenger’s side door.

“Loser!” She blows a raspberry.

I should thank her for making this awful night not-so-awful. But it wasn’t just her, was it? No, it wasn’t. Because I’m so stupid over a girl, that even a shred of attention from her is a win for me. So, she’s right. I am a loser.

Chapter Three

Xavier

“And you can stay here for as long as you need to,” I explain, switching the lights on beside my front door.

The kid from the barn cautiously follows me in. I couldn’t find it in my heart to strand them there. Their eyes are wide with anticipation and they stand stiffly.

“I’m not gonna hurt you, seriously,” I tell them. “So, um, what’s your name?”

They hesitate. I wonder if they’ve ever been asked for their name before. “Dakota,” they say. “Call me Dakota.”

“Alright, Dakota,” I answer. “You are welcome to hang out anywhere on this floor for the rest of the night.” My voice is hoarse from yelling at the kids. I start to regret it, not just for that reason. “Are you hungry?” I ask Dakota.

Dakota doesn’t hear me at all. They are thoughtlessly walking around my kitchen and examining things. I can’t guess how long they’ve spent without a roof over their head. Maybe I’ll learn those things another day. They might not even stay here long enough for that.

“Hey,” I call to them again. They notice me this time. “Do you want food? Are you hungry?”

They shake their head. “No thanks. I don’t want your food.”

“Do you not want food or do you not want my food?”

Dakota bites their cheek instead of answering. After an awkward beat of silence, they return to exploring all the weird things in my kitchen. A bag of those little Croc charms sits on the counter, which I bought for Natasha to give to her little sister for her birthday. With that out of context, this is an embarrassing first impression.

“Well, either way, I’m gonna microwave something for you,” I deflect. “Take it or leave it. Doesn’t matter to me.”

Dakota hops onto a barstool by my counter, watching me carefully when I go to my cupboard. I hope I haven’t done anything to scare them. I was surely an ass back there, and I won’t even attempt to rationalize that. Yelling at the kids was wrong.

So was setting fire to a barn with two children trapped inside.

And there I go again. See what I mean? I have to stop rationalizing my actions. A leader isn’t supposed to rage like that, especially at kids. Teenagers are the only people I can get to work for me, anyway. Beggars can’t be choosers, and they can’t be ungrateful either.

The crude fact is I make Easy-Mac for myself so often that I went autopilot when preparing it, and before I know it, the cup I prepared for Dakota is in the microwave. What’s wrong with me?

I’m no leader. Leaders are actually good at what they do. Like Clark Kent or Katniss Everdeen. Anything less than that kind of perfection is a scapegoat.

Dakota says something, but my thoughts drown them out. “I’m sorry,” I sigh. “Can you repeat what you just said?”

“What time do I need to leave in the morning?” they ask.

“You don’t have to leave. You’re welcome to stay here for as long as you need to be,” I answer. “You should make yourself at home.

The microwave goes off. I open the door and place the cup with a spoon in front of Dakota. They watch it steam for a second. I think to say something, but the thought derails as they start shoveling hot macaroni into their mouth.

Oh, god. They must have been starving in that barn. What could they even eat there? Grass? Burlap? Raw beef?

“Thank you for this,” they mumble after thoroughly chewing their food. “For all of this.”

“... No need to thank me,” I sputter.

They nod at me. I realize how I want to know more about this kid.

“If you don’t mind my asking… what landed you in that barn?” I ask, sitting at a stool across from them. I hope to not cross boundaries by asking them questions.

Who knows? They could be an escaped convict. I have no idea how old they are. They look like they’re simultaneously a fourteen-year old and a twenty-five-year old.

“I ran away,” they explain. “I was trapped in an endless chain of abuse and foster care, so I left. The streets were my only option.”

“Foster care? That’s quite a backstory.” It seems like it wouldn’t be something they’d like to remember by explaining it to me, so I don’t ask anything more.

“Don’t even try to turn me in,” they insist. “No one can recognize me at this point.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I assure them. “But you shouldn’t trust a different appearance to completely protect you from being found.”

“I can’t do much else,” they mumble.

Defeatist. Bold, but defeatist. “If you do want to alter your appearance further, I can help you. I know a guy. Does haircuts and stuff.” I laugh in attempt to lighten the mood. “He bleached and dyed my hair red once. Worst mistake of my life.”

I get a chuckle out of them. “That would be nice,” they resound. “But not the bleaching part, obviously.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” I laugh. “But let me know if you’re serious about it. The guy needs money.”

“I’ll think it over,” they answer. “Is he one of the guys you hung out with tonight?”

“Oh, no,” I cringe. “Those people were just my… coworkers.”

“Who do you work for?” They seem intrigued. They shouldn’t be, but I’ll tell them anyway.

“The kids work for me. I, however, run a trade sector in an illegal weapon market. The kids aren’t involved in the market itself, and they never will be. I just hired them to help me with petty things to feed money into it… which sometimes includes robbing people we don’t like.” I’m proud of how well I can put that into a nutshell. “I make money, take a share of it, and distribute the rest with them. They aren’t held to a commitment or anything, because they’re kids. A good few of them are near the poverty line. It’s upsetting.” I feel guilty for how I treated them again. “I fear the thought of them hurt, and I’ll protect them with my life.”

Dakota pauses for a second, stirring around their pasta. “Noble,” they remark.

That’s it? That’s all they have to say? They must be feeble with words.

“You seemed pretty sick of them earlier,” they comment. Oh, how that twists the knife. “I guess a leader like you needs to be strict.”

“No, I don’t,” I retort. “I’m just an asshole. It was careless to let the kids run loose like that. I need to take responsibility for the disaster tonight. May God forbid anyone saw them on the property.”

“You’re religious?” they ask.

“Not actively,” I answer. “The theory of creation was foreign to me after I transitioned. It’s hard for me to believe in a higher power.”

They only nod. The guilt of what happened at the barn continues to eat at me. I’m starting to feel like the small guy in this conversation because of how embarrassing I was upon Dakota’s first impression of me. I’d ought to end this conversation before I can derail it further.

“It’s getting a little late, so I’m going to go to bed. I sleep upstairs, so knock on the door to the left if you need anything,” I instruct, getting out of my seat. “Anything. Just let me know. I want you to feel safe here.”

“Alright,” they say. “Thank you again for this.”

“Don’t thank me,” I reply. When they look at me, I choke on my words in cowardice. “I’ll see you in the morning, then.” I turn to go upstairs.

“Wait,” Dakota says. I stop to listen. “Can you take me to see your haircut friend tomorrow?”

That gets a laugh out of me. “Sure. Any reason why?”

Dakota shrugs. “I don’t know. I want to look cool. Like you. Like a normal person.”

“But you are a normal person already,” I tell them. They smile at that. “Goodnight, Dakota.”

“Bye,” they say from behind me as I walk up the stairs.

My nerves leave me once I’m in my own bedroom. No more of an “I’m-a-great-person-and-leader-and-totally-a-functioning-adult” facade.

I hope Dakota bodes well overnight. This is a better place to stay than anywhere else. I’m glad my invitation didn’t come off as weird to them. Maybe someone has done this for them before?

There is so much I don’t know about them yet. Who knows if they’ll even be here in the morning so that I can learn more?

… I now realize that I never told them my name.

Chapter Four

Jazmyn

“No,” bellows James Earl Jones as Vader’s shadow casts over my basement. “I am your father.”

Not too many people know this about me, but I love Star Wars. Episode VIII comes out later this year, and while I’m excited, my girlfriend Felicity doesn’t know the first thing about Star Wars. Thus, I’ve convinced her to watch the entire series with me so that when I drag her to the movies in December, she’ll at least halfway understand what is going on.

Felicity is currently out cold with her head on my shoulder. She just slept through the most important scene in cinematic history. It tests my morals. I’m debating whether I should wake her up or not.

On one hand- she’s had a really rough day. When we picked her up from her cousin’s house tonight, she explained that she had spent the afternoon with them and that they had a bonfire. But something went wrong when lighting it, and the entire back lawn went up in flames. Her clothes were covered in ash and dirt when we picked her up, and she was tired and sweaty.

We let her take a shower, and she’s fine now. She’s wearing one of my softball tournament shirts and my gym shorts. Half of her closet consists of things from mine, at this point.

We are- or were, watching The Empire Strikes Back in my basement. Felicity is out cold. She’s a light sleeper, so I don’t want to wake her.

But she did just sleep through the greatest movie plot twist of all time. This is worth waking her up over. Right? Am I in the wrong for thinking this?

Felicity makes the decision for me and jolts awake. She’s frozen and wide-eyed for a moment, then wipes the dust from her eyes and sits up. “Did I fall asleep?” she yawns.

“Yeah, you did,” I tell her. “But I didn’t want to wake you.”

“Sorry,” she mutters, meeting my eyes. “It’s been a long night.”

I wave her off. “Don’t apologize.”

“Ugh,” she groans, pulling her legs back into her body. “Now I feel like shit. I know how important these movies are to you, and I just went out like a light.”

“Stop finding excuses to blame yourself for things,” I tell her. “I don’t want anything more than to have you with me.”

Felicity smiles warmly. She leans over and wraps her arms around my waist and lays her head down on my chest. Her eyes are back on the TV screen. “How much did I miss?” she whispers.

“Not much.” I brush her hair out of her face. “Oh, and we found out Darth Vader is Luke’s dad. But you’re learning German, so I’m guessing you caught on to that.”

Her eyes narrow as she thinks it over. “Oh! Because his name is Vader, which sounds like Vater, which is German for father. Is that it?”

“On the money,” I answer. “George Lucas has confirmed that it was intentional.”

“Wow,” she laughs. “I feel so smart.” She looks up at me, and pushes the bridge of my glasses up my face. “I like it when you wear your glasses. You should do it more often.”

“I’m not a fan of them, but okay,” I laugh. “They don’t work with my style.”

“Whatever,” she grumbles, laying back down.

“But that reminds me,” I add. “Kaitlin and the other girls wanna go to Shane Miller’s house tomorrow. He’s pre-gaming for when the team plays Shoreline High next week.”

“I don’t understand a word of what you just said,” Felicity mutters while watching Mark Hamill hang upside down from the hull of Cloud City.

“Alright. A football player is having a party at his house tomorrow and my friends are going,” I explain. “I was wondering if you were interested in going with me.”

I’m unsure if Felicity would have any interest in this, but I wanted to ask nonetheless. It would be a good opportunity for her to meet my friends. And for us to get that imaginary “high school party” bullet off the bucket list.

“Would I be going with you, or would I be going with you?” she asks. She wraps her arms more tightly around me while waiting for an answer.

With me,” I affirm. “You’ve been saying that you’ve been wanting to come out about our relationship for a while.”

Felicity grins at the thought of it. We’ve been together for six months, and she’s worked hard to build the confidence to be open about it. “Is it gonna be like one of those gross house party scenes in the movies where the girls get drunk and throw up?”

“I’d hope not, but there’s only one way to find out.”

The sarcasm makes her laugh. “Let’s do it, then.” She gasps excitedly, then sits up. “Can I do your makeup for it?”

I frown at the suggestion.

“Pleeeeease?”

“Fine. Unless I decide to dress casual.”

“Eeee!” She claps her hands excitedly while the Millennium Falcon flies across the TV screen.

“The movie’s almost over,” I tell her. “Do you want to help me pick out what to wear when it’s done?”

“Hell yeah,” she laughs, sweeping her hair back. Felicity gets really excited about this kind of stuff. Makeup, fashion, etcetera. It must be a theater kid thing. She’s not one of those selfish and obnoxious theater kids, but she’ll still bug you about switching the R and the E in “theater.”

I now notice how Felicity is staring at me. “What?” I ask her.

“Ich liebe dich,” she whispers, leaning over and pressing her lips to mine. She sits back after a moment, grinning at the thought of me not understanding what she just said. But I’m not that much of an idiot, and I can detect cognates.

“Ich… liebe… too?” I stutter.

“Good effort,” she comments. “But that’s not even close to correct. I think I’m going to start teaching you German.”

“You’ve been in the class for two weeks,” I argue. “You can’t teach me that much if you just barely learned how to say ‘me’ or ‘you.’ Slow down.”

“But you’re a fast learner,” Felicity tells me. “I won’t need to do much.” She rolls her eyes. “I wish I was smart, like you.”

“Well, I wish I could sing like you,” I remind her. “You always sell yourself short on the talent scale. And, additionally, God sold you short on the height scale.”

“Five-foot-three is not short! You’re just tall,” Felicity fumes, standing up from the couch. “You know what? Just because you said that, I’m going to wear platform shoes tomorrow. I’ll make you feel like you’re average height.”

I stand to stare down at her as a reminder of how I’m six inches taller than her. “I didn’t know you had platform shoes,” I comment.

“Then I guess I’ll surprise you,” she tells me. “With platforms AND a nice outfit to go with it.”

“‘Kay. You do that.” I grab her and pull her into my arms, resting my head on top of hers. “You’ll look pretty.”

“I’m not short,” she restates, dodging the compliment.

“Fine. You’re not short,” I laugh in defeat. She puts her arms around my waist as I run my hand through her hair.

We stay like that for a while.

Chapter Five

Dakota

Hearing someone call me by name is weird. I couldn’t tell you the last time anyone ever did until last night, let alone by a name I chose for myself. The most conversation I’ve made at all these past eight months have been with squirrels, birds, ladybugs, or sympathetic passersby offering me money I can’t use.

I never minded being “homeless.” I’m not what someone would imagine a homeless person to be like. I’m about 16 or 17. I was never starved. I don’t have facial hair. I’m not shriveled up on the side of the road holding out a plastic cup begging for change. I’m just a person on the run. And I refuse to stay in one place for too long, so I travel from sheltered space to sheltered space like I’m collecting stamps.

I am also not what someone imagine a “homeless person” to be like because I am currently living in a home. And, as of this morning, I have purple hair.

It isn't all purple. Xavier took me to get the haircut I had asked him for, and I just said yes to every styling option he’d brought up, not knowing what any of them meant and not bothering to ask. The man who gave me the cut did something really close to what he did to Xavier’s hair, which is an undercut about three-quarters up my head. He swept my hair off to the side and then asked if I wanted to dye it. I was going for an appearance that would make me less recognizable to anyone who knew me previously, so I said yes. I chose purple as the color because I like outer space and outer space makes people think of purple… and that was all the thought I put into it.

I’m staring at my new self in the little mirror of the sun visor of Xavier’s van. He is driving me… somewhere. To go with him to do… something. He talks fast, so I must’ve missed the objective when he spoke to me this morning.

He heated up Eggo Waffles for our breakfast. I have concluded that Xavier lives off of microwaveable food, which obviously doesn’t make a difference to me. I’ve never had the right to be picky about food.

I was only a little apprehensive to hop in a car last night with Xavier and six or so messy teenagers, while having no idea where he would take me. If he tried to hurt me or anything, I was certain I could get away. He’s burly, but I believe I could beat him in a fight… because I’ve fought off worse. And if I had to get away, a change of scenery would have been nice anyhow. No matter where I ended up, I could make it work.

Fortunately, he has good intentions. He told me that I could live with him “for the time being,” whatever that means. But, I’ll accept whatever hospitality he does give me.

The van rocks suddenly and my head is jolted back into the headrest. The impact blurs my vision.

“Sorry,” Xavier says quickly. “I didn’t see the speed bump. I was speeding.”

“It’s alright,” I sigh, pressing my hand to the back of my head.

Xavier looks to me once he adjusts the speed of the car. “You’re so reserved,” he comments. “You don’t have to be shy. I don’t like it when people are shy around me. It makes me feel like I did something wrong.”

“I just don’t have a lot to say,” I admit. “I haven’t spoken to much of anyone in months.” Making conversation is something I have to get used to again.

“Hm.” Xavier turns onto a backroad. “Well maybe you need some opportunity to practice. Like an icebreaker, or something. What do you do for fun?”

Hmm. What do I do for fun? I don’t know the answer to that. “I guess I enjoy jumping on things, and climbing walls,” I answer. “I did gymnastics for a bit throughout my foster homes. The homes sucked, but wherever I could convince the families to sign me up for it, I did.”

“How good are you at it?” Xavier asks. He is hitting his breaks again from driving too fast.

“Just average,” I tell him as he turns into a flat, abandoned construction site behind a chain link fence. “But learning it was useful in the long run.”

“I’m sure it was,” he sighs, rolling the car to a stop and parking. “Well, I’m glad you had something to enjoy between those shitty foster homes.”

“Me too.”

Xavier clicks his teeth. “I think this is where Derek asked me to meet him,” he says while opening the car door. “Come help me unpack the bags.”

Well, now I know what we’re here for. Xavier is referring to the bags that he made the girl steal from the old man’s farm. He must be giving them to someone.

Dust flies up around me when my feet hit the dirt. I’m wearing the same boots I had on before, despite Xavier offering me a pair of his shoes. They were too big for me.

But I am wearing some of his clothes nonetheless, which do fit me: An old T-Shirt with the Jurassic Park logo on the front, and a pair of grey joggers.

Xavier has been pacing around anxiously. “Saturday at 5pm. He said to meet him on Saturday at 5pm. Right? Didn’t he?” He walks out further into the site, crippling from self-doubt, and frantically taps through his phone.

I forgot how people can text each other. Isn’t that funny? I only lived on my own for eight months, and I’ve completely forgotten how modern-day humans operate.

“I was right. He said Saturday,” Xavier sighs with reassurance. He turns to me. “I’m not sure where he is. I’m ten minutes late, and he still isn’t here-”

“Hey, Dipshit,” someone calls from across the way. A stout man about Xavier’s age stands by a truck, waving at us.

Xavier laughs. “My bad, brother. I didn’t see you.” He walks back to his van and opens the trunk.

“That’s your brother?” I ask.

Xavier looks at me, momentarily confused. “... Oh. No, he’s not. Figurative speech.” He pulls a bag from the trailer and sets it down in the dust. I do the same with another, and another until all of the bags are on the ground. Derek has made his way over to us.

“How you been, Xav,” he drawls. His voice rattles when he speaks.

“I’ve been doing great,” Xavier puffs, shutting the van’s back door. “This is Dakota. The kid I told you about from last night.”

Derek does nothing more but nod at me in greeting. I force a warm smile back at him. I’d thought he’d have a more extreme reaction upon seeing me, now that my hair looks like an exploded purple gel pen.

“I took the kids with me to loot some old fucker last night,” Xavier explains, gesturing to the burlap bags. “He had bags of pot, so we took them. Biff lit the rest of the place on fire.”

“By your command?” Derek asks.

“No. Not at all,” Xavier sighs. “Dakota and Felicity were almost trapped in the fire.”

Derek huffs. “And you work with children for why?”

Xavier waves off the question. “They’re not so bad. Do you need help bringing the bags to your car?”

“No, I can do it,” Derek says, grabbing one of the bags and pulling it towards him. “Do you know the weight in grams?”

“Uh,” Xavier looks behind him. “Yeah, I wrote it down, but I left the paper in the car. It’s folded in my wallet” He turns to me. “Dakota, can you go grab my wallet for me? It’s in the cup holder.”

“Sure,” I tell him, walking to the driver’s side of his car. He and Derek continue to talk from behind me. I pull on the door handle, but the car doors are locked.

I almost call for Xavier, but he seems involved in his conversation. I don’t feel comfortable inconveniencing him by interrupting. I’m not sure if Derek likes me or not, and I don’t want to be a nuisance to him either.

Maybe there’s another way to get into the car?

I look around. A large hollowed out cinder block rests by the hood of the car. I could definitely get in through the sun-roof of his van. That would work.

I make my calculations.

“Hey, Dakota,” Xavier calls. “I accidentally locked the doors, give me a second and I’ll-”

With a running start, I leap and pull myself onto the block. I try to shift my momentum to get onto the roof of the car, but I stumble a bit and barely hang on once I make it there. I pull the rest of my body onto the top of the car, and look in through the sun-roof.

There’s a wallet in the cup holder, like Xavier said. I push the screen open and reach in to grab it. I have to stretch to pick it up.

“Got it,” I call out, sitting up with the wallet in my hand. I look to Xavier and Derek, who are staring at me uncomfortably.

Xavier seems shocked. Derek just appears confused.

“The… the doors. I unlocked the doors,” Xavier sputters.

“Oh. Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” I fib unassumingly.

I must look real stupid right now.

I feel their eyes on me as I climb down back onto the cinder block. That was so dumb. I might stop living with Xavier just to spare myself the embarrassment of him having to see me again.

He and Derek are talking in a hushed tone, but they quiet promptly when they see me.

“Here’s this.” I hold the wallet out to Xavier.

Xavier doesn’t say anything. He takes the wallet from me and shuffles through it. After a moment, he hands a folded slip of paper to Derek. “I wrote down the weight, price, and everything,” he says to Derek.

Derek nods, and slips the paper into his shirt pocket. Derek must like nodding instead of speaking. “I’ll see you later,” he tells Xavier. He trots off before Xavier can answer.

I bite my tongue as he goes. I didn’t look super weird doing that, did I? I’m just so used to climbing on things to get around that I do it in situations where I don’t have to.

Suddenly, Xavier whips around to me and grabs me by the shoulders. I tense up thinking he’s upset with me, but he seems… excited.

“Who the hell taught you to do that?” His eyes are wide. “It was cool. It was like you flew, or something. Like a superhero.”

I stutter rather than speak. “Uh, no one really… no one taught me...”

“Sorry, sorry. That definitely came off too strong.” He lets go of me and steps back. “What you did was so cool, I just don’t know what to say…”

I guess neither of us do. “I shouldn’t have done it. I should’ve asked you to unlock it. I’m sorry if I hurt your car or anything,” I mutter.

Xavier laughs over my entire apology. “Hey.” He bends down with his hands on his knees to look me in the eye. “You said you like doing that climbing stuff, right?”

“Yeah.”

His smile is relieving. “Dakota, I want you to work with me. Not for me- with me.”

“Really?”

“I may make those kids I work with do crazy things like this-” He pauses to point in the direction Derek walked off. “But I know that you saved Felicity from the barn. You’re strong and talented, and you’re funny, and I like you. We could use some god-given acrobatic talent on our team, considering we lack much talent at all.” He looks away. “We lack a lot of things.”

“Yes,” I answer before he can ask. “I’ll do it. I have nothing better to do with my time.”

“Hah!” Xavier stands back and claps his hands together. “That’s great. I’m so excited. I can’t wait for you to meet the kids. They’ll love you.”

I can’t help but smile at the thought. I do need to get used to being around people again, so this may be a good opportunity.

“Sorry if I was overreacting,” he sighs. “Come on, let’s head home.” Xavier pats my shoulder as he walks past me. “I think this can be the start of something great.”

Chapter Six

Natasha

Alexis leans over the side of my back balcony and spits her gum out. She watches it drop, pauses for a moment, and then spits again.

“What the hell are you doing?” I ask, sitting in a lawn chair behind her.

“Perfecting my aim,” she says proudly. She rears back and spits again. “I’m just barely missing your lawnmower.”

I groan. “You are definitely stoned. There’s a garbage can you could’ve spit your gum into right there.”

She turns to look at the can and huffs. “I am not stoned,” she argues, walking back to the other lawn chair she had been sitting in. “Gimme this,” she says while picking her vape pen up off of the floor.

“Druggee,” I call her jokingly.

“You want some?” She jabs the pen at me.

“No thanks,” I laugh. “I like my lungs.”

“Boo.” She apathetically takes a hit of it and blows the smoke into the air. “I’m glad you and I got to hang out again,” she sighs.

“What do you mean? We were just together yesterday,” I point out.

“I meant just the two of us.” Her face drops. “You’re always busy, and when we do see each other it’s when we’re with everyone else. I miss you.”

I miss her too.

“I know,” I sigh. “But hey, we got today. I let you know as soon as I was free. I just can’t seem to catch a break…”

“With what?”

“Work.”

“You work at a burger joint,” she reminds me. “That ain’t work. That’s a job.”

“My family is broke,” I tell her. “We’re living off of food stamps. I pick up every shift I can get, and then some.”

“Right.” Alexis looks up into the sky as the sun shines on her face. She closes her eyes. “I’m sorry you and your family go through that.”

“I am too.”

“... Percy and Biff are going to some football guy’s party tonight,” Alexis changes the subject, to my relief. “Allegedly to pregame for who they’re playing against this Friday.”

“For which of their schools?” I ask. “Summerville, or Percy’s school?”

“Percy’s school. New Mill Academy,” she answers. “You don’t actually think Percy would attend any function for our dumpster fire of a school?”

“Of course not. But why is Biff going? It’s not his school.”

“Because Biff is an asshole. It’s what he does,” she sneers. “Commits arson and then inserts himself into places he doesn’t belong.”

“Hah!” I couldn’t hold back the laughter. “That's so true.”

“Speaking of arson,” Alexis begins. “Were you and everyone else okay after last night?”

“Yes, we were. We all got home safely.” After fleeing the scene of the fire, Xavier drove everyone but Alexis, Percy, and Felicity to their houses. He took the stranger we found to his house with him, and I haven’t heard a thing from him, or anyone else that was there, since. “How were you guys?”

“Felicity was really upset after everything, and she and I got into an argument not long after we were dropped off.” Alexis starts laughing. “I felt really bad, but Percy was falling all over himself trying to play ‘nice-guy’ to her. It was so funny that I completely forgot about the fire.”

“Oh god. What did Percy do?” Percy is head-over-heels for Felicity, and he’s a hot mess over it. Once, he accidentally slammed his arm in a car door because he saw her and panicked.

“Nothing crazy, actually. He was just acting so different from usual around her and I couldn’t keep it together.” She looks out across the horizon and smiles softly. “He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. It was pretty cute.”

“Well, maybe this party can change his mind,” I tease. “Bitches love football boys. Dumb football boys, especially. I’m sure some girl will turn up and try to fix him.”

“Ew,” Alexis gags. “That’s gross.”

“Why?” I ask. “I thought you would be happy for him if he found a girl.”

“I don’t know,” she sighs. “The girls I imagine he would go out with would be dumb platinum blondes who are only there for one thing.”

“Actually, you’re right, and that would be gross,” I agree. “Is Biff the only other person going?”

“I think so,” Alexis answers. “It’s an open house thing. There will definitely be alcohol involved, thankfully Percy can walk there from his house.”

“Look at you, being worried about him,” I goad her.

“Don’t read into it like that,” she snarls over my laughter, rolling her eyes. She takes a breath. “Why am I even worried? Percy never drinks.”

I change the subject for her. “When do you have to be home, again?”

“Whenever. Doesn’t matter.”

It’s only 5:30. She’s crazy to think I wouldn’t spend the entire day with her while I can.

“Wanna go out for junk food?” she smiles. “I’ll pay for you.”

“I’ll never say no to that,” I tell her. “And thanks.”

“Of course, hon.” She gets out of her chair, and takes my hand to pull me out of mine. “I’m sure this will be more fun than any drunk house party.”

“Any time with you is more fun than that,” I tell her.

“Awwww,” she purrs. “Thanks.”

She has no need to thank me.

Chapter Seven

Percy

Shane swings his house door open with a dramatic flair. “Percy Cal,” he greets me. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Have you really?” I look past him at the throng of mindless classmates milling around his home. “It seems like you have no reason to wait on anyone.”

“Nah, you’re my bro,” he slurs. “And I will never leave a bro hanging.”

Sure. Sure he won’t. “But you told me this was starting at six,” I point out. “It’s 5:45.”

“Well, you know how people are.” He slaps my hand in a sad, white-boy attempt at a handshake as I walk in. “I love your jacket. Did you bring anyone with you?”

The jacket he pointed out is my Varsity jacket. It’s nothing fancy, but I thought I’d wear it to a football function. It has my number 30 stitched into the right sleeve.

“No?” I answer his question. “You said no one was gonna be here outside of the football guys and whoever we invite.” I sort of can’t stand Shane. He’s one of those over-the-top jock guys who acts up for attention. Always the guy whipping people with towels in the locker rooms.

“Percy, I say a lot of things,” Shane huffs. “You can’t blame me for the crowd. If you’re interested, some of the guys are on the back porch if you only wanted to hang with them.”

“Actually, I am looking for someone if he’s already here,” I tell him. “Skinny, white, curly black hair and probably wearing cheap, fake chains.”

“Is he, like, cocky? Like a complete dipshit?”

“Oh, definitely,” I confirm.

“Alright, I think I saw him here. He greeted me by asking something along the lines of whether this party would be good enough for him to stay or not.” Shane raises a brow. “Does that sound like your guy?”

“It likely is,” I sigh.

“Well, that boy walked straight to the alcohol,” Shane says, pointing to his kitchen. “You can look around in there.”

“Thanks,” I tell him. He slaps me on the back as I walk past him.

This “party” looks disgusting already. High schoolers constantly try to re-enact the “teen house party” scenes in movies, and it always flops. Inviting overdramatics will help get anywhere close to the fantasy, but most of the time these things end up with girls pretending to get loopy over two White Claws, police sirens, and guys punching each other's teeth out.

I make my way into the kitchen and see Biff sitting in a folding chair with a solo cup. He is chatting aimlessly with my teammate Trey across the table- who obviously doesn’t want a thing to do with him.

“Trey!” I call out.

Trey sees me and shoots a grin. “Hey, bud. Good to see you.”

“You too,” I tell him. “Why aren’t you hanging out with the rest of the guys?”

“They were being stupid, and saying rude shit about a girl. I had to back off.” He pops the tab on his hard seltzer. Trey is a good guy. I like him a lot, and he’s the type of person to have your back when you’re at your worst.

“Well,” Biff begins a terrible comment. “You never know the details of why they’d say that. A girl may be doing screwy, whorish things to be held accountable for,” he laughs. “Right, Percy?” He lightly pushes my shoulder.

Trey gives me a perplexed look and I don’t know what to say. “I, uh… no..? Well, I mean- no, but, sure- no, definitely not-”

Trey sighs. “I’m gonna go look for other people I know,” he mutters. “Biff, it was good to meet you, I guess.” He slides away from us.

I’m so embarrassed. God, I hate Biff. He’s insufferable.

“Why would you say that?” I scold him. “You’re so rude.”

“I was pointing out facts. Girls are weird when under the influence,” he says, rolling his eyes. He pulls out the chair next to him for me to sit in, and I apathetically do so.

“You arrived here early,” I comment.

“Duh. Everyone gets here early,” he answers. “You’re the one who’s late.”

Like I’d want to spend more time here than I have to.

Biff looks to a disgusting assortment of low content drinks on the kitchen counter. “Did you want one of those?”

“I don’t really drink at these kinds of things,” I tell him. “That stuff doesn’t taste good anyway.”

“Your loss,” he tells me, drinking from his solo cup again. It really isn’t my loss. No loss at all.

I’d ought to bring up what happened last night. “So, about yesterday,” I start.

“Oh, don’t. Don’t,” Biff groans. “I drink to forget.”

“Biff, seriously. I was kind of worried. Did you all get home okay?” I had half expected Xavier to dump whoever was with him on the side of the road with how upset he was.

“We were fine,” Biff answers stiffly. “Xavier didn’t say a word for the rest of the ride, at least while I was there. He already knew my address, so he didn't even ask for that. I guess not talking made him feel superior to me.”

“He didn’t talk to you, because he was upset,” I tell him. “Not because he wanted to make you feel bad. Xavier probably knew that if he said something, it wouldn’t come out right. So he didn’t.”

“You’re such an apologist,” Biff spits, taking a drink again. “On that note, I needed to ask you something.”

Great. “Sure. What is it?”

“You’re a good friend of Alexis’s, right?”

“Yes,” I answer. I can tell he is scheming, and I don’t trust it.

He laughs. “Well, listen. And you ought to do me a solid on this, like a brother, and not tell anybody.”

I hate where this is going. I don’t even know where it is going, but I hate it.

“I’ve been thinking about Alexis a lot, Percy, and I wanted to ask you. Do you think you could…” Biff trails off.

“Could I what?” I ask him. “Biff, if this is about hooking up with Alexis, I won’t help you. You just got out of a relationship. The timing would be horrible-”

I notice how he has been staring past me.

“What are you staring at?” I turn around, and at first don’t see anything out of the people buzzing around the room.

“Her,” Biff answers me. “What is she doing here?”

It’s her. Felicity stands with another girl by the counter, reaching for one of the seltzers.

I quickly turn back around. Fuck. Why is she here? Was that really her, or was I just imagining it? She’s hardly the kind of person to come to a party like this.

I’ve thought about her enough in the past 24 hours, and I thought going out tonight would get her off my mind. But I just can’t escape it., can I?

“Should I wave her over?” Biff asks me.

No,” I blurt out. “No, no, no.”

“You don’t like her?” he asks.

“It’s not that- it’s-” I turn around cautiously to see her again, but she is gone now. “I’m just surprised she’d be here.”

“Maybe we know less about her than we’d thought,” Biff laughs. “Maybe she’s a freak for a thirteen year old.”

“She’s fourteen. Almost fifteen,” I correct him.

“And you’re sixteen, almost seventeen,” he points out plainly. “Too old to be messing around with that.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“We all see how you look at her.”

“Biff, I don’t think of her like that,” I stammer. “Stop acting like a creep.”

“I’d ask the same of you,” he smirks.

“You’re horrible,” I tell him, to his amusement. He thinks I’m joking, but I’m not.

It is official. I completely regret coming here.

Chapter Eight

Felicity

“Here,” I hand Jazmyn one of two drinks I grabbed from the kitchen. “I haven’t heard of these sodas before, and I thought they’d be fun to try.”

She looks between me and the can I gave her for a few moments. “... You thought this was soda?”

“Is it not?” I ask, looking at the label on the drink again.

“This is alcoholic,” Jazmyn laughs. “That’s what a hard seltzer is. What did you think this was?”

Oh god. This is so embarrassing. “I just… I thought alcohol only came in boxes and bottles. And I was kind of expecting there would be a spiked punch bowl, like in all the movies. I can take them back if you want…”

“No, no,” Jazmyn says, pulling the tab on her drink. “It’s fine. It’s not your fault you grew up sheltered.”

Sheltered? I can’t help but sigh. “I love my mom and all, but she’s so overprotective of me. She never lets me drink, she requires the name and phone numbers of all the people I hang out with, she’d kill me if she knew I was at one of these parties…”

“You don’t need to list it,” Jazmyn cuts me off. “I’m sure she’s just worried about you. You are at the age she was when she had you.”

I hate to think about that. Her having me at 15 years old is an odd fact about me that I hate putting out there.

“Seriously, though,” Jazmyn continues. “Have you not had alcohol before?”

“No, I haven’t,” I answer. “Don’t baby me over it.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” she affirms me. She holds the drink up. “Wanna try it together?”

“Uhhh…” I pop the tab open. “Okay.”

“You seem unsure,” Jazmyn comments. “Felicity, you don’t have to…”

I quickly press the can to my mouth and drink before she can keep talking. I hide my reaction to the bitterness of the taste.

“Oh.” Jazmyn takes a sip from her can as well.

“Mm.” I swallow down whatever bitterness was left in my mouth. “That’s… good.”

“No, it’s not,” Jazmyn laughs. “Don’t lie. Alcohol isn’t supposed to taste good. It’s supposed to make you feel good later on. Just try to focus on the shitty artificial fruit flavor above anything else.”

“Thanks,” I chuckle. She always knows what to say. I love that.

“Let's go find my friends,” she says, pulling her arm over my shoulder and walking me into another room.

There are a lot of people in the living room of the house. Two guys are jumping up and down on a glass table- a bad idea- while surrounded by other guests. They’re reciting bad rap lyrics from over a stereo. I’m supposed to want to be over there getting crazy with them, but I’m not.

I jolt my attention away from the dancers and watch Jazmyn push a sliding door open. It’s a little chilly outside.

Shane has a wrap-around back deck. There are people on it, but it’s much less crowded here than inside.

A girl smoking near the edge of the balcony catches my eye, and she tosses the cigarette in between her teeth.

“Jazmyn,” someone endearingly calls from the other side of the deck. I turn to see a girl waving us over with her friends.

“Hey,” Jazmyn answers cheerfully. Her arm leaves my waist when she goes to them. I follow her sheepishly.

“You missed it,” the girl tells Jazmyn, jabbing a thumb towards her other friend. “Molly’s boobs fell out of her shirt.”

“They did not!” the other girl exclaims, adjusting her undersized bandeau shirt. “No boys saw it, so it didn’t even matter.”

“Leave her alone, Kaitlin,” Jazmyn laughs. “It happens to everyone.”

It does? I guess I wouldn’t know, since I never wear tiny clothes like that. I’m wearing a black tank top, jeans, a gold necklace, and platform boots. Nothing risky.

Kaitlin looks between Jazmyn and I. “Who’s this, Jazmyn?”

“This is Felicity,” Jazmyn introduces me. “She’s… my girlfriend,” she answers.

It feels really good to hear her call me that. “Hi,” I say to Kaitlin.

“Hi,” Kaitlin answers cheerily. It seems forced, like she’s putting on a cute face for a child. It makes me uncomfortable, and I shrink into myself.

“You’re in the school theater, right?” one of the other girls asks me.

“Uh- uh, yeah,” I stammer. “I just joined. I’m new there. Because, I’m a freshman, so, of course I’m new. Yeah.”

The girl doesn’t offer a response, but nods in acknowledgement. I sounded stupid there. Of course I did.

“Jaz, guess what,” Kaitlin goads her. She puts her phone in front of Jazmyn’s face, and Jazmyn watches something on it.

“Ah,” Jazmyn answers. “So he is with another girl, then?”

“Yeah. With a girl his age, this time.” Kaitlin rolls her eyes. “She isn’t even cute.”

“Can I see?” I ask.

Jazmyn hands the phone back to Kaitlin, not having heard me. “That girl he’s with seems nice,” she tells Kaitlin. “Don’t get caught up in what they’re doing.”

Kaitlin growls to herself, rolling her eyes. “They’re both whores.”

Whores? I don’t feel good about her carelessly calling another girl something like that.

Jazmyn doesn’t hang out with these girls regularly… does she? She seems happy to talk to them. I take another drink from the seltzer to try and distract myself from it.

“Hey, Kaitlin,” one of the other girls says. “Are we still on for tomorrow night?”

“Tomorrow afternoon,” Kaitlin sharply corrects her. “It’s in the afternoon. My parents won’t let me stay out late on a school night.”

“What were you guys gonna do?” Jazmyn asks.

“Get high in the woods, like me and the cheer girls used to,” Kaitlin purrs in response. “Did you wanna come?”

“Uh… I can let you know when I’m free,” Jazmyn answers hesitantly.

“You smoke?” I ask her. I wasn’t aware if she did.

“No, I don’t,” Jazmyn tells me offhandedly.

“She doesn’t,” Kaitlin confirms with me. “Jazmyn’s a wuss like that. Scaredy.”

“You, in particular, get so obnoxious when you’re high,” Jazmyn tells Kaitlin. “I’d never want to risk acting anything like that.”

The other girls laugh, but Kaitlin pouts. I find it funny.

“What do you mean by obnoxious?” I ask Jazmyn, still laughing a little.

“I’m not,” Kaitlin spits at me. “Drugs don’t affect me like that. Not like you’d know anything about that kind of stuff,” she remarks.

Her hostility puts needles in my heart. She’s judging me. She thinks I’m a dork.

I’m not a dork, am I? I’m dressed like everyone else here. I haven’t said anything weird. Kaitlin’s just being mean, and hopefully Jazmyn sees that.

But she doesn’t.

Jazmyn didn’t seem to regard Kaitlin’s comment about me, taking a drink from the can she’s still holding.

It’s like I’m invisible.

Until someone goes to criticize or judge me; then I’m brighter than a traffic cone.

I drink more of the seltzer as the other girls start talking again, hoping it takes my mind off of what they may think of me.

But it doesn’t.

This drink is supposed to make me feel good. It doesn’t. Maybe I need a different one.

I tap Jazmyn on the shoulder to get her attention. “I’m gonna go get another drink.”

It takes her a moment to answer me. “Sorry, I couldn't hear you. What did you say?”

She didn't even listen to me. “I’m almost done with this drink, so I’m gonna get another one.”

“Really?” She almost catches my lie. “Okay. We’ll be here when you come back.”

I almost doubt that. Everything and everyone here feels fake and plastic, while smelling like pot and sweat.

I back away to the door we came through to get here. I notice the smoking girl from before watching me. She doesn’t take her eyes away when I notice her.

She’s judging me too. Everyone here is judging me.

I want to go home.

I rush back into the house when my skin starts to crawl. The sensory overload from the shouting and crowds of people is dizzying. I hate this, I hate this, I hate it. I need to breathe.

I navigate through a hallway that reeks, leading me back to the entrance of the home by the kitchen. Unlike everywhere else, there’s room to breathe around here. No one hangs out by the entrance.

I sigh and lean against a wall, shutting my eyes. A lump forms in my throat like I want to cry, but I swallow it down.

I drink again hoping it would help.

It doesn’t.

Alcohol is bitter and thick, but I’ve stopped hating the taste. I should just keep drinking it. Maybe it’ll make me act like everyone else here. Maybe they’ll stop judging me. Maybe I’ll be like them.

I shut my eyes and take a deep breath. When I open them, someone is standing right in front of me.

“Ack!” I yelp, jumping back a little.

It takes me a second to recognize Biff. “Hey,” he greets me.

“God, you scared me,” I tell him, relaxing against the wall. “I kind of zoned out there.”

“I never thought I’d run into you at something like this.” He seems concerned for me. “You look upset. Are parties just not your thing?”

“Honestly, no,” I concede. “I hate it here. I feel like everyone here is judging me. I’m really uncomfortable.”

“Aw, don’t sweat it,” Biff comforts me. “It’s only because you’re a freshman. Upperclassmen can be bitchy like that.”

Sure. I’ll just keep telling myself that is the reason why.

“But hey, I don’t judge you,” Biff continues. “We both think you’re awesome.”

I look around him to see nobody. “... You both?”

Biff looks around, progressively growing confused as he stares around the empty space. “Oh, where did he go?” he groans. He steps to look past me down the hallway, then calls for someone. “Hey! Hey, Percy?”

Percy.

“Sorry,” Percy chirps, quickly jumping out from behind a corner. “I was… getting another drink.”

“Percy,” I laugh. It’s almost relieving to see him here. “It’s good to see you.” I look to his empty hands. “Where’s the drink?”

Percy tenses up. “Um, I must’ve set it down somewhere. But it’s okay, I didn’t need it.”

Biff stares through him disapprovingly. “I thought you said you weren’t drinking anything tonight.”

“Uh… I… changed my mind,” he stutters.

He makes me laugh. “You’re so funny,” I tell him. “Indecisive, as usual, but funny.”

Chapter Nine

Percy

What? I am not indecisive. I know everything I want and everything I don’t.

For example. I want more playing time on the football team. I don’t want to warm the bench forever.

But the bench has its perks. Not playing as often as the other guys spares me the cramps they always complain about. So maybe it’s not so bad…

Nevermind. Here’s another example. If I had to choose to eat one food for the rest of my life, it would be fried rice. It has a lot of everything in it. Veggies, proteins, carbs, and probably some other stuff.

… Or, maybe I could just say “potatoes,” because you can turn potatoes into anything. Like fries, or chips, or mashed potatoes…

NEVERMIND. HERE’S A GREAT EXAMPLE.

I want Felicity to like me back. I want her to go out with me. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.

… But maybe she’s not ready for a relationship. And maybe I’m not either. Should I risk that? I think I should. No, I shouldn’t. Or should I?

“Percy?”

I realize I had zoned out for a moment. I blink a few times to focus again. “Sorry. I was… uh…”

“You looked stoned there for a second,” Biff jokes.

“Nah, I just thought of something and it distracted me,” I lie.

“What was it?” Felicity asks. Her hair falls into her face when she turns to me.

“I have an assignment due on Monday that I haven’t started,” I lie again. “That’s all.”

“Ooooh, someone’s being irresponsible,” she sneers, reaching to punch me lightly in the shoulder.

Alexis always does that same shoulder-punch thing. Except when Alexis does it, it hurts.

Physically hurts, I mean.

“It’s your fault for taking the AP classes,” Biff groans at me. “Why can’t you just be stupid like the rest of us?”

“That homework is for a standard level class,” I correct him. “Do they just never assign homework at your school?”

“They do. I just ignore it,” he gabs.

Biff’s such a prick.

I look again at Felicity, who is staring down the hall forlornly.

“Is something wrong?” I ask her, a little too quickly.

It takes her a second to realize I was talking to her. “Oh, it’s nothing,” she sighs. She nods to the cup in Biff’s hand. “What’s in there, Biff?”

“Some guy was going around with vodka in Red Bull before the party started.” He swirls the drink around. “It’s pretty strong, so I’ve been drinking it slow.”

“Were you gonna finish it?” she asks.

“Probably not-”

“Give me it.” She takes the cup from his hands before he can answer and drinks from it.

Biff’s eyes pop out of his head.

Felicity always said her mother never let her drink anything. Maybe that was a lie. Or maybe it wasn’t, and she just gets away with drinking behind her mother’s back.

Either way, she isn’t wincing at the taste of vodka. She continues to drink a lot of it, then finally stops to take a breath. The vodka seems to catch up to her, and she flinches from the leftover taste in her mouth.

“... Can I keep this with me?” She asks the question through gritted teeth.

“Uh… yeah, sure,” Biff answers. He glances at me quickly as if I’d shown a response. Did I?

“So, um...” I make a running start to change the subject. “Did you come here with anybody, Felicity?”

“No,” she answers. “I came alone.”

“Ah, well that’s good,” I sigh.

Felicity seems momentarily confused. “It’s good?”

Shit.

“Why is it good?”

“Because…” I notice Biff biting his tongue to hold back from laughing. “Because you get to spend more time with me,” I conclude.

Felicity gives me a strange look. Oh, god. I fucked up. I fucked up really bad.

Biff puts his hand over his face as if he’s embarrassed of me.

“Y’know,” Felicity says to me, cracking a smile. “That would be nice.”

My heart stops beating for a moment. It would be nice? I force a laugh as if her response was nothing more than casual.

“And with me too, obviously,” Biff goads. “Unless... you two wanted me to leave?”

Dammit. I know exactly what he’s trying to do. But who the hell naturally talks like that?

“No, Biff, it’s fine,” Felicity assures him. “It'd be nice to spend time with you as well. I want to get to know you guys better.” She takes a breath and points to me. “Minus that one. I know that one.”

I’m not Percy. I’m “That One.” “But do you really know me?” I ask her jokingly.

“Totally,” she laughs. “Biff, in case you were wondering, Percy cannot dance for the life of him.”

“What? That’s not true,” I cut in, faking offense.

“You said it yourself,” she points out. “You used to sit out of the complex choreography numbers because you’re so bad at dancing.”

Biff laughs. “Oh, really? Why don’t you prove it, then.”

“Prove what?” Felicity asks.

“If he really can’t dance, then dance with him,” Biff suggests, taking the drink back from Felicity’s hands. “Show me just how bad of a dancer he is.”

What the hell? No. No. He did not just set me up like that. “Dance how?” I ask him.

“I don’t know. Spin her like a ballerina or something.” Biff seems to have less an idea of what he is talking about than I do.

“Oh, I don’t need him to do that,” Felicity argues. “Watch.”

“What am I watching?” I ask her.

“Just catch me,” she tells me. She does some silly twirl on her foot, then falls into me. I quickly catch her by the shoulders.

“Oh,” Biff says plainly. “That was… very impressive?”

Felicity has to lean her head against my chest to look up at me. “I almost thought you would drop me,” she laughs.

“Well, I proved you wrong,” I tell her. I push her off me to help her stand up. “I play a sport. I always catch the ball. I can certainly catch you.”

“Right,” she says, turning around to me. “Hey, I’ll be right back. I’m going to find a bathroom.”

“I would not risk going to a bathroom at something like this,” Biff tells her. “Freaky shit happens there.”

“That isn’t going to stop me,” she tells him as she walks off. I feel sad when she’s gone.

“Soooo,” Biff drawls. “She’s definitely into you.”

“No, no, stop,” I tell him sternly. “Don’t talk so loud. And don’t give me false hope, either.”

“Don’t play pretend,” he says, waving me off. “And I will talk as loud as I want.”

“Then I’ll rip your tongue out,” I threaten him, trying to cover it up as a joke. “I really like her, and I didn’t like you embarrassing me in front of her.”

Me embarrassing you? Hah!” He tosses his hands in the air. “You’re the one who hid behind the wall and claimed you were ‘getting a drink.’”

“Stop it,” I growl. “I don’t do well under pressure.”

“Just psych yourself out. Pretend you’re cool, or something.” Biff lifts his hand to his chin like he’s a prodigy. “Girls don’t like it when you act like yourself.”

“I can’t be anything but myself. She’d see through it,” I tell him. “She’s known me for years.”

“Have you liked her for years?” Biff mocks me.

“Well…” I swallow the embarrassment. “Maybe.”

“Then you should know the ins and outs of her by now,” he sighs. “How have you not made a move yet?”

“Because I know she doesn’t like me,” I explain. “Or at least, I didn’t think so… not until tonight.”

Biff shrugs arrogantly. “Alcohol doesn’t lie.”

“Well, if she does like me, then what should I do now?” I hate to ask Biff for advice, but he’s my lifeline here.

He runs his hands through his hair. “You know what? I have an idea.”

Oh, boy. “What is it?”

I watch plainly as he pulls a stupid, plotting smile. “Where’s the host of this party?”

Chapter Ten

Felicity

I am feeling a little better. Talking with Biff and Percy helped cheer me up. I had hoped to spend more time with them than I had. I know I had said to Alexis that I’d leave the Tigers… but maybe I shouldn’t. They may be my only support group at this point.

Because Jazmyn doesn’t love me.

Percy talked about sports, and it made me think of Jazmyn. And it hurts me to think of her right now. So I left.

I’m sitting under the kitchen table with my back against the wall. I keep fishing to come to terms with how Jazmyn doesn’t love me, as I stare into a new red cup I poured wine into. Someone put a box out, and from my understanding, anything I drink will help. Even if I pass out, that’d still be better than feeling like this.

But being alone under a table has begun to feel weird. Everyone’s out there talking, and I should be included.

The thought of Jazmyn hits me again, and this time I can’t get it out. Maybe I am wrong about her. She has to love me. I’m making this all up, she has to love me. We’ve been through too much for her to not love me.

I swallow down the rest of the drink, then crawl out from beneath the table. I’m ignoring the weird looks from people around me. My head spins lightly when I’m on my feet again. The empty cup falls from my hand as I walk out of the kitchen.

This house is already a mess. Maybe contributing to it will help my image.

Once there, I push the porch door open so hard that it bounces back at me. Some people’s heads turn, but I don’t have the time to care. I step out onto the back porch, which is much emptier than before, and look around.

I don’t see her.

I feel as if I’m playing hide-and-seek, but instead of being the seeker, I was the person everyone forgot to find. And now I’m wandering around alone, confused as to where everyone went.

There’s an echoing laugh from far away that I almost recognize. I look in its direction.

Quickly, a flash of light beams from the center of the back lawn. Up against a trampoline, the flicker reveals a group of girls posing for a group photo in front of it.

It’s funny how everything is so loud here, that I never noticed the massive trampoline in the back lawn. The noise seems to care enough to quiet for this moment.

“Jaz, no, come back.”

There’s a flutter of footsteps as she is pulled away from leaving. “Wh-hy-hy?” Jazmyn laughs.

“I want one more picture!” Kaitlin is the one talking to her. “Come on,” Kaitlin tells her, as someone reaches to tap the phone camera again.

Jazmyn doesn’t even care that I’m gone.

The girls huddle together and make cute poses. In the flash of the camera, I see Kaitlin pressing her lips to Jazmyn’s cheek.

I feel as if someone has stabbed me.

That was just friendly, right? Girls do that kind of stuff platonically, too. Don’t they?

I turn away, in hopes that it shields me from what I had seen. I was right. Jazmyn doesn’t love me. I wish I had seen it earlier.

Tears well up in my eyes and my throat tightens, but I force it down, focusing on the bitter tastes left over in my mouth. I can’t cry here. I won’t cry. I won’t cry over this.

I just need to go home.

I hardly think or recount my steps going back into the house. I’ve been staring at the ground as I walk, somehow ending up in the same room I was in before with Percy and Biff. Subconsciously I’ve decided that it’s my safe zone.

But they aren’t there this time. Maybe they will spontaneously appear again, and this time I won’t lie to them and say I’m okay when I’m not.

Someone’s hand lands on my shoulder, and I turn to them almost excitedly. But it isn’t Percy, or Biff, or Jazmyn.

“Hey, how are you?” a boy asks me. He has an athletic stature, and is wearing a New Mill football shirt. “I like your boots.”

Please, please don’t me flirting with me. “Thanks,” I answer.

“You seemed a little down, so I thought I’d check on you.” He seems to note my discomfort, and steps back a bit. “I’m Shane. This is my house.”

“Oh,” I say. “Sorry, I didn’t know. I’m Felicity.”

“Good to meet you, Felicity,” he answers cheerily. “So, are you okay?”

Be honest. “No,” I tell him. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ah, damn, I’m sorry.” Shane looks around the room as if he doesn’t know how to respond. “Do you know anyone here?”

“Of course I do,” I bluff. “You play football, so you probably know Percy.”

“Percy Calvert?”

“Yeah, him,” I sigh. “And I know some others, but…”

“No, no, it’s alright,” he cuts me off. “I don’t need a list. You know- if you are upset, Percy would be a good person to talk to. He’s one of the nicest guys I know.”

“I’m sure he is,” I laugh.

“And, y’know, he’s been single for a long time. I don’t know how long, but I know it’s been a while.”

“His whole life,” I tell him, laughing almost. “Don’t tell him I told you that.”

“I won’t,” Shane answers, grinning. “I was just hoping one day someone would change that. Maybe tonight, or something.”

“Why don’t you?” I joke.

“Oh, please,” he groans. “Don’t even start with that.”

I laugh with him. Shane seems nice. But… why? Why would he talk to me? Everyone here hates me.

Except Percy. I’m not sure about Biff, but Percy doesn’t hate me. He’s one of few. Perhaps I’ve left him underappreciated.

I had been lost in my thoughts, but Shane has been talking. I return my attention to him.

“... and if I remember correctly, he has brought you up to me before,” Shane reminds himself. “Percy thinks you’re really… uh, cool.”

“Cool?” I didn’t think Percy would have talked about me with his friends.

“Cool, pretty, cute… whatever. I just think he likes you a lot.” Shane raises his brows at me. “So, that being said…”

I suddenly realize what he is doing. I didn’t think Percy would put anyone up for something stupid like this, putting in some silly good word for him. I had hoped Percy didn’t actually feel that way about me, despite an itching suspicion I’ve had for a while.

Shane keeps talking. “I think you should talk to him. But don’t tell him I said any of that, okay?”

I don’t care to abide. I keep staring at the drink in his hands.

“Felicity? You alright over there?”

“I don’t have time for this,” I tell him curtly. I grab the cup from his hands, and drink from it myself.

“Hey, what the hell?” he shouts, breaking his sweet-boy facade.

This drink is… much stronger than the others. I almost spit it out, but try my best to override my gag reflex. Eventually I can’t take it anymore, and push the cup back into Shane’s hands.

Shane is staring at me, bewildered. “That was… that wasn’t mixed with anything yet.”

“Leave me alone,” I snarl at him. I’ve had enough.

He doesn’t speak another word as I walk to the front door. My stomach churns as I grab the handle, and I mindlessly push outside. I let the door slam behind me, and stare through the street as if running through it could help me.

Finally, everything is quiet.

Chapter Eleven

Jazmyn

I can’t help myself from watching everyone who comes in and out of the porch doors. It’s jarring how little variety the people who go to these parties have. The guys are all acting out- some are wearing bandanas for no reason- while the girls are throwing themselves onto said guys as if the effort to hook up is worth it.

Who could ever want to fit in with that?

The answer is my friends. I don’t know if they’ve drank a thing or if it’s just the repulsive ecstasy of this place, but they’re acting loud and skimpily and rude. They never act like this. Kaitlin has been especially out of line. I’m never one to voice my discomfort, but I’ve grown tempted to.

“Whatcha lookin’ at?” Molly walks up beside me, jabbing me in the arm with her elbow. “Did you see a cute girl up there?”

“I have a girlfriend,” I tell her, trying to be assertive. “I don’t think like that. I’d never do that to her.”

“Do what to her?” Kaitlin laughs from behind me. “Raise your standards?”

I hold back from snapping at her. She’s been making weird jokes about Felicity like that ever since Felicity left. But I’m not about to talk back to her.

Kaitlin holds this weird power over our circle of friends by being assertive, judgmental, and aggressive towards anything that isn’t going her way. The other girls may abide to her stupid commands on how to dress and talk, but I never listen. She doesn’t have any influence on my actions, and I’m sure she knows that.

“I’m gonna go inside the house and look for her,” I say to them, trying to let Kaitlin’s comments roll off my shoulder.

“Alright,” Molly chirps.

“No, it’s not alright,” Kaitlin butts in.

“Why isn’t it!?” I raise my voice at her.

Kaitlin seems surprised. “I wanted to finish telling you about what Brendan did yesterday.”

“Bullshit,” I snap at her. “You’ve been faking excuses to pull me away from leaving any time I try to. Why?”

Kaitlin sighs and looks away. “No reason,” she pouts.

“Kaitlin, I know there is a reason, and I want to address it,” I say to her, as all the other girls shy away from me. “What is your problem?”

“Well, your girlfriend is…” Kaitlin bites her tongue. “She’s kind of weird.”

“Weird,” I repeat after her venomously. “You barely even spoke to her. You scared her off before you could get to know her.”

“I’m just-”

“Shut up! I’m not done talking to you.” I can’t hold it in anymore. “You always pull these kinds of judgments straight out of your ass.

Unexpectedly, Kaitlin can’t find anything to say.

“And the rest of you just agree with it!” I shout at the other girls. “I hate how you all do that.” I look again at Kaitlin. “It’s not Felicity’s fault that you want to be in her place, Kaitlin.”

Kaitlin’s eyes turn dark. “... That I what, Jazmyn?”

The horrifying realization of what I just accused her of sinks in. I just made a mistake, and I have to commit to it. “You know what, Kaitlin. I don’t care what you say, but I’ve had enough of you trying to intrude on my relationship for your own pleasure.”

“I’m straight!” She shouts back at me.

“I know girls who say otherwise,” I answer coolly.

Kaitlin takes a breath, and pretends to cry. It’s her signature move- she does it all the time. The other girls flock to her side, making efforts to comfort her.

I almost feel sorry, but I know that’s just what Kaitlin would have wanted.

In their moments of distraction, I walk away towards the house. My chest feels tight with how mad I just was, and I start running to try and fight it off.

I arrive to the porch rapidly and stutter to a stop, looking around for Felicity. People I don’t know stand still and watch me.

They’re not her. I want them to be, but they aren’t.

The guilt of leaving Felicity alone here begins to hit me. This party is out of her element, and I let my friends push her into it alone. She must feel horrible. I feel horrible.

I love her, and I feel so, so horrible.

I push through the house door. I have to find her. I’m going to find her, and we are going home. We’re going home.

Chapter Twelve

Percy

Biff dragged me all over the house to find Shane. He thought I should ask Shane to talk to Felicity and put in a good word for me. I didn’t want to do that, but when he got Shane alone Biff did all the talking for me. I stood there like a rock while he roped Shane into a stupid plot of him pulling Felicity aside and telling her I was lonely and single and sad and nice and cuddly and lots of other embarrassing shit.

Shamelessly, Shane agreed to do this and marched off. The only descriptors we gave him for finding her were “brown hair” and “wearing white boots.” Hopefully that was specific enough.

I wanted to be alone and out of sight when Shane did whatever he was going to do. He has a basement, which fewer people have infiltrated than I would have thought, and it seems like a safe enough place to camp out while my death is tempted upstairs. Biff has wandered off somewhere, and I don’t care to find out where.

I’m sitting on a fold-out metal chair by his refrigerator, pretending to look through my phone rather than talk to anyone. The whole basement seems under-kept. The floors are concrete and the drywall is powdery. It looks like a living room that never got finished.

I keep looking to the stairs, hoping Shane comes back anytime soon. Anticipation is killing me.

Felicity might actually like me.

I feel as if I’m just about to drop on a rollercoaster. Girls I’ve liked haven’t liked me before. I feel like a child. I force my attention back to my black phone screen and tap it mindlessly.

Someone walks by, then stops in front of me. I don’t look up.

“Percy!!” Our slightly attractive, slightly obnoxious football manager Courtney grins in front of me. “I have been looking for you! Hiiiii!”

“Hey,” I say to her, forcing optimism.

She keeps looking at me expectantly, then holds her arms out for a hug. Apathetically, at best, I stand up and hug her.

“How have you been?” I ask, pulling away.

Courtney sighs. “I’m kind of bored.” She takes her phone out of her back pocket, and checks on herself in the camera. “Oh my gosh. I’m so ugly,” she gasps.

Courtney is one of those girls who fishes for compliments from guys. Who am I to deny her of it. “You’re not ugly. Don’t say that,” I tell her.

“You think so?” She rocks back and forth on her heels. “My outfit looks like garbage. And I’m cold. Can I have your jacket?”

She used the jacket line. I’m not shocked. “Uh, no. I want to keep it with me.”

“Pleeeeeease?” She pouts at me like a child. I guess dealing with these kinds of girls is one of the sacrifices I make to be on varsity football. And I suck at talking to her, too. I’m so used to acting stupid with Alexis that interacting with other girls in a sweet, innocent manner feels impossible.

Except when it’s Felicity. When I talk to Felicity, I have no control over how I act. It’s all on a whim.

To my relief, Shane walks over from behind us, holding his identical varsity jacket. “You can have mine, Courtney.”

“Awww, thank you,” she purrs, taking it from his hands. “It’s gonna be really big on me.”

“Well, of course it will,” Shane comments plainly. He looks to me. “Percy, I need to talk to you about-”

“Yes, yes, you do.” I cut him off out of excitement over what he’ll say. “Did you do it? How did it go?”

“How’d what go?” Courtney asks.

Shane bites his tongue, then looks to Courtney. “This needs to be a private conversation, so can you leave us alone?”

Courtney seems offended. I can’t find it in me to care. “Okay, I guess…” She trots off.

“Shane, what happened?” I ask. “How did it go?”

“I have, uh, I have good news and bad news.” He looks away. “The good news is, I found her.”

“And what’s the bad news?”

“I…” He seems to choose his words carefully. “I think I upset her.”

My chest tightens. “How? What did you do? Was it something you said? Is she okay?-”

“Slow down,” Shane huffs. “Yikes, I didn’t realize you were so into this girl.”

“Oh, you didn’t!?” I don’t mean to raise my voice, but I let it happen. “Then I guess it wasn’t important to you to even try and help me. You blew it.”

“I did try,” Shane tells me curtly. “Please calm down. I didn't even say anything bad. She zoned out while I was talking and left.”

But that’s so unlike her. “When? What made her zone out?”

“I don’t know,” he stammers. “I was just talking about how good of a guy you are and she walked away.”

“Did you now?” I laugh. “I wait down here for twenty minutes with no idea what is happening and you come back down here to let me know that you only made things worse.”

I don’t know what made me so mad… but I let it be.

“Percy…” Shane trails off. We notice everyone watching us at the same time. “I’m sorry, Percy. I don’t know what happened.”

I don’t care to calm myself down. The thought of Shane upsetting her, because of my stupid mistake of confiding in him and Biff, is sending me over an edge.

“All I know is,” Shane continues, “We were getting along fine. Then she took my drink from me and drank half of it before leaving out the front door.” His face tenses up. “And she didn’t even ask. And she didn’t even flinch.”

“What are you getting at?” I spit at him.

“All I’d say is, maybe she’s not as nice of a girl as you make her out to be.”

I tense up.

“Percy, I don’t think you should be-”

“Shut up!”

I lose control.

The wall felt weightless when I drove my fist into it. I aimed right beside Shane’s head. He jumped out of the way before I could be anywhere close to him- which is fortunate, because the wall fell through itself when I punched it.

My mind is in a haze as I lean against what’s left of the wall, with my right arm reaching into the gaping hole it made.

I never thought to punch him. I never thought to punch anything. It just happened.

“Hey, what the hell?”

Someone’s shouting at me, but I can’t even move. I’m in a trance, with my forehead against the wall, staring into nothing as my mind flies away from me.

I just punched a hole in Shane’s wall. In front of a gross, drunken sample of our student body. Maybe I’ll have to pay for it. Which is fine. I have a job.

I have a very bad job. Where I get paid to steal stuff for a guy I barely know, who works for people I don’t know at all. Me and everyone else have a meeting with him tomorrow in a disclosed location… which reminds me of how I have more things to worry about than my image at a high school party.

Who is watching me now?

What are they thinking?

Do they know who I am?

Do I know who I am?..

No, I don’t. I don’t know who I am. My emotions are completely dictated by other people, and I can’t control it at all.

I’m nothing on my own. I’m so dependent on others to the point where I feel nothing when I’m alone. So I need to go somewhere where I can feel something. I need to go now.

I back away from the wall without turning around. People are humming and whispering but it all blurs and blends because my own thoughts are so, so loud.

I will find Felicity. Nothing else matters. I punched a hole through anything else that did.

I trudge upstairs into the familiar, deafening noise, and she’s not there. I look towards the back porch, but she's not there.

Momentarily, I wonder where Biff is. Then I forget about it.

I think back to what Shane had told me, but I barely cared to listen. I can’t recall where he said she went. It’s driving me mad. So mad I don’t even recall how I got from the back porch to the front porch- it’s all connected, anyway.

Standing by the front door, everything seems so quiet. All I’ve heard for the past hour was noise, noise, noise. Much of it from my own mind. I take this moment to swallow the lump in my throat and tell myself how things could be worse.

I watch a tiny car trail down the street, and in its headlights I make out the shadow of someone sitting on the porch stairs. They’re hunched over and folded into themself.

Cautiously, I cross the deck towards them, but my foot lands on a floorboard that creaks beneath me. The person sits up at the noise, but doesn’t turn to look at me.

“... Felicity?”

Her eyes are fixed on the ground. She’s pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped her arms to her shins. Her breathing is shallow, and she doesn’t care to address me at all.

She really is upset, like Shane had told me. It breaks my heart how I have no idea what to do.

With caution, I walk down and sit beside her. “What happened to you?”

I note the goosebumps on her forearms and how she’s shivering. She’s been sitting out here for a while.

“How long have you been out here? Why are you alone?”

Her eyes slide over to me. “No one cares about me,” she mumbles.

“What?” I laugh. “That’s not true at all.” I’m almost offended at her thinking that.

“No one wants me here,” she sighs. “Everyone is judging me…” She trails off and closes her eyes.

“If it helps any, everyone here is judging me too,” I chuckle.

The words don’t register to her.

“But I don’t judge you. And I don’t… not care about you.”

Felicity is silent for a moment, then sits back and stretches out. “I know that.”

She hasn’t mentioned anything Shane said to her- and I don’t care to either. Thoughtlessly I put my arm over her shoulders, but she doesn't react to it.

The silence between us grows long. I can’t help but yell at myself. Come on, stupid. Say something.

“I think you’re… pretty great,” I stutter.

She looks me in the face for the first time since I found her here. The light hits her face now, and I can finally see her. But she’s completely expressionless, and it makes my stomach drop. The sirens go off in my mind. Abort mission. Abort mission.

“Do you need to be left alone?” I ask.

“No,” she answers immediately. She doesn’t take her eyes off of my face.

I laugh awkwardly, but she doesn’t look away. She doesn’t move at all. And I don’t know what to think of it, so I go off of what I do know.

When someone looks at something they love, their pupils dilate. I read that on Twitter, so I don’t know how credible it is, but I’m willing to believe it because Felicity's eyes are wide and dilated just like that.

And Felicity is, forgive me, extremely socially awkward. She should be saying too much right now, but she’s saying nothing at all. Something’s on her mind. Something’s keeping her from being herself. Something has her so anxious that she can't even be anxious.

And maybe it’s me.

“You seem scared,” I tell her, after a millennia.

“No, I’m not,” she sighs plainly, holding that same, mindless expression. “I don’t feel scared.”

“That’s good.” I smooth her hair back with my hand, and her eyes move away from me for just a second. Her body is still stiff. “I don’t want you to be scared.”

We’re monosyllabic. We’re tense. But sometimes, tension is good. Tension is made to be broken. And I don’t want that tension to go on any longer, and I don’t want her to stare through me any longer. I mistake for a second that doing this will have no damage no matter the outcome.

I kiss her.

She doesn’t pull away, but she’s holding still. I rest my hand on her shoulder to see if she moves at all, but she doesn’t. She’s just as cold as she was before.

I pull away, tripping over what to say next, but before I can speak I taste something in my breath.

It’s odd. I didn’t drink tonight. Right? Unless…

Realization hits me as I watch Felicity move- for the first time- away from me with a look of confusion.

“Oh, god. Felicity, um…”

Tears well up in her eyes.

“I had no idea that you… I-”

Footsteps from behind us cut me off, and I look over my shoulder to see a girl walking towards us.

“What the hell are you doing?” I hear her say.

I leap to my feet and turn to face her. I try to speak, but I only stutter. The girl is almost as tall as me, staring angrily with her reddish eyes. Her frizzy hair is pulled out of her cross face.

I don’t even think to ask who she is, or if she knows Felicity, or why she’s mad. I just start apologizing: “I’m sorry, I had no idea. I had no idea she was drunk.”

“Drunk?” Her anger fades away and her shoulders fall. There’s a look of hurt in her eyes, and she pauses for a moment before circling around me and kneeling in front of Felicity.

The girl says something to herself when she sees Felicity in her distressed state, and bites her tongue out of some kind of grief. My throat feels clamped to keep me from saying another word.

Felicity moves her eyes away from the floorboard and looks the girl in the face. Her expression softens in the slightest bit.

“Hey,” the girl greets her comfortingly. She rests her hands on Felicity’s cheeks endearingly. “What’s going on? Are you okay?” she whispers.

Felicity’s stone-cold face cracks, and she smiles at the girl. “You’re here.”

“Yeah, I am,” the girl forces a laugh. “I’m so sorry for leaving you behind.”

Felicity had lied when she said she didn’t know anyone else at the party, because she obviously knows this girl. And they seem pretty close.

Felicity’s breath is shaky, and her eyes don’t move away from the girl. It looks as if she had finally found something she had been searching for.

“You love me,” Felicity mutters.

Every nerve in my body paralyzes me.

“Yes, I love you,” the girl sighs. “So fucking much. And I want to get out of here.” She reaches for Felicity’s hand and holds it. They are watching each other as if nothing else matters.

I feel now as if I’ve intruded on something private, and look away. As if not watching what happens makes it hurt any less.

I hear Felicity’s heels hit the ground as the girl helps her up. I watch them again when a part of me is worried that Felicity won’t be able to stand. The girl supports Felicity with her arm, but Felicity hunches out of the gesture and vomits onto the pavement.

My stomach churns and I look away to the dark sky.

“Dear god,” the girl groans. After a moment, she sighs, “You’re a jackass.”

“Me?” I ask her.

“Yes, you,” she growls, while helping Felicity stand upright. “You kissed her. She’s too drunk to consent.”

Embarrassment flares in my chest knowing she saw me kiss her. She saw me kiss her girlfriend. She saw me kiss her girlfriend, who I had no idea was a girlfriend.

I am a jackass.

The girl watches me for a moment while Felicity falls back under her arm. “You’re in my biology class,” she says to me. “You’re Percy.”

“Yep,” I choke, despite not recognizing her at all.

She huffs. “I’m Jazmyn. Pleased to be your acquaintance,” she says apathetically. She looks to Felicity, and her expression immediately softens. “Can we go home?”

Felicity hums instead of giving a clear answer. Jazmyn frowns, then kisses her on the forehead- I restrain from any reaction to it. I blankly watch Jazmyn guide Felicity to Shane’s driveway, and they exit the party into a shadow.

For a second, it feels as if nothing has happened tonight. Then, everything I’ve felt in the past hour reprises and my mind flies away from me once again.

Chapter Thirteen

Alexis

I was 80-percent sure Percy was going to leave that party as soon as he walked in. And he did.

The interesting part of it is, he texted me to pick him up- but he can walk home from where he is, and his legs are perfectly fine, so I don’t know why he needs my ride.

Maybe he’s drunk. Oh, that’d be hilarious. I almost want him to be, just so I can see him act any more stupid than usual. And, that would mean he had a good time, which is something he probably needed.

Whatever the reason is, it’d better be a good one. I live pretty far away from him and I’m not willing to go out of my way for just anybody.

I pull into the neighborhood, and cars line the curbs way too close to each other. I sigh to myself and flash my brights to see further down the streets. But it’s no less crowded.

I drive towards Percy’s house, where I’m certain I’ll be able to park. His parents love me. I could ram my Lexus into the side of their house and they’d still love me.

I waste no time parking in their driveway and hopping out of my car. Unlike last night, it’s cold outside. I thank myself for constantly dressing in layers, and start on down the street towards Shane’s address.

This is such a rich-people neighborhood. The sidewalks are smooth, the streetlamps are shiny, and every other house has a pool in the backyard. Of course everyone here attends Percy’s fancy private school. They’re on Daddy’s fucking money.

I hear Shane’s house before I see it. To add some flavor to the scene, someone parked in the middle of his lawn. I can’t wait to play the game of guessing where Percy is amid this mess.

Let’s begin. He’s not on the front porch waiting for me. Of course he isn’t. Ungrateful ass.

I’d rather die than go inside the house to find him, so I cut around the side towards the backyard.

That is where I see him. He’s curled up in a ball with his back against the side of the house. Something is wrong. I take a breath and walk to him, and he looks up at me as I arrive.

“Party too hard?” I ask him jokingly.

He looks through me with a stupidly sad face. Although Percy can never mask being stupid, never hold back a laugh, and never keep a secret, he’s pretty good about hiding when he’s sad. But not now.

I know why he asked for me to come here. He needs me.

“C’mere, dumbass,” I sigh, kneeling down and pulling him into my arms. He presses his head into my shoulder and wraps his arms tightly around me. I stay silent for a moment, then say, “Please don’t be crying into my shirt right now.”

“No promises,” he mutters, with the slightest hint of humor.

“That’s our boy,” I laugh, smacking him on the back. He pulls away from me slowly and wipes his eyes. “Wanna tell me about it in the car?”

“Where’d you park?” he groans.

“Your house. I couldn’t find a spot anywhere else.”

“Hmmmmnnnnngh.” He rolls his head back. “I don’t want my parents to see me like this.”

“Like what? Your truest form? A baby-faced lil’ mess?”

He pushes me away by my face, and I fall into the dirt next to him. “Thanks for being here,” he says to me.

“Thanks for letting me be your lifeline,” I tell him. “I appreciate it.”

He smiles, then looks past me. “Did you happen to see Biff on your way in?”

“No. And I don’t care to look for him,” I laugh. “Let’s ditch before he knows I’m here.”

I push onto my feet, and take Percy by the hand to help him up as well. Thank god my boots have traction, else helping his heavy ass off the ground would’ve taken me down.

“Let’s make tonight a good night,” I declare, standing square to Percy. “Okay?”

He coughs. “Okay.”

I grab him by the wrist and we start walking.

Chapter Fourteen

Alexis

In the small shopping plaza down the road from Percy’s house, there is an ice cream shop. It is him and I’s go-to place when we’re stressed or crying and need a bowl of calories to sob into.

He orders the same methodical thing whenever we go. Peanut butter ice cream, with lots of marshmallow topping. Some caramel, but not too much. Oreo crumbles. A bunch of chocolate chips… no, put more. A few gummy bears, stop- stop- that’s enough. One cherry. Sprinkles. And a dribble of chocolate sauce.

The total is always $8.39.

And then I proceed to order one scoop of vanilla ice cream for myself. This is to avoid blowing five bucks on different toppings.

My total is always $4.49.

So the same happens tonight when he and I walk in ten minutes before the store is closing. Being as emotionally stupid as he is, Percy’s in too much of a haze to order his cardiac arrest in a cup, so I do it for him. When the girl behind the counter finished making that, she looked to Percy and asked what he wanted- to which I corrected her, that one is his. And then I gave her my order.

We sit outside at a metal-grate table. Any time one of us needs to talk about something deep, we sit outside. The poor workers in the ice cream store don’t need to find out how fucked up either of us are.

“You’re not eating,” I scold him. “I paid all eight dollars for that food and you’re letting it melt.

Percy lifts his head from where he’d been slouched on the table, then apathetically spoons some of the marshmallow into his mouth.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” I sigh. “That was the most excruciating story I have ever heard.”

“What?” Percy asks.

“The stuff you told me. In the car. That party.”

“How was me telling you that excruciating?” he asks bluntly.

“It was gross. What you said happened is so out of character for you.”

I recount what he told me: he was there with Biff, Felicity showed up, Felicity made Biff think she liked Percy, so Percy made a move and tried to kiss Felicity and it didn’t work because Felicity has a girlfriend. Along the way, Percy punched a wall.

“I mean, I know you’re stupid, but I didn’t think you were… that stupid.” I almost regret my words from the look he gives me. “It’s unlike you. God forbid anyone else gets told that story.”

“No one but you, because you’re special,” he jokes, with half of his heart. “But you’re right. I wasn’t myself. I was…” He loses his words.

“You were trying not to be yourself. And that’s the problem.” I squish my spoon into my ice cream scoop. “That’s everyone’s problem. We all try so hard to be someone we’re not. We want to melodramaticise our lives out of nothing. And we emphasize every negative emotion we feel, because we think making our lives into sob-stories is cool.”

“I don’t think that,” Percy mutters.

“Yes, you do. We all do, and we don’t know it,” I argue. “Take another look at what happened. You went to some party. The girl you liked was there. You shot your shot, it didn't work, and now you think she doesn’t like you.”

“And I punched a wall.”

“And you punched a wall.”

“And now everyone hates me.”

“No one hates you,” I tell him, shoving his shoulder. “People have to know who you are to hate you. And you’re kind of anti-social, so that’s a small percentage of people.”

“Thanks,” he groans sarcastically.

“You’re very welcome.”

Percy stares off dully.

“Um… Percy, what I meant to say is that you’re…”

“Overthinking it,” he cuts me off. “Right? That’s what you always say.”

“Yes, and I’m going to say it again. You’re overthinking it.” I press my palms flat to the table as I try to find a way to convince him of it. “Everything, everywhere, always tells people our age that these are the ‘good old days.’ We’ve been told that we need to ‘live while we’re young,’ and we fear that if we don’t fulfill that expectation, then we will have let ourselves down.”

Percy has rested his chin to his palm, but is watching me when I speak.

“We want to have dramatic stories to tell when we’re older. Or we just want attention. So we act out in stupid ways to do that.”

Percy finally starts eating his ice cream again.

“None of us notice that we can’t make good stories,” I continue. “The good stories make themselves. Good things will come into our lives, but doing bad things won’t make it come any sooner.” I hope I’ve said enough to get through to him.

He takes a breath, then looks out into the distance again. “So, what I did was a bad thing?” he asks me plainly.

“A good thing wouldn’t have you crying outside an ice cream parlor. So, yeah, I guess it was.”

Percy rolls his eyes. “I’m such an idiot.”

“I know that,” I tell him. “But you’re an idiot for reasons that have nothing to do with tonight.”

Tentatively, I put my hand to his shoulder. He reaches and pulls it into his own hand. I feel strangely relieved when he does it.

I think back to how Natasha asked me if I had feelings for Percy, and I always tell her I don’t. Hopefully I don't. I’m unsure as for how to tell if I do or don’t feel that way about someone.

“How are you so smart?”

“What?” I ask, pulled out of my absorbing thoughts.

“You,” Percy says to me. “Everything you say is perfect. You always say the right things at the right time. You understand things about people that I never could. How do you do it?”

“Uh…” The infrequent compliments I get from him catch me off guard every time. “I smoked earlier. I have a very clear head after I smoke.”

“For legal purposes, I will pretend I didn’t hear that,” he laughs, for the first time since I found him.

Something crosses my mind while he holds my hand a little tighter. “Did you stop taking your medication?” I ask him.

Percy sighs through his teeth. “Taking it makes me tired. And I need as much energy as possible if I want to get through junior year, let alone this football season.”

“Percy.”

“Don’t worry about it. Stop worrying about it.” He seems as concerned for himself as much as I am. “It’s not your problem.”

“I want you to get better,” I plead, pressing his hand into both of mine. “I hate seeing you get like this.”

Percy is looking at our hands together. “I hate me like this too.”

In the silence, I recount tonight’s conversation topics, and I start laughing. “And to think all of this drama was over Felicity.”

“Why in hell did you tell me I had a shot?”

“She’s a dork! I didn’t think she’d be going out with someone,” I admit. “Remember, you weren’t even interested in her until I said something.”

“I had thought she was interesting for a while,” he tells me. “But you’re kind of right. I’ve been rebounding for forever.”

“I’ll take the blame for this one,” I tell him.

“Please don’t.” Percy looks at me sympathetically. “You bought me ice cream. You shouldn’t be blamed for anything.”

“Philanthropy doesn’t redeem people, Percy.”

“It redeems you.” He pulls his hand out of mine to stir the melted ice cream in his cup. “I forgot how much I love ice cream. I’ll do anything for someone if they promise me ice cream.”

“Really? Anything?”

“20 dollars is 20 dollars. And ice cream is ice cream.”

“Ewww,” I groan, putting my head in my hands as he starts laughing. “You’re gross.”

“You’re just jealous of my impeccable sense of humor.”

“Ugh.”

I look at him again, and let relief wash over me when it seems I made him feel better.

“You’ll find someone,” I tell him without thinking.

“I know,” he sighs. “Everyone does.”

And then he looks at me again. Staring through me like I’m glass.

Chapter Fifteen

Jazmyn

I gave up on reading The Scarlet Letter for English class. I instead Google a plot synopsis of the assigned chapter, read it, and then return to reading the book having learned what it is actually trying to say. And when I read, I think- “oh, is that what the thorns are symbolic of?”

Though repetitious, the back-and-forth process has trained me to focus more on the novel’s messages. But right now, I can’t focus.

I put the mind-numbing book back on my desk, then spin my chair around to look at my bed. Felicity is sleeping face-down, covered in several different blankets. One is completely bundled up in front of her face. She had been moving a lot in her sleep, but she’s been still for a while. Right when I start to get concerned about it, she rolls over.

I’m exhausted, but it’s only 10 o’clock. I lost most of my friends tonight. And Felicity, too, is upset with me. I know in the end cutting Kaitlin and her friends off was the right thing, but I still feel like the asshole for it.

The guy who kissed Felicity is the absolute least of my worries.

Felicity takes a sudden sharp breath. I’m excited at the thought that she’ll wake up right then, but she doesn’t. It takes another few minutes, and then she sits up.

I had taken her into my room as soon as we were at my house. I called my mom to pick us up, and fortunately she didn’t make a show out of Felicity’s misbehavior. Felicity is still in the tank top and jeans she wore to the party, but I took her necklace off of her while she was asleep because I saw it digging into the skin of her neck. The necklace rests in my shirt pocket.

Felicity sighs without looking at me. “Oh, my god.” She puts her head in her hands with a groan.

“Do you feel alright?” I ask her casually.

She pulls her legs into herself and looks at the analog clock on my nightstand. “It’s only ten?”

“Did you think it was later?”

“I thought it would be 2am or something.” The bed creaks as she lies on her side. “My head hurts really bad.”

“There’s a glass of water on the nightstand,” I say, pointing it out to her. “I left it for you for when you woke up.”

Felicity couldn’t seem to care less about the water. “You’ve been sitting here the whole time? The whole time I was asleep?” she asks with a taut voice.

“Yes, I have been. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

She looks at my clock again.

“It was only for a few hours.”

Only?” she repeats after me.

“It’s okay. I’ve been getting my homework done.” I gauge the level of honesty I’m willing to express. “I would’ve been more stressed if I left you here alone.”

Felicity doesn’t respond. Her eyes are low to the floor beside my bed. There's a long moment of silence between us, and it’s likely I’ve said something wrong. She probably doesn’t want to see me act concerned for her after I blew her off at the party. After I blew her off for my shitty friends at a party I said we would go to together.

Before my frustration can get the best of me, I turn back to my desk and look for something to occupy my time.

“You’re not mad at me?” Felicity asks suddenly.

My heart breaks. I turn to face her again. “You’re not mad at me?” I force a laugh.

Felicity blinks at me rather than answering.

“Why would I be mad at you?” I prod her.

“You left me behind. I thought I did something.” She finishes her sentence quickly and swallows. “I remember you yelling at Percy, but I can’t remember why.”

“You…” I keep from asking how she knew him. “You drank too much. Of course you wouldn’t remember why.”

“That’s why I think you’re mad at me. Because I was irresponsible.” Felicity rolls over onto her back, and avoids looking at me as if she’s embarrassed.

“I’m only mad that I left you alone like that,” I admit. “Everything was my fault.” Talking out what I’ve dwelled on for the past three hours pulls weight out of my lungs.

“Nothing was your fault,” she mutters avoidantly.

I don’t know what else I can do to deny that. The apologies and arguments escape me. “... I cut Kaitlin off,” I mention.

“Hm?” Felicity turns her head to me. “Why?”

Honesty. “Because she was so mean to you. She was being an asshole. And you are…” I’m throwing yard darts at chances to redeem myself. “You were the only person at that party I cared about.”

Felicity’s face softens.

“And I’m so sorry that I let the environment get the best of me,” I plead. “You deserve so much better than that.”

She takes a deep breath before saying anything. “Thanks for bringing me back here.”

“We called your mom and said you wanted to stay the night. Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” she sighs.

She pulls the blanket back over herself and rolls onto her side. Her eyes close. After a forlorn moment, I reach for The Scarlet Letter again.

“Hey.”

I turn to her. She reaches out and flexes her hand as to beckon me. Relief washes over me.

“Hey,” I laugh, walking over to lie next to her. She wraps her arms around my waist and pulls her head onto my shoulder warmly.

“I might fall asleep again,” she whispers.

“Sleep sounds awesome right now,” I tell her. I reach to the nightstand to turn off the lamp.

“Can you tell me what happened? With Percy?”

“Can I tell you tomorrow?” The room goes dark.

“Please do.” I feel her nod. “I don’t like forgetting things that you’re a part of.”

“Ehhh…” I’m sure she meant well by saying that, but what happened with Percy is one thing that she can forget. But I’ll tell her. She wants me to tell her, so I will.

Wind blows through the window I left open. With it, it brings no other noise, and I’ve never been so grateful for silence.

Chapter Sixteen

Xavier

He’s always on time to things. If not on time, he’s 5 minutes early. So, when he told me to meet him at 10:30, I asked him why it was so late. He said he had homework to do, but would be sure to meet me on time.

I wait on a park bench. He can’t drive, and this park is the landmark he can most easily walk to. I didn’t mind driving here, so long as it was somewhere he could make it to safely.

He was one of the first people I hired. Him and Biff, they arrived together. Then, after having gotten to know him for a few months, he said he needed my help.

I recognize his fleet-footed steps and look up when he arrives.

“Hey, Adrian,” I greet him.

“Hi.” He walks with his hands in the pockets of his sweatshirt. He’s wearing new glasses, and he has cut most of his hair off.

“You look better,” I comment.

“I am better,” he laughs, sitting by me on the bench. “And how are you?”

“Y’know, actually, a lot has happened in the past few days.” I sit back and fumble as for where to begin. “We lit someone’s house on fire yesterday.”

“That was you?” Adrian exclaims. “I should’ve known.”

“I didn’t tell anyone to do it. It just happened somehow.” I can almost taste the smoke in the back of my throat again. “It was a disaster. I was so embarrassed.”

“Don’t take it so hard,” Adrian rolls his eyes. He contemplates for a moment. “I have my guesses, but… who specifically set it on fire?”

I pause. “It was Biff.”

Adrian’s face falls. He looks away with a huff. “Right.”

A month ago, Adrian broke up with Biff. Biff wasn’t good to him, and Adrian would tell me about the terrible things Biff said or did while they were together. He dealt with it for so long, because he had convinced himself that it was normal to be treated that way, or that he deserved it.

When he broke up with Biff, he came out about his transition. Hence the change in appearance, and the haircut, and the month-long absence.

“Has the distance helped you recover from him?” I ask. I never knew if Adrian disconnecting from us was because of Biff or because of his transition. “You know none of us will judge you.”

“I don’t know that, actually,” he refutes me. “Everyone seemed to like Biff more than they liked me. He probably made me out to be the bad guy of the situation.”

“He didn’t. He knew better than to say a thing about you in front of me.” I take a breath. “I would have broken his ribs if he did.”

“I wouldn’t have minded,” Adrian laughs wholeheartedly.

“Neither would’ve anyone, Adrian. No one takes Biff seriously. You know this.”

Adrian presses his fingertips together. “So, you want me to come back to the Tigers, then.”

“Of course I do,” I tell him. “We all do. I know Nat and Alexis miss you a lot.”

“I completely stopped talking to them,” Adrian admits. “It was nothing against them, I just wanted to distance myself. I don’t know how I can start to be their friend again.”

I mull it over. “What if I opened my house up to you all? Let whoever is free stop by to watch football, or something.”

Adrian makes a face at the ground.

“Without inviting Biff.”

“It’d be a good start,” he chuckles.

“I agree. And, I think we need some team bonding.” I’m reminded of my existential ‘I’m-No-Leader’ crisis I had at 1am last night. I woke up in a cold sweat and let the scene of the burning house replay over and over in my mind. “Adrian, I’ll be honest, you’re the only group member I know past their first name.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Just you. Aside from...” I clap my hands together and sit up. “I forgot to tell you. We recruited someone new.”

“Oh?” Adrian says. “Implore me.”

“Their name is Dakota. They’re really cool. They can climb and jump over stuff as if gravity doesn't exist. They’re living with me for now- because they were homeless-”

“They were homeless?”

“That’s irrelevant information. Anyways, so…”

“Before you go on,” Adrian waves his hand in front of me to cut me off. He then laughs, “Can’t I learn all of this when I meet them?”

“So, you’re coming then?” I ask excitedly. “You’ll start meeting with us again?”

Adrian seems put off by my excitement. “When would you be opening your house?”

“Does Monday night work?”

“Monday works.”

“Yesssssss,” I drum my hands on my knees. “I’ll tell them about it at the meeting tomorrow. Even if nobody can come, you’ll at least meet Dakota.”

He shakes his head. “Stop being so excited. It’s concerning,” he tells me.

“Why?”

“You’re so enthusiastic about hanging out with us. We’re children. Don’t you have other friends?”

“No. They’re all from out of town. You know this.” I was relocated to somewhere away from the company, and I’ve had to make a name for myself from nothing. These kids are truly the only people I talk to.

“Right,” Adrian sighs. “Well, yes. I’ll be there. You win.”

“You seem unexcited,” I tell him.

“Don’t worry, I’m excited,” he laughs. “I am glad to be coming back.”

“For good?”

“We’ll find out.” He smiles faintly.

Something Adrian and I connected on, aside from our transitions, was how we have difficulty meeting new people. I see a lot of myself in him. I was impatient and closed off when I was sixteen, just like he is. So, in this month he took to work on himself, I wanted to be there for him whenever he needed it. I know he misses his friends, and I knew that I could do something to mend the rift between him and them.

“It’s great to see you again,” I tell him.

“It’s good to see you, too,” he replies warmly. “I hope everyone else will be just as glad to see me as you are.”

(THANK YOU FOR READING!! HOPEFULLY THERE IS MORE TO COME)


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Thu Jan 14, 2021 3:44 am
SpiritedWolfe wrote a review...



Hi again! Back to leave a review since it's still it the green room :)

Unfortunately, I'll only be commenting on the first chapter because I don't have to time to be able to sit down and read 25k words all at once. Let's get into it!

For first thoughts after reading through it, I thought that this was an interesting concept and fairly well written. There are a lot of clear strengths I can see in your writing, and as an introduction into your novel, I think you do a good job of setting up a premise, giving us enough context to understand what's happening, and then get right into the plot important stuff to get us interested in your story and characters. I would definitely read on after this chapter.

One strength you have, which I feel is really important, is characterization. You throw a lot of character at us all at once, but at the same time you do a good job of making each one feel unique instead of a carbon copy of one another to fill out your novel's roster. As well, this characterization clearly shows through the dialogue, because it feels realistic, it sounds different for each character, and it reinforces the ideas that our narrator (I think her name is Felicity) has about them. So great job with that.

That being said, you do the best you can with the situation you've set up, but it does feel like a lot of characters being thrown at us all at once. We have the narrator, who we are just being introduced to, but she's drowned out by the introduction of Alexis, Percy, Natasha, Xavier, and Bif (and then we have another mysterious man and then Derek being name dropped later). That's 8 characters that we meet in just a few thousand words, and as we read on, it will be difficult to remember them all. We get the opportunity to focus more on individuals when they all split up, but instead of learning more about Natasha, she is quickly diverted to doing something else, which I think may have been an opportunity missed. It's something to consider as you're writing.

So, starting from the beginning, I didn't quite understand why the novel started with this line:

I, for one, really like rain.


This detail didn't end up being very important, and the narration quickly moved on to other topics. It also didn't do very much for scene setting, and while it does have a bit of voice to the character, I feel like there are better things to be focusing on. Instead of being introduced to our narrator, we're left with a small detail and then a faint description before being whisked away to the other five. Maybe starting closer to the moment, showing her anticipation, her internal thoughts as she's watching the barn, or maybe giving context to the rain thought (like as a self-soothing thought, trying to ignore what they're about to do), etc.

I didn’t even realize Biff was here, but I can make out his figure sitting on the hood of the black car.


This comment confused me a bit because did they not all ride here together? (Which I assumed because they all pile back in to run away.) How did they all get here? As well, later on, the car is described as a van, but I still don't have a good image for what this looks like. Is it big enough to fit all six people? I'm assuming it's more like an SUV than one of those big white vans (also since it's described as black). These details aren't necessarily important to spell out, but the continuity behind them is.

We’re robbers, of course, but we only rob bad people...


For Felicity being new to the group, she already talks like she is well assimilated and well acquainted with them, even going to far as to call herself a robber even though she also mentioned she'd never gone on a mission with them before. Does she have experience with stealing? Is this something she's comfortable with? I wish there was more inwardly focused thoughts coupled with the descriptions of everyone else so we can get to know our focus character.

“Biff, you can go do… whatever it was you wanted to do.” Xavier rolls his eyes while addressing* him.


*typo here. So, I had some issue with Bif's character and his role in this first chapter. I'm quite confused why Xavier has taken Bif along with them. He allows Bif to do what he wants, mentions that he's a wild card, and notices that Bif brought lighter fluid along with him, but then is later angry and upset that Bif lit the barn on fire. Xavier seems like a smart, calculated guy from how this was set up, so why didn't he see this coming? Why did he take Bif along if he knew that he could cause some extra, unnecessary chaos? This doesn't make sense to me, so it makes the events of this chapter feel a bit contrived when I read them.

“You’re actually doing the most important part.”


Why are they giving Felicity -- the most inexperienced person -- the most important job? This also didn't make much sense to me. As well, since we later learn that she's only 14 (and I don't know how old the other characters are, but they definitely feel older than that. I got like seniors in in high school vibes from them.) But why are they pinning this task on her, even if they don't think anyone is around? Why not give her something minor to ease her into it?

Those were the main plot questions that I had as I was reading this. Otherwise, I think you did a great job of pacing the chapter, having smaller events throughout that ultimately culminated in Bif setting the barn on fire. (I did like the hint that you gave about it earlier, though, and how that came around full circle). As for where the novel is going, I'm not entirely sure? I'm sure it will probably have something to do with this stranger, and Felicity will get drawn into the rabbit hole that is this group, but I'm interested in knowing more, so good job on that.

If you post this in smaller chunks and want more feedback, feel free to ask me. I may come back and read the rest for pleasure, but I won't be able to give the same in-depth feedback I did here. Hopefully this helped!

Happy writing,
~ Wolfe




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Thu Dec 17, 2020 5:43 am
piyaliarchives wrote a review...



piyali archives

Hi there @kookzer !

First of all,welcome to YWS!

And woah that is one long submission, I didn't even know such long pieces could be submitted. But anyway, I see that you are new.
I say submit them chapter by chapter individually because one would be tired to critique long submissions.

I recommend you to check out the forums, there are many forums which help new members of writers to get adjusted.

For posting chapters, you need points. In YWS, we review others work and gain points, like I am reviewing right now. And so, everybody gets reviews and everyone gets points :)

If you have any queries about the site, you can ask me or the others as we are happy to help.

Hope you will stick with us! ^^

Thanks!




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Sat Dec 12, 2020 12:58 am
SpiritedWolfe says...



Hi Koozar! Welcome to the site :) I just wanted to leave you a quick note that here it typically helps to break up your story into chapters and post them individually, that way you can get more detailed and helpful feedback. Reviewers don’t typically have time to sit down and read a really long piece all at once, and less people will be inclined to read it.

That being said, if this doesn’t have two reviews in a couple of weeks, I’ll try to come back and leave one for you (likely only for the first chapter or two, because I don’t have a ton of time :( ) I wish you luck writing! If you ever have any questions about the site or otherwise, feel free to reach out to me!




kookzer says...


thank you so much for letting me know that about the chapters!! i really am just looking for a place to have the first drafts uploaded at this point. once i get a better grasp on the site i'll try to upload individually. thanks again!




“All stories are true," Skarpi said. "But this one really happened, if that's what you mean.”
— Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind