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First pages

Chapter One:

“So, Drew, you need a ride home after school?” Omar Juavez sidled up beside my sister as we walked down the main hall at Stony Brook High. A smart move considering I’d warned him away from Drew at least ten thousand times in the past month alone.

My stupid lipglossed freshman sister giggled and looked at me for permission. I glared first into her hopeful eyes, and then toward Omar’s sly smile.

“I have track, so I need the car,” I said, gripping my cell phone too tight. I willed it to buzz. Just once.

“So you do need a ride home after school.” Omar draped his arm around Drew’s shoulders and let his eyes linger on her chest—which was barely concealed beneath the scrap of fabric she called a shirt.

She beamed under the glow of his attention, making me stop dead in the middle of the crowded hall. “Listen, Omar. You keep touching her like that, and you won’t recognize yourself next time you look in the mirror.”

The smile slid off Drew’s face, replaced with a scowl. Omar dropped his hand from my sister’s shoulders, a sheepish glint in his eyes. I’d seen this look plenty of times over the years. Every time his mom came looking for him, in fact. He always seemed to “forget” to call her and tell her where he was. Omar did have the courtesy to look and sound apologetic when he screwed up.

Drew stopped next to Omar, and glared at me. “Shut up, Mitch,” she said. “You’re not my father.”

Omar was the kind of guy my dad wouldn’t want anywhere near Drew. Just because Omar ate dinner with us almost every night didn’t mean he could suddenly transition from sleeping in my bedroom to camping out in Drew’s. He and I had been in the same classes for years, and he’d spent so much time at my house, my mom washed his jeans and stocked the kind of cereal he liked.

“When it comes to my senior friends—” I glared at Omar. “—dating my little sister, you bet I am.” I stepped back into the flow of students, my sister and my best friend following.

“I’m not that little,” Drew complained. “And I don’t want to wait until four-thirty to go home.”

“Fine, whatever.” I hooked Omar with a pointed look as I stopped at my locker in Senior Row. “But no touching.”

He crossed his heart and slung his arm around Drew’s shoulders—which counted as touching in my book—drawing her down the hall and away from me.

I watched them go, my mood darkening as he leaned in and whispered something that caused Drew to throw her head back and laugh. Omar twirled her ponytail around his fingers. I turned away before I witnessed them doing something I wouldn’t be able to erase from my mind.

I spun the combination on my locker and opened it, thinking that someone had to watch out for Drew. She was all flirt and no thought, and Omar kept blankets in the trunk of his car. I’d never cared who he slept with, but the thought of that person being my fourteen-year-old sister filled my stomach with fire.

I clenched my teeth and drove them from my mind. The frustration remained as my phone stayed silent. Holly hadn’t texted. She wouldn’t until she could do it alone—without the inquisitive eyes of her latest boyfriend, Greg Matthews. I had nothing against Greg. He and I had played football for the jaguars until seventh grade. He went on to play tight end until he made the varsity team as a freshman, and I’d left football to the real jocks. I preferred being able to think with my brain and switched to a sport that didn’t require special equipment: Track.

Holly Isaacson and I had been best friends since fifth grade, when she moved in next door. With a newly divorced mom and a younger brother, Holly came with a bright smile and lots of lawyer jokes. We had Mrs. Toolsen, and she was the kind of teacher that made us hand our spelling tests to the person behind us to get corrected. I never crossed my t’s, so they looked like l’s—until Holly, who sat behind me, crossed them for me. It was this unspoken thing between us, the fact that she was saving my fifth grade spelling grade every week. When Mrs. Toolsen found out—Holly didn’t have an identical blue pen to cross the t’s with one week—she said if Holly crossed my t’s one more time, we’d both fail.

The very next Friday, we both failed, because Holly crossed all my t’s. I could still remember the stubborn glint in her eyes as she stared at Mrs. Toolsen and took her F without a word. From that Friday on, we’d been inseparable. We ran together, we studied together, we grew up together. I talked to her everyday—except when she was dating someone.

I’d texted her last night with no response. And again this morning. Still nothing. It wasn’t like I needed her. I didn’t have a pressing question for her to answer. I didn’t like her for anything besides a friend. But I didn’t know how to function without her.

She’d know what to do about Omar and Drew, and she’d ask if I’d finished my history essay. She’d remind me about youth group on Wednesday, and she’d assure me I was going to win the cross-country meet on Friday. I’d tell her about my latest crush on Jade Montgomery, and she’d advise me how to ease into Jade’s social calendar without being obvious. Without Holly, I felt isolated, lost.

As much as I hated to admit it, I was lonely without Holly. I missed hanging out at her house after track, and I missed having her and her brother over for dinner when her mom had to work late. Holly and I had trained for track all summer, running early-early in the morning before the sun could bake the Kansas landscape into hundred-degree temps and before I had to work at the car wash and she had to strap on her roller skates and waitress at the drive-in. When Holly started dating Greg in mid-July, I’d found a new running partner. I wanted to believe that getting up at five a.m. to train with Ivy Olsen and Lance Higbee was the same, but it wasn’t.

I gathered my books for first and second period and slammed my locker. My cell buzzed, causing a tremor of hope to vibrate through my chest. The warning bell rang as I checked the message.

Holly (2)

I sighed. The band of tension behind my eyes loosened.

Just saw Omar and Drew. Looked pretty cozy. This relationship have your stamp of approval?

Ironic that she’d ask about relationships having my consent. She didn’t need my permission to date other guys, but she withdrew from our friendship every time she did. I’d never said anything to her about it. Never asked her why we couldn’t still hang out when her boyfriend was at work or whatever.

Because I got it. My last girlfriend told me she couldn’t date me anymore because of Holly. I’d said me and Holly weren’t like that, but in Katie’s eyes, me and Holly were exactly like that.

Her second message read: Can you give me a ride home after track? Greg has to leave practice early to go to work.

Holly ran sprints while I ran long distance, but the entire track team trained until four-thirty. I want to strangle Omar, I typed as I hurried down the hall to AP history. Holly would already be there, anxiously waiting to turn in her essay. We’d spent the better part of Saturday afternoon writing them together at her kitchen table. She always scored better than me, even though we collaborated and wrote almost identical responses.

Mr. Thompson would have our papers graded from last week, and everyone coveted a perfect score of fifteen. Mr. Thompson bragged that he once went a whole year without giving a fifteen, claiming his students had to “earn such a stellar score.” The highest I’d ever gotten was a seven. I wasn’t holding out hope for a fifteen this year at all.

I sent her the text as I ducked into the classroom. I didn’t look up as I slid into my seat behind her.

“Ride after track is no problem,” I said while the tardy bell rang.

She turned, her auburn ponytail swinging as she did. My mom always told Holly a face without freckles was a waste, because Holly hated hers. Her hazel eyes sparkled as she looked at me. “Thanks. Phones.”

“I totally killed you with that last word.” I handed mine over and took hers. AP history during first period was the only class we had together on A-days. On B-days, we had lunch and track.

“Whatever. You don’t know what words I have up my sleeve.” She smirked at me, and I saw her as the fifth grade girl who corrected my spelling tests and got caught. After that Friday, we finally broke our pact of silence on the issue, and she’d smirked at me and rolled her eyes as I said that Mrs. Toolsen was a beast. She’d never outgrown that smirk.

I smiled as the last of the tension over her text silence left my shoulders. Holly had always been my right-hand man. She ran as fast as me even though she was a good eight inches shorter and had the skinniest legs I’d ever seen. She jumped the space between my roof and hers without balking, and she wasn’t afraid to sleep under the open sky. After class, she’d tell me what to do about my panting senior friend wanting to date my fourteen-year-old sister.

“Don’t use my phone to text Drew,” I whispered as Mr. Thompson started passing back the essays. “I don’t know what to do about her and Omar yet.” Holly’s brother was in eighth grade, and for a few years there, Drew had had a crush on Scott. She’d spent hours and hours over at Holly’s, and they were as close as sisters.

Holly nodded and slid my phone in her backpack pocket as the teacher started down our row. He put the papers facedown on the desks, and every student watched him until he finished.

This was law in AP history. No one checked their score until Mr. Thompson gave the wave indicating we could. A hush had settled over the class without him having to say anything. He leaned against the table in the front of the room and folded his arms.

“Class, one of you scored a perfect fifteen on this essay.” The tension in the room exploded, mostly from Holly, who’d been flirting with twelves and thirteens even though senior year was only four weeks old. Could she skip fourteen and go straight to fifteen?

I didn’t feel anything but my normal nerves on essay-return day. I knew I hadn’t scored the fifteen. No way I’d jump from five—last week’s score—to fifteen.

“I’m also afraid to say that some of you who I thought would be my top scorers have slipped a little this week.” He straightened and moved around the table. “The Puritans will be on the test, people. You have to know about them, and be able to express what you know with words.”

Holly’s phone buzzed in my lap, but I ignored it. She’d twisted her slight shoulders toward me, and I recognized the blip of worry in the tightness of her mouth.

“Some of you impressed me by reaching new high scores, and some of you clearly wrote your essays in the car on the way to school.” He sighed when a couple of kids laughed half-heartedly. He sat down behind the table, where he’d stay for the rest of the period. It also meant only seconds separated us from our scores.

I took a breath. Said a little prayer. Waited.

He lifted his hand and waved. “You may turn over your papers and see your scores. Remember that you do not need to discuss your score with anyone, so please don’t ask each other. If you wish to share, that’s your choice. Also, this week’s essays are due in five minutes.”

As one, the class drew a breath and reached for the papers on the edge of their desk. Crinkling sounds filled the room, and then sighs and shouts of triumph and the sullen stuffing of papers in backpacks.

I stared at the red number at the top of my essay, immune to the scuttle of chairs and voices around me. Even the buzzing of Holly’s phone against my leg didn’t register.

Ten.

I’d gotten a ten. My first double-digit score.

After a few seconds, Holly said my name. “Mitch, what’d you get?”

I looked up as she tipped the paper so she could see it.

“Good job, Mitch!” she said, truly happy for me. She held her paper toward me.

Fourteen.

I found the disappointment in her face, though she was trying to hide it. She wanted to be the first to get a perfect score, and now she hadn’t been. Finding the person who had wasn’t hard. Halfway across the room, Stephanie Lawrence waved her paper, tears flowing down her face. Crying. I did not understand girls and grades.

“You’ll get it next week,” I said. “And every week after that.”

Holly smiled and slid her paper in her bag before extracting her new essay from her folder. “Want me to turn in yours?”

“Sure.” I handed it to her and checked her phone as she went to deliver our weekly essays to the A-1 tray.

Both messages were from Greg. The first read Mitch, if you have this phone, give it back to Holly, and the second said Mitch, give it back! I didn’t read the thread that came before those messages and exited back to her home screen.

When she returned to her seat I passed back her phone with a single word: “Greg.”

She took it, already punching in a message as Mr. Thompson started the lecture. When class ended, Holly left without saying goodbye, or looking at me, or giving my phone back.

I wish I could say I didn’t feel like I’d been abandoned.

Chapter Two:

Second period metal shop provided the distraction I needed. Lance Higbee, my co-captain on the cross-country team, sat in the seat next to mine, exhaling to blow his blond hair out of his eyes. No one motivated me more than Lance. The need to beat him, run faster than him, felt as natural as breathing.

“Hey,” he said.

I raised my chin in greeting, but I didn’t feel like talking.

“Saw your sister this morning.”

Especially about Drew. Before I could tell Lance to shut up, he said, “Her ladies were looking especially perky.” He licked his lips and grinned at me like he’d tasted some part of my sister and liked it.

“Shut your mouth. She’s freakin’ fourteen!”

“She said she’ll be fifteen soon.”

“You talked to her?” I balled my fists. “Freak, Lance. Can’t you guys date someone that’s at least a junior? Or just not my sister?”

“Can I help it if your sister’s hot?” Lance possessed a charm girls liked. A lot of girls. A new girl every week. No way my sister would be added to his list of conquests. And what were he and Omar going to do? Share her?

“Omar’s staked his claim on her.” If I had to pick one of them to date Drew, I much preferred Omar. Lance was just too… Lance.

“There’s plenty of her to go around,” he said. “Believe me, I saw it all this morning.”

Lance’s nose—where I aimed my fist—was saved by the entrance of Mr. Roskelley, who resembled a bear more than a man. “To the shop, boys,” he boomed. “Projects due Friday so I have time to grade them for midterms.”

“Stay away from Drew,” I told Lance. But he was right. Drew wore skanky tops and jeans that acted like a second skin. She wanted guys to look at her; she did everything she could to get them to look. It was embarrassing.

Dad had been preaching to me for years about keeping an eye on my sister, and while Lance was just as constant at my house as Omar, I knew he was not on Dad’s short list of approved boyfriends.

In third grade, when Drew started kindergarten, I heard “Take care of her, Mitch,” every day as we left to go to the bus stop. In fourth grade, I heard “Make sure you get her after school, Mitch,” as if Drew couldn’t get to the bus by herself. And she hadn’t. I’d picked her up outside her classroom door every day. In fifth grade, I heard, “Listen to Mitch, Drew. Be safe, you two.” When I started sixth grade at the middle school, my mom cried because Drew would have to be alone at the elementary school as a third grader.

This morning, Dad had grabbed the Pop-Tart from my hand at the same time he yanked his keys off the hook by the garage door. “Watch out for Drew,” were his parting words as he left for work.

 Drew was beautiful—not hot—because Mom was beautiful. Long, dark hair, with long, dark lashes. Just enough freckles to appease my mom and just enough curves to keep my friends coming around for more.

I hadn’t had any problem keeping an eye on Drew until this year. Of course, she had really helped in the past by rolling out of bed and going to school in gym shorts and yesterday’s T-shirt. Then sometime over the summer she decided she wanted to shop for real clothes, and put gelly crap in her hair, and wear makeup that made her lips smell like strawberries.

All her stuff crowded the bathroom counter and made my friends realize she wasn’t a boy, despite the masculine name.

Lance caught my eye and made a kissy sound. Then he put on his protective facemask fast enough that I couldn’t punch him and took a position at the solder iron so we couldn’t talk. I bent over my miniature filing cabinet, thinking about my sister.

She was all I had. Sure, she annoyed me pretty much all the time—she was definitely Mom and Dad’s favorite—but we watched out for each other. I bandaged her knees when she crashed her bike while Mom and Dad were shopping, and she took the blame for the broken window when I threw an errant baseball.

We rode to school together everyday, and I’d spent so much time being her protector that I operated in that mode without a second thought. Keeping her away from my slobbering friends topped my Protecting Drew list. Holly would know what to do about Lance and Omar. Or at least she’d put her hands on her hips and tell them off for lusting after freshmen, even if the freshman in question did wear hookeresque clothing.

I shoved away the thoughts of my sister’s pathetic dress code. She was right—I wasn’t her father, even if he did ask me to watch over her. I replaced my thoughts of Drew with those of Holly, but quickly found those just as frustrating. I’d survived her relationships before, and I’d do it again. When she and Greg broke up, she’d come back over and watch movies with my family, and after that we’d sit on the roof, and she’d ask what she’d missed.

But right now, I just wished I didn’t need her advice so badly.

#

Lunch followed me to the part of the cafeteria where the track team flirted with jockularity by sitting only a table away from the baseball team, which was located next to the football/cheerleader table.

Ivy Olsen had already sat down and hadn’t saved me a seat. Sometimes she did, and sometimes she didn’t, but today, I really wished she had. Instead I sat next to a guy who threw javelin and passed my cardboard rectangubowl of salad to her.

Ivy had a tiny waist that bloomed into a nice butt—the kind Lance would say “fit into his palms nicely,”—despite the gallons of salad she ate every day. She ran sprints, and her calves testified that she was really good at it. Ivy was easy to look at, with wide, green eyes, and hair the color of hot chocolate.

I wasn’t interested in dating her, but I didn’t mind sitting next to her every day at lunch or running with her at my side.

Ivy slid me her chocolate milk, and we combined our tater tots into one pile on the corner of her tray. I started mixing the ketchup and mayo packets she’d gotten while she finished her conversation with some girl who ran the medley with Holly.

“Want to get a shake after the track meet on Friday?” I asked when Ivy turned her attention to me.

Ivy seemed shocked by my question, and I realized my mistake. Did that sound like a date invitation? Before I could clarify, she said, “Yeah, sure. Sounds great.”

“Great.” I started eating. I didn’t want to discuss every detail to death. I just needed someone to hang out with so I wouldn’t have to be alone. When Holly didn’t have a boyfriend, she and I did everything together. When she did, I filled my time with as many friends as possible.

I let Ivy talk through lunch and we walked through C-hall and B-hall to English lit. At one point she slipped her arm through mine, but I didn’t do anything about it. I wished I had when we entered the classroom. Jade Montgomery turned as if she sensed my presence, and she smiled at the same time her eyes flickered to where Ivy had a hold of my arm.

Confusion fluttered through Jade’s expression and she whipped her face back to the open book on her desk. She combed her fingers through her hair, bringing it down in a silky black wall between us. I remembered the first time I’d met her. It was just before school got out last year, and she was reading during lunch—that long hair a curtain between her and everything else in the world.

I’d talked to her for just a minute, and then I’d spent weeks and weeks obsessing over her. Where did she live? Did she have a boyfriend? I figured out the answers to my questions through Facebook and some fine detective work. Turned out she lived only a mile from me, and when Holly stopped running with us, I suggested to Lance and Ivy that we switch our route so we’d go past Jade’s house. It was a simple thing that neither of them questioned.

I couldn’t have been happier when I saw her in my English lit class—the only one we had together.

Where Ivy carried the little bit of fat she had in her butt, Jade carried it in her chest. I’d looked—I was a male interested in females, after all—but that was it. Unlike Lance, I didn’t make crude comments, and I didn’t sleep with everything with an X chromosome. In fact, I hadn’t slept with a girl at all. Being the son of a volunteer-pastor father and a mother intent on making sure her only son knew how to treat girls was hard sometimes. Other times, I was glad I had a mom and a dad—something Omar, Lane, and Holly didn’t have—that cared enough about me to hound me about homework, chores, saving money, and serving others.

Besides, most girls scared me. But if one existed who I wanted to get to know up close and personal, it was Jade Montgomery. She had miles and miles of skin the color of cinnamon. I’d seen a lot of it too, because I’d been sitting behind her in English lit since school started and she wore a lot of tank tops.

She looked and smelled soft and smooth, like baby powder or fabric softener. Something I wanted to close my eyes and breathe in, and then open my mouth and taste.

I swallowed as I extracted myself from Ivy so I could make my way to my seat. I wished I had my phone so I could text Jade. Instead, I leaned forward. “Hey, Jade.”

“Hey, Mitch.” Her voice barely met my ears through the pre-bell chatter.

“Want to come over after track?” I asked. “My mom’s making meatballs.”

“Meatball Monday,” she said, turning and bringing back the smile that made me want to sit up taller and flex.

“Yeah,” I said. “So you wanna come? Should I pick you up on my way home, or you wanna ride your bike over?”

“You’ll have to shower before dinner, so I’ll ride over.”

“Okay. Like, six?”

“‘Like six’ works for me.” Her lips parted as her smile widened, revealing straight white teeth.

The bell rang, and I sat back, proud I’d managed to turn our usual sixty-second conversations about literature and homework into an actual dinner invitation. With my family, but still. Jade liked to bike, and we’d talked about how she’d ridden past my house hundreds of times. Shoving away all thoughts of Jade in tight sportswear, I attempted to tune in for what Mrs. Nordstrom called “a rousing discussion of Huck Finn.”

My mind wandered to Ivy—I should’ve asked someone else to hang out after the meet. I’d forgotten how touchy-feely she could be. How possessive. She probably thought we were dating now that I’d asked her to get ice cream.

Girls could be so complicated sometimes.

I wanted Jade to think I’d asked her out, but coming to my house for dinner could hardly be considered romantic. Exciting, yes, because Dad always had a great story about his patients at the hospital, and Mom could charm a pumpkin into a carriage. Drew had taken up gossip at the same time she’d taken up makeup, and she could have a conversation with herself for hours.

Sometimes I made it through dinner without speaking at all, which was just the way I liked it. With Jade there, though, at least I’d have someone to chase away the thoughts of how Greg wouldn’t let Holly talk to me, and how Holly didn’t defend our friendship to her boyfriends, and how I needed to ask her how to interact with Jade freaking Montgomery.

A wave of frustration accompanied the totally un-rousing discussion of Huck Finn. Why did I waste so much time thinking about Holly? Who cared that she ditched me every time she started kissing someone?

I’d be better off if I ignored her too. Starting now, I thought. Then I amended that to After I get my phone back.

#

The retrieval of my phone took five seconds. I marched up to Holly’s locker after English lit. Greg was there, so I didn’t speak. I just held out my palm. Holly looked at me for a moment, then reached into her backpack and took out my phone. “I didn’t have time to slaughter you in Word Play.”

I grunted as I took my phone and headed to AP biology. With any luck, Mr. Newton wouldn’t have “an amazing dissection lab” for us today. Lady Luck played on my side as Mr. Newton set up his projector and proceeded to show us slides of mutated cells.

I switched on my phone and checked our game of Word Play, even though she’d said she hadn’t gone yet. Our obsession with the pass ‘n play word game had started our phone exchange two years ago. Since then, we texted each other from whatever device we had. My parents and friends knew that if they got a text from Holly’s number, it most likely came from me. The lack of punctuation probably tipped them off too.

Sometime last year we’d migrated from just playing games to leaving each other messages. It started with a free app of the day. The Post-It note app. We both downloaded it, and now we had entire conversations on colored scraps of virtual paper.

I opened my note app, and sure enough, Holly had started one by turning it purple and typing Mitch, we need to talk about

My mind filled in that blank with dozens of options. Drew. Omar. Track. History. Greg.

I reminded myself that I wasn’t talking to Holly about anything and closed the app. I opened my text messages and sent one to Jade. Looking forward to tonight! I hoped it was the right thing to say, but without Holly to collaborate with, I wasn’t entirely sure.

Chapter Three:

Holly texted and said she didn’t need a ride home after track. I drove home alone, for once enjoying the solitude that came when Drew wasn’t filling the car with her constant chatter.

I turned the corner onto Varsity Heights, where I saw two people sitting on my front steps. Kissing.

I leaned on the horn as I roared into the driveway. Drew and Omar jumped apart, and I leapt out of the car and had him by the throat by the time either of them had realized what had happened.

“I warned you,” I said as I cocked my fist back.

“Mitch, stop it!” Drew yelled, hanging onto my arm so I couldn’t throw the punch.

“Go inside,” I barked. “Where’s Mom?”

“Making dinner,” Drew said. “She knows he’s here.”

“She know you’re playing tonsil hockey with him?” I kept my grip on Omar’s collar, letting my fury seep out through the tightness in my fingers. No one moved. I looked back and forth between my sister’s frantic eyes and Omar’s guilty ones.

“Dude, you suck.” I thrust him away from me. “Yeah, you just…suck.”

Drew stared at me. I put my arm around her shoulders and yanked open the front door. She entered first, throwing an apologetic look over her shoulder. I slammed the door behind me and stood there while my eyes adjusted to the shadowy living room. My heart beat like I’d sprinted a mile.

“I like him,” Drew whispered.

“He’s using you.”

A second of silence deepened the rift between us. “I hate you, Mitch.” She hadn’t raised her voice, but her tone carried such hatred, I flinched. “Why can’t he like me back?” She ran up the stairs to her bedroom before I could answer.

I might have said, “Because he never cared about you until you started wearing those skanky tops.” Which would’ve been true.

Or, “Maybe I know more about Omar than you do.” And I did. I’d heard him talk about girls—too many girls—and not in the way I wanted him talking about my sister.

Or maybe I wouldn’t have said anything.

I sighed and went back outside to turn off the car and get my backpack. Omar shuffled down the sidewalk toward his house. I didn’t call after him, because I didn’t trust myself not to clock him right in that mouth he’d used to kiss my sister.

“Mitch,” Mom said when I came in through the garage to the kitchen. It smelled like barbeque sauce and butter. “There you are. Jade’s in the backyard.”

“Really?” I dropped my backpack and looked out the window above the kitchen sink. I hadn’t seen her bike out front, but I’d been pretty preoccupied with getting Omar’s lips away from Drew’s.

“Backpack,” Mom said. “Not there. Shoes too,” she added before I could kick mine off next to the door. “She got here a few minutes ago. Said you’d invited her for dinner.”

“I did,” I said. “But not till six.” The clock read 5:10.

“Maybe she thought it was five,” Mom said, stirring something on the stove.

I agreed with her so I could leave, but no way Jade thought it was five. I stepped onto the deck and yelled to the corner of the yard where she sat in the tire swing in the tiniest patch of shade. “I’m gonna shower and then I’ll be right out.”

She waved and I ran upstairs to the bathroom Drew and I shared. After I got re-dressed, I checked my phone. Jade and I had texted through most of fourth period, when she had a college-prep computer programming class. The teacher managed two computer labs during that time, so Jade had a lot of unsupervised time.

I imagined that she’d come early because she wanted to see me without my family hanging around. I set my phone on vibrate and went to join her in the backyard.

“Want me to push you?” I asked. The September evening heat roasted my backyard, and I cursed our lack of landscaping as sweat ran down my back.

She stood up. “Sorry I came early.” Jade wore dark makeup around her eyes, and her jeans fit well enough to make me take a second look to make sure I’d seen everything worth seeing.

“Why did you come early?” I almost groaned at the stupidity of my question. Why were in-person conversations so hard?

“Hey, you guys want some shade?” Thankfully, my backyard neighbor, Danny Lafariat appeared over the fence. Up and then down. Up, and down.

“Hey, Danny.” I glanced at Jade. She’d come early—and for what? To go hang out with my neighbor? I raised my eyebrows at her, and she gave a little shrug.

His yard had shade. “Yeah, let me tell my mom.” I texted her that we’d be at Danny’s and to text me for dinner, then Jade and I went through the gate. These actions allowed me to exist without talking, and Jade didn’t have to answer my idiotic question.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

A speculative fiction author under the name Elana Johnson and an inspirational adult romance author under the pen name of Liz Isaacson, her work includes the young adult dystopian romance series Possession, published by Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster), Elevated, the Elemental series, the Songs of Life fantasy series, the Redwood Bay romance series, and the Three Rivers Ranch Romance series. School teacher by day, Query Ninja by night, you can find her online at elanajohnson.com.

Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
My favorite platforms are Facebook and Twitter! Join me there.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
I love contemporary romance, and I remember writing this book at a summer typing class I took in 2012. It's been through a lot of revisions since then, but the love story is still at the heart of it. Which I love.
Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
I think teens, college students, and most adults still don't quite know who they are or what the right decision is in a lot of things. Mitch, the main character in Just Friends, struggles with juggling relationships, family, expectations, and school. And who doesn't struggle with balancing those?

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