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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Romance  ➡  Drama

A Fabrication of the Truth

 

 

 

 

 

 

A

Fabrication

of

the

Truth

 

Text copyright © 2016 by Katie Kaleski

Cover design © 2016 by Katie Kaleski

Cover photographs © 2016 by CanStockPhoto/ammentorp

 

All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this publication either in part or in

whole is prohibited unless explicitly authorized by the copyright holder.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, places, or events is just

mere coincidence.

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the loves of my life, the best kids ever.

Chapter One

Children come into this world by way of their mother, but I did not. I blossomed out of a flower on a warm spring day. Fresh dewdrops glistened as they mingled with the afternoon sun, lighting the whole meadow in a sparkle while the air smelled so sweet from the gentle breeze. Woodland creatures – squirrels, deer, bunnies, birds – gathered and the flowers and trees leaned in close. Then a big, beautiful tulip opened up, and there I slept inside – a babe born fresh into the world. I thought the name Tulip would have fit me best, but instead, I was named Lexie – which naturally meant a girl who blossomed from a flower. Kindergartners didn’t care about correct details; they just wanted to know if there were unicorns. Five-year-old me said yes. There were always unicorns.

The story of my birth was the first lie I told to a captive audience, and it was awesome. I was queen of the circular carpet: pigtails, boogers, and untied shoes wanting to know more. It was also right after my mom left.

***

“There he is,” my friend Caroline said, leaning against the locker next to mine and checking herself out in her phone. Pleased with her reflection, she made some kissy lips, and then slipped the phone into her back pocket.

“Who?” I asked, digging in my locker wasteland of old notebooks, crumpled papers, and library books long overdue.

“That’s right, you weren’t here yesterday. You were sick.”

I had faked sick so I could catch the From Rags to Fab marathon, every single episode played back to back (not available on streaming). How could I miss out on that? I couldn’t, not for my favorite show. It’s a fashion-design challenge show where the contestants are pretty much thrown a bunch of rags and old clothes and have to remake them into something fabulous. I would be a champ on that show.

“Well, there’s a new student, and everybody’s fighting over him already. Just look. You’ll see.” Caroline flipped her long amber locks over her shoulder.

“I don’t get involved in that stuff.” I found my English notebook and slipped it into my backpack.

“Quick, quick! Turn, before he walks away.” She tugged on my sleeve. Caroline was an actress, so everything with her had added dramatics. To date, she starred in nine commercials: seven of them local, but two national. Chicagoland knew her as either that girl from the car commercial who said, “That’s a deal, Grandpa,” or the girl from the carpet commercial who petted the carpet a little too provocatively. Nationally, she was the girl who drank some prune juice because she couldn’t take a dump. She was so good at pretending to have a stuck poop, that they brought her back for a second commercial.

I zipped up my bag, sighed, and turned. Then everything froze. There were no more slamming lockers, no more kids joking around. There was no Caroline blabbing on, no air, no breathing, no words. It couldn’t be him, but there he was, right there in the hallway. How? I wasn’t sure how long I stood there staring, but it felt like an eternity.

My mouth must have been hanging open because when I felt a hand on my shoulder, my lips smacked shut. My heart resumed beating, and air reentered my lungs. He saw me and stopped. Our eyes locked—my heart now pounding in my chest. I licked my lips trying to think of words, but none came. I just stared at him – the him of now, of the moment – standing there in the hallway, staring back at me with his arms hanging at his sides.

Caroline was right: he was cute, but then he always was. He was of average height, though much taller than he used to be, and his hair – black and short except for a length in front – stood up against gravity. His dark eyes looked up from under long lashes, his lips with the perfect amount of plumpness. My brain couldn’t process simple thoughts, let alone the right descriptors.

He slowly walked toward me, and Caroline asked, “Do you know him? Who is he?”

“My undoing,” I whispered. I didn’t move, and he didn’t move any farther than a few steps.

Our eyes stayed locked and for some reason I couldn’t comprehend, my heart fluttered. He was okay. I doubted my grandma’s constant reassurances, but he stood there in front of me, not saying a word or even blinking. Maybe he thought he was seeing a ghost, because that’s what I thought. An eleven-year-old boy had haunted me for the past five years, and suddenly he was in front of me. I let out a deep breath and closed my eyes; it all came back. That day, the fear, my sadness. The end of my life as I knew it. I opened my eyes again as Caroline shook my shoulder and called my name. Dalton Reyes was gone.

***

My brain couldn’t focus on class the rest of the day. My teachers’ mouths moved, but all they said was, “Dalton Reyes.”

I thought about certain things daily: where my mom went, that my dad was in jail, to remember the lies, to never tell the truth, and Dalton Reyes. What happened to him after that day? Did he remember me? Did he hate me? Was it all my fault? Can you be haunted by someone who was still alive? Should I have talked to Dalton? As I asked myself that, my English teacher asked me something else, but I wasn’t sure what.

“Lexie,” she said again.

“Uh,” I said, looking up at my teacher, a short little woman with a pinched face and a penchant for animal prints.

“That’s what I thought,” she said.

What the hell did that mean? Okay, I wasn’t the best student, but she didn’t have to be mean.

“Um, Mrs. Gerdshaw.”

“Yes, Lexie?” she said, crossing her arms over her chest as if I was wasting her time.

“I’m sorry. I was just thinking about Lucky.” I chewed on my bottom lip and looked up at her with big eyes.

“What are you talking about, Lexie?”

“See, I volunteer at this no-kill shelter,” I said, full-well knowing her weakness and how to get out of whatever slight trouble I was in. Mrs. Gerdshaw had a rescue dog, Paul, which she treated like her child and talked about all the time.

She nodded, taking a couple of steps closer to my desk. She bit the bait. I just had to reel her in.

“This dog named Lucky came in.” I looked at Mrs. Gerdshaw, who now had a gentler expression on her face and her chin in a hand. “His previous owners threw him in the dumpster. Poor thing was so abused.”

“Terrible, just terrible.”

“It really was, and Lucky would just cower in the corner. Wanted nothing to do with anyone, and then this old woman came in. Said her husband died the year before, and she was having a rough time, so lonely.”

I could feel everybody’s eyes on me. The whole class wanted to know Lucky’s fate, and I knew how to end it. “So, yeah, that’s what I was thinking about.” You leave them hanging, and then they come back for more, making the lie more authentic. They make you carry it on.

“Well, what happened to Lucky?” Mrs. Gerdshaw asked with a tip of the head.

“Aren’t we taking up class time?” I asked.

“What happened to the damn dog?” this guy named Ray asked.

“Ray Smith!” Mrs. Gerdshaw said. “Lexie, I think you should answer the question, though.”

“If you all insist.”

I then made up some BS story about the old woman whom I named Wanda who magically brought Lucky out of his shell, and they went home together and lived happily ever after. Mrs. Gerdshaw thought it should be my topic for the next expository essay due in a couple of weeks. Luckily, she didn’t ask for the name of the shelter where I supposedly worked.

***

Caroline stood by my locker at the end of the day, her hair now swept up into a sloppy bun on top of her head. Switching classes was like switching scenes for her. Each new scene required a new look.

“Lexie,” she said.

“Caroline.”

“You need to give me the details.”

“About?”

“You and new kid.”

“Dalton Reyes.”

“See, you know his name. That’s a sexy name,” she said, putting her fingertip between her lips.

“You think Dalton is a sexy name?” I asked, shoving her aside so I could open my locker.

“Maybe it’s the Reyes part, or just his face. He has a beautiful face. Do you think he has a girlfriend?” She had a dreamy, faraway look in her eyes, and her lips formed a little smile.

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“But seriously. You guys were undressing each other with your eyes or something in the hallway.” She waggled her eyebrows at me.

“We were not.” I flung my locker open. The door slammed into the locker next to mine, reverberating and then settling into place.

“Who is he?” she asked, poking me in the shoulder with one of her long fingers.

“He’s my neighbor’s grandson. That’s all.”

“Oh.” Her dreamy-eyed look disappeared.

“Yeah, no big story there.”

“Hmmm,” she said, drumming her fingers on her chin.

“That’s all.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It’s the truth.” I pulled my jacket from my locker and slammed it shut.

“You lie all the time.”

“But not to you.” That was a lie in itself. Caroline knew some things – like my favorite food, that I liked to wear flats, that I had English fifth period, and that my parents weren’t in the picture – but nothing about my personal history, and definitely not about the last time I saw Dalton.

***

I defined myself by lies, and that day – the last time I saw Dalton, when that door burst open – the lies increased exponentially. It was a story I heard on the news, something that happened to somebody else. I was in New York with my mother, nowhere near my house at the time, I claimed. She was an apprentice to a fashion designer named Enzo, who was so exclusive that few people had ever heard of him. Sometimes my mom worked for Enzo, and on occasion, my dad. I’d say he worked security. Since my parents had an in, I had the finest designer clothes of all the girls at Miles North Middle School, and was in pretty good competition for best fashions at Shermer North High, too. I embroidered tags with the name Enzo on them by hand and sewed them into clothes I would make with my grandma. That’s how far my lies would go, and everybody believed me.

Chapter Two

I took the bus home from school as I did every day. Not the school bus – the suburban bus route that ran past our school and had a stop about two blocks from where I lived. Our house was a small split level made of brick and brown siding, lies and deceit. I cornered my grandma in the kitchen when I got home. The kitchen still had the original 1960s cabinets – short, little, white things complete with contact paper on the shelves.

“Did you know Dalton Reyes was back in town?”

My grandma took a moment before she answered, perhaps thinking if she should lie to me or not, since it was in our genes. She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yes,” she said, placing her palms flat on the kitchen table where she sat – a 1970s original, just like most of my grandma’s wardrobe. I was convinced she’d worn the same outfits in rotation for the past several decades.

“How did you know? Did they tell you?” And by they, I meant our neighbors—Gloria and Dave Reyes. I was pretty sure they wished death upon my whole family, so the chance of them telling my grandma: unlikely.

“That wench wouldn’t talk to me. No. Marisol, at bingo the other night – she told me.” Marisol was my grandma’s neighborhood gossip buddy who lived on the other side of the Reyes’, but usually sat across from my grandma at our kitchen table.

“Why didn’t you tell me? Bingo was two days ago. You’ve had two days.”

“Because I know how you feel about the boy. I honestly wasn’t sure how you’d react.” I looked at my grandma. She’s not your typical sweet-little–old-lady kind of grandma. She’s five inches taller than me and could probably throw down with an angry trucker in some shady back alley. She wears her dark blond hair pulled in a tight braid and jeans with awesome bell bottoms that took her fierceness down a notch, but without an elastic waist.

“And how is that? How do I feel about this boy? I barely know him.”

“But you love him.” Okay, let me clear this up here. I did not love Dalton Reyes. I lied – a lot – but someone who knew my affinity for making them could easily sniff out my lies: they were usually grandiose. Besides, can you love someone you barely even know?

“Grandma, is your dementia kicking in again?”

“Not this time, baby. Just stay away. It’s for the best.” But seriously, she didn’t have dementia – we messed around with each other a lot.

“For the best,” I said under my breath. That’s what adults always said. “Erg,” I growled.

I went up to my room. What did my grandma even mean? How was staying away from him for the best? Not that I planned on getting close, but still. Would my contact with him cause the earth to start spinning in the opposite direction, ending life as we know on this planet? I wasn’t satisfied, and after about twenty lengths of pacing back and forth in my small room, I went back downstairs.

My grandma watched a game show from her usual seat on the couch. “Seven hundred dollars,” she shouted. She had the recliner kicked out and held a jumbotron-sized mug in her hand.

“Why did you say staying away from him was for the best?”

“Lexie, drop it.”

“No, he goes to my school now. I’m bound to bump into him.”

“I just don’t want trouble.”

“It’s not fair. I was an innocent bystander.”

“I know, baby,” my grandma said, looking at me just out the corner of her eye, torn between me and the show. Somebody was about to win a car.

“Do you know anything else about him being here?” I asked, rubbing my temples with my fingertips.

“Nope.”

“Can you do some recon? Ask Marisol. I know she talks to Gloria.” I sat down on the edge of the couch and dragged my toes across the area rug that covered the hardwood. It was cream and navy with red flowers – blood red. It was soaked in blood red.

“You can ask her, but you have to come to bingo tonight.”

I let out a deep sigh. My grandma always tried to drag me to bingo. When I wasn’t at school, I was a bit of a shut in, and she thought it was unhealthy. Like hanging out with a bunch of oldies would make me want to venture out into the world. But I secretly liked bingo.

“I have to wash the dog.”

“You did that last week.” My grandma was fully aware of my nonsense. We didn’t have a dog.

“Marathon training?”

“Nope, go get ready.”

I dropped my shoulders and dragged myself upstairs. I just wanted to know why Dalton Reyes came back.

***

The church basement was crowded and smelled heavily of a conglomeration of flowers thanks to all the old lady perfume. My grandma found Marisol sitting toward the middle of the room, a spot to her right saved for the two of us. Serious bingo enthusiasts surrounded us, setting up their little weird knickknacks for luck: troll dolls, four-leaf clovers, animal figurines, key chains. Cards upon bingo cards spread out and lined up on the table, bingo markers at the ready. Lots of elderly, some middle-aged overweight men, and a few moms eagerly awaited the first call of a number. God forbid if you sat in the wrong seat – it could start a bingo brawl. I had to get in my questions before the serious bingoing began. My grandma got me six cards. I’d been to bingo before, and six cards was probably too much. All that searching up and down, straining your eyes – too much pressure for me. I generally kept it to three.

“Look who it is,” Marisol said, with a huge smile across her face like it’d been forever since she had seen me last. She was at our house having coffee the day before.

“Hi, Marisol.”

“Lexie, you get more beautiful each and every day.” Much like me, Marisol tended to be full of shit – even her curly wig was the fakest color of red. Clown-chic really, but due to female pattern baldness, she didn’t have much hair of her own, so she relied on three-ring performers for hair advice. Marisol was awful nice though; a bit too gossipy, but nice, so it balanced out her poor wig choice, I guess.

I sat down in my aluminum folding chair and bit the corner of my lip. “I need some dirt.”

I uttered her favorite words. “About?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Dalton Reyes.”

“Oh,” she said, and then said again, with wide eyes, “Oh!”

“Yes.”

“Is that a good idea?” she asked, gnawing the cap to one of her bingo markers. I hoped her teeth wouldn’t fall out – I knew people with dentures had to be careful about what they bit. I hung out with senior citizens way too much.

“I just want to know. He hasn’t been back to his lola’s house since that day, so why is he going to my school?”

“Okay, listen, sweet cheeks. You didn’t hear this from me.” She tipped her head in close to me.

“Hear what?”

“Exactly.” Marisol smiled. “Okay, so they actually don’t live that far away – over in Skopie, I believe – and he’s not staying there forever. They just thought it was best.”

“So he’s staying at his lola’s?”

“Yes, him and his sister, Hailey. His dad was offered a contract position for a few months overseas and I guess it was an offer he couldn’t refuse. Plus I think his mom needed some time away. She went with him.”

“Okay, but he’s sixteen, and Hailey has to be in college by now. And why did his mom need time away?” I asked, a woman with a matching purple track suit squeezing past Marisol and me. I looked up and smiled, and she patted my head and continued down the aisle.

“Hailey is in college. Mary never says excuse me. Have you noticed that?”

“I don’t think so,” I looked down the seats to Mary, who was setting up her bingo spot. “So what’s up?”

“Mary’s always been kind of rude,” Marisol said, doing a quick glance over her cards. “These are good ones.” She nodded and turned back to me.

“No, not about Mary. Why couldn’t they like just go over there and check on the kids, or stay there or something?”

“I guess his parents thought he needed a break from his other school, so it seemed to be the perfect time to make the switch.”

“Why would he need a break?”

“Kept getting into trouble. Parents thought a fresh start might help.” Marisol adjusted her wig with a quick tug and pull.

“Dalton Reyes?”

“Yes, no longer that sweet, little, shy boy we all knew.”

“So why is his college-aged sister staying there, too?”

“She’s been commuting to school, and Gloria and Dave want an extra pair of eyes on him when they’re not around.”

“He’s not five.”

“That’s how they treat him, though. I don’t blame the kid for acting out. They’ve kept the poor kid on the shortest leash since…”

“That day?”

“Yeah, insanely over protective. Never let him go to his friends’ houses – couldn’t even play video games. That’s what I hear at least.”

“That sucks.”

“They do it out of love because they’re so afraid of losing him or something bad happening, but I’m sure it can be a little suffocating.”

“So if his mom is so overprotective, why would she leave him?”

I didn’t get an answer before the rise of a palm shut me up. Bingo had begun.

I needed to know more. Why did they all think I shouldn’t know this? Why should I stay away? And why did Dalton’s mom go with his dad?

I tried to keep up with the bingo – G-1, B-6, so on – but my mind wouldn’t stay in the church basement. My grandma won seventy-five dollars. Marisol only won ten. She was mightily pissed. I won nothing but an ache in my chest.

Chapter Three

When I arrived at school, Caroline loitered in the hallway. She’d tried calling the night before, and I texted the word bingo. She understood. “So is he living with his grandma, then?” She didn’t even have to say who she was talking about.

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“Word is that he’s not the most sociable person. So is he?” Caroline asked, brushing her hair out of her face and neatly tucking it behind her ear. She leaned against the locker next to mine. A blue locker, against a blue wall. The school must have thought poorly of its students’ intelligence levels and color-coded all the hallways. Guess what they called that hallway? Caroline’s locker was in the yellow hallway.

“Sociable, I couldn’t tell you.”

“No, living with his grandma.”

“Yeah, for a while. Him and his sister.”

“Should we invite him to have lunch with us? You two can catch up.”

“I didn’t know him like that. We only hung out once.”

“Well, maybe you can pick up where you left off.”

“Not happening.”

“Why not?”

“He won’t be interested.”

“Why do you always sell yourself short?”

I shrugged. I didn’t think I sold myself short. I honestly thought because of what happened he wouldn’t want to be near me. I’ve had boyfriends, or more like I’ve dated a few guys. Once we got to what would be the boyfriend/girlfriend stage, I usually broke up with them because keeping up with my lies was just too much for me sometimes.

“Hey, do you know what he is?”

“A teenage boy, I do believe.”

“No, I was talking to Jess and Luiz about his ethnicity. He looks kind of exotic.”

“He’s not a car. You call cars exotic, not people.”

“Okay, but seriously, you know what I mean.”

“I’m going to stop being your friend now.”

Caroline frowned. “He has the sexiest eyes,” she said, her frown turning upside down.

“I’m going to class.”

“But you know,” she said.

“Yeah. Don’t you have to go drink some prune juice?”

Caroline put her hands on her hips. “Don’t hold my acting excellence against me. So…”

“It’s not like some huge secret or something. He’s Filipino and Polish.”

“I think that equals hot.”

“He’s not that hot. He’s pretty average looking.” Lies.

“You’re in denial.”

“Sure, but yeah, now I’m going to class.” I turned, and there he was again. His locker must have been down the hall from mine. His backpack pulled his long-sleeved t-shirt taut. He had a well-defined chest. Dalton Reyes was no longer the tiny, eleven-year-old kid with whom I’d once spent a day. He was…well, he was kind of taking my breath away.

“Oh my god, he is staring straight at you,” Caroline said, squeezing my arm.

What was I to do? I wanted to say something so badly, but that could make a mess of everything. Maybe I could talk to him not in school. We just couldn’t be seen together. No, I just couldn’t talk to him at all. Period. He knew everything about me that nobody else knew. He knew the truth. I watched him walk away, and Caroline shoved me.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing?” I said – which really meant, everything.

 

It was like when I was seven. I thought everything was wrong with the world, with my life, just because I couldn’t go on the second-grade field trip. Now the circumstances were way different, but everyone dramatizes the most inane things in second grade. My dad never sent in the money with the permission slip, so I had to stay in the school library all day, but I told my fellow classmates a different story. I was in the middle of reading a very advanced chapter book, at least at the fifth-grade level. All was quiet around me, when all of a sudden a squad of adults dressed in dark suits and sunglasses flooded the library, some wearing microphones on their heads, and others with walkie-talkies.

“A fifth-grade chapter book?” A woman, presumably the leader of the pack, asked me.

“I’m quite smart,” I said.

“Exactly why we’re here.”

“Okay…,” I was pretty confused about everything.

“There was a reason you weren’t sent on that field trip.”

“Okay…,” I said again.

“You’re being recruited.”

“What?”

“You’re being recruited. We have a spy mission, and you’re the perfect kid for the job.”

I then went on a spy mission where they shuttled me off in a supersonic jet and I outwitted a villain with my wicked-good, second-grade smarts. Okay, my story wasn’t perfect, but I was only in second grade, so everybody who sat around me at lunch the next day and hung onto my every word as I told the story didn’t seem to mind. They all kind of regretted going on that field trip. I felt great.

***

On the third day of being in school with Dalton Reyes, my goal was to stay as far away from him as I could, but that plan quickly went out the window as I was about to walk out the double doors at the end of the hall to leave school. I felt somebody behind me. Dalton grabbed my hand, ever so gently brushing his thumb across the back of it. My toes involuntarily curled.

“Um, hey,” he whispered as he stepped in close to let somebody out the door, our chests close to smashing together.

I let out a stuttered breath before I managed to say, “Dalton.” He let go of my hand as soon as he got my attention, but his touch still lingered.

“Can we talk real quick?” His voice was so much deeper than I expected.

“That’s probably not the best idea.”

Somebody else pushed past, and Dalton pressed up against me, putting his hand on the wall above my shoulder and bending down to whisper in my ear.

“You’re the only one here who knows,” he said, his warm breath on me.

I had to get out of there before my knees buckled and I collapsed in surrender in his arms. “Outside,” I said, taking in a deep inhale. Oh god, he smelled so good – like clean laundry and some kind of minty apple.

He nodded. “Okay.”

We walked down the steps side by side and stopping to stand under a tree just off the sidewalk. “We have to make this quick,” I said. If people saw me with him, they’d ask too many questions – rumors would start. Things would start to get dug up.

“Were you warned not to talk to me? Is that it?” he asked.

“Amongst other things.”

“Are you mad at me?”

“No. God, no. Why would you say that?”

He shrugged. “I never talked to you again after that day.”

“Understandable. I figured you hated me, so I’m quite surprised you’re standing here talking to me now.”

“I would never hate you. You had nothing to do with what happened.”

“I know, but…,” I looked down at the ground.

He placed a finger under my chin and lifted it back up, so we looked eye to eye. His eyes were such a beautiful dark brown. “Nothing to do with it.”

“I’m sorry, Dalton, but this can’t happen. I can’t talk to you.”

“I just wanted to know how you were doing. That’s all.”

“I’m fine, okay?”

He nodded and looked a little wounded. “See you around then.”

“Yeah, see you.”

Dalton walked away with his shoulders drooping, looking at the ground. I leaned back against the tree and closed my eyes. Staying away would be hard.

 

Chapter Four

The next day at school, Dalton gave me a half-crooked smile. I flashed him one back and continued to look forward down the hall. I couldn’t completely ignore him. He wanted to know how I was doing, so then if I smiled, he’d see I was doing okay. I didn’t have to strike up a friendship with him; we were both moving on, living our lives, and that seemed enough. But then, was I? I lived a life I’d forged since after my mom left – one that got even more elaborate after one moment, in particular, from my first-grade days. My dad took me by the shoulders and looked me in the eye, saying, “Don’t tell people what I do for work.” We stood in the middle of the living room, and just past my dad, some guy who worked for him tucked a gun into the back of his pants. I wasn’t fazed by the fact that he had a gun. I wondered why he couldn’t just put it in his pocket.

“What do you do for work?” I asked.

“I move goods,” he said.

“Uh,” I said, not having the slightest idea what that meant. I realized years later that meant drugs.

“If anybody asks, just make something up.” And that’s what I had done ever since.

It was like he gave me permission to fabricate everything. What a feeling.

***

“You sure you can’t come to the party tomorrow?” Luiz asked me at the end of the school day. She was one of Caroline and mine’s friends. She also knew I was full of shit – she just didn’t know how full.

I sighed and looked at Luiz. She was the tallest of the three of us, but that wasn’t saying much because neither Caroline nor I were what you’d call Amazonian women. Luiz was also much bustier, and she made sure to emphasize it, constantly getting in trouble at school for wearing shirts that were too revealing. She started keeping a cardigan in her locker for when teachers told her to cover up or go home. I didn’t know what the school was afraid of – they were just boobs. Half the world’s population has them.

“Let me guess: an invitation to the embassy to have tea with some prince,” Luiz said with a smirk on her face. She tugged at one of her long, dark-brown curls, the curl bouncing right back into place as she released it.

I showed Luiz my middle finger. At first, I thought my rudeness delighted her because a smile crept across her face, but then I realized somebody stood right behind me. I didn’t turn around – I knew who it was. He took a step closer and I could feel his warmth. Over my shoulder, he softly said into my ear, “You should go to the party.”

I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I opened them, Dalton was gone.

“Jesus Christ, that was hot,” Luiz said. “Man, I want to jump the new kid’s bones, but he has eyes for you.”

“It’s not like that.”

“He intimately whispered in your ear,” Caroline said.

“He doesn’t respect personal space.”

“I think it’s just your personal space. He seems to want all up in it,” Caroline said, smiling and throwing her arm around my shoulder.

“So does that mean you’re coming to the party?” Luiz asked.

“Fine, I’ll be there – but not because of Dalton Reyes.”

“You keep telling yourself that,” Caroline said, squeezing me a bit tighter in her grip.

I thought about Dalton’s lips, his eyes – all of him – for the rest of the day, and then wondered why. Yes, I usually thought of him, but not to that extent. Even as I got out my supplies to create a brand new Enzo fashion that night, I thought about those eyes.

When I created my new fashions, I really didn’t need my grandma’s help much anymore. She used to do the bulk of the sewing, but now, she offered sewing guidance only on occasion. I had become Enzo. I might have been more unbalanced than I thought.

I knew a lot of my uniqueness stemmed from that day – that one particular day Dalton Reyes visited his lola and lolo. That one day where he finally gathered the courage and came next door, to my house.

I invited him in, and for hours, we played a dancing revolution game on my Mbox. It was the best and worst day of my life. We decided to sit down and drink some pop because we were both getting pretty sweaty, and he was worried he started to smell. The front door to the house burst open. We never finished drinking our pop. We never finished playing our game. That was the day we were both involved in a botched drug raid.

***

“Grandma!” I yelled when I emerged from my room mid-afternoon on Saturday.

“Kitchen!” she yelled back.

I walked into the kitchen, threw my latest dress on the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down. I put my chin in my hands and said, “Grandma, I’m going out tonight.” That was normal for a sixteen-year-old to say on a Saturday night, but not for me. I was usually too busy meeting dignitaries from other countries or attending soirées at some mansion – none of which ever made me step out my front door. You know, a day in the life. I always had an excuse handy when someone at school asked what I would be doing for the evening.

So my grandma answered with a surprised, “Really?”

“Yep.”

“You don’t look too enthused.”

“I am, really, look at the smile on my face,” I said, forcing a frightful smile, bugging my eyes and stretching my lips wide.

My grandma laughed. “Make sure you eat something before you go.”

“Will do.”

I headed up to my room to decide what to wear. It was a party, so people generally dressed a bit nicer, right? But then I didn’t want to look like I tried to dress up too much just because Dalton said I should go. I didn’t want anybody to get the wrong impression.

I stood in my room thinking about my clothing choices. My room was small and cramped, but I liked it. It oozed my essence in the form of fabric and old clothing pieces strewn everywhere. My sketchbook and colored pencils sprawled out in a mess on the floor because I always tried to draw my fashion creations beforehand. I stress tried because I usually started with one intention and ended up somewhere totally different. My closet had no doors – my grandma and I took them off long ago so I could cram more in there. Clothes haphazardly stuck out in odd directions from hangers jammed on the rod. Under my window sat my sewing machine, piles of clothes stacked high upon my shelves: made, to be remade, and ones that didn’t turn out so well. I flopped onto my bed debating what to wear – something that shouldn’t have been so hard. Maybe I just needed to close my eyes, stick my arm in my closet, and pull something out. Hours passed before I finally got dressed.

I ended up wearing a shirt composed of two different t-shirts – each with their own pattern – and a loose crocheted sweater over that. I put my hair in a pile on my head with a couple of pencils stuck in it. I looked nice but not too fancy. Caroline picked me up – she was fortunate and had a car. I had a bus pass.

The party was in the cramped, hot basement of an old house. I could already tell I was not going to have a good time. Why did I even go? Deep down, I knew I went because of Dalton.

“Luiz said they’re having an actual live band playing,” Caroline said, leaning in close so I could hear her. Caroline had her hair swept back and wore just the simplest amount of makeup. She had such a natural beauty—she didn’t even need the light touches of makeup.

“Ooo, wow, so awesome.” The live band was pretty obvious because you could hear them warming up or whatever – tuning their instruments, playing with the amps, that kind of stuff. It would be so loud in there when they started – I was not looking forward to it.

“Shut up. No, she said her brother said they’re actually really good.”

“Yeah, we’ll just see about that. I think I’m going to suffocate in here.” I pulled on my shirt collar and stuck out my tongue. I wasn’t normally such a Debbie Downer; I was just in a mood. A mood that started the day before, highly affected by Dalton Reyes. Why did he have to whisper in my ear in front of Caroline and Luiz?

“Um, hi. We’re Macaulay and we’re going to play some songs,” we heard.

“Let’s get closer,” Caroline said, grabbing my hand as the band started to play a fast song, like punk mixed with indie rock. Was that a thing? I wasn’t well versed in musical genres. The lead singer’s voice wafted through the air, lingering in my brain—it was so familiar. When Caroline and I popped out near the front of the crowd, I saw why. Dalton Reyes sang into the mic, playing guitar and looking hotter than all get out. Caroline grabbed my sleeve. “It’s him,” she said, pointing to the band.

“Of course it is,” I said.

Luiz appeared at our side, wearing a dress that might have actually been a child’s t-shirt. I didn’t even know where you would go to buy a dress that small. “He just got one hundred times sexier,” she yelled over the music. There was no argument there.

It looked like Dalton was the music itself – it just flowed from him so naturally. He caught my eye at the end of the song, looking from me over to Luiz and then to Caroline, and smirked. He leaned in close to the microphone, looked up through his long lashes, and pointed at me.

“Prince Tomas sends his regards,” he said.

He then started playing a bouncy little riff and sang.

She had a written correspondence love affair

With a prince.

She couldn’t say which –

It was a secret.”

He nodded at the two other members of the band – a bassist and a drummer – who both joined in as everybody in the crowd started to jump along. I had to say, it was really catchy.

She had a written correspondence love affair

With a prince.

She couldn’t say which –

It was a secret.”

He sang it a few more times and then laughed and pointed at me again. He needed to laugh more. He looked so good laughing. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

They started into their next song, and Luiz turned toward me. “I always thought you were shitting me. It’s true?” she asked as somebody bumped into her. “Hey,” Luiz said over her shoulder. The guy who bumped her continued with his flailing, which I think he thought was dancing. “It’s true?” Luiz asked again.

I shrugged and smiled. Dalton Reyes was trying to get on my good side. I wanted to be mad, but I was thankful.

 

Chapter Five

Now at least the prince I had tea with when I was twelve had a name, Prince Tomas. I guess I courted him, too. I figured that was when we got a bit older, though. But the story I told was that over summer vacation, The Prince invited me to high tea at the Dutch embassy. A courier in a limousine delivered a beautiful invitation to my front door. Tea at an embassy was a big deal, so I had to look my best – The Prince sent an assistant to take me shopping. We only went to the most expensive and exquisite shops, where I found a perfect silk gown for a Sunday afternoon with royalty. The Prince complimented me. He spoke of how my eyes looked a most beautiful brown, accentuated by my dress. The Prince was charming, of course, and even at twelve, always the gentleman.

I brought a small silver teaspoon to school so everyone could see what The Prince gave me as a token of appreciation. At the time, it was my most grandiose lie. In third grade, when I told everybody about the zombie in my basement, they didn’t need any evidence – but seventh graders are much smarter than third, so I had to bring in proof to support my claim. It was really a spoon my grandma bought on vacation which sat with the rest of the cutlery in the silverware drawer.

I reigned supreme in summer vacation stories. I couldn’t tell my classmates that I had really rejected my dad’s request to see him; or that I sat in a church basement playing bingo; or that I couldn’t sleep because every time I closed my eyes, I saw Dalton lying on the floor bleeding – it took over a year for those nightmares to go away. The Prince treated me much nicer than my reality.

***

After Dalton and his band played a few more songs, I shrunk back in the crowd and watched from afar.

“Lexie!” Caroline called in octave not often heard amongst humans. She came up from behind and shook my shoulder. She had snuck off to get something to drink, and I had a sneaking suspicion it started with a B, had a couple of Es, and ended in an R. Caroline was normally an upbeat person, but she seemed almost too ecstatic to have found me standing there while I pretended not to pay attention to the band.

“Hey, Caroline.”

“So you, like, hooking up with him after they’re done playing?”

“Who?”

“Uh, hello, Dalton.”

“Are boys and sex the only things ever on your mind?”

“Since Dalton longs for you, I’ll take the drummer. He’s pretty cute. He’s got a scruffy-sexy thing going. Introduce me?”

“Caroline, for Pete’s sake, I don’t know them. Just Dalton, kind of, from when we were little. Haven’t seen him since I was eleven, so how would I know the band?”

“But Prince Tomas sends his regards,” Caroline said.

“Ugh.” I pulled on my hair and rolled my eyes.

“Is Dalton really like royalty? Maybe he’s Prince Tomas, and that’s why you can’t talk.”

“Caroline, he is not royalty. Sorry to break it to you, but there is no Prince Tomas.”

“But with Luiz…”

“I’m just stringing her along. Okay? Like I do every single day with everybody else.”

“I just thought maybe for once something you said was real.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but no.”

“I could never be disappointed in you. Now let’s go get more drinks, or get a drink in your case because your hands seem to be empty.” Caroline took my hand and dragged me through the crowd, bumping me into everyone, making some slosh their drinks, and almost pulling my arm off when I got stuck between two people who grinded their parts together.

I ended up with a pop. I don’t like to drink, and besides, I was only sixteen. I was sure that went against some teenage code, but most of what I did probably went against some sort of moral code anyway, so by not partaking in underage drinking I could balance out my penchant for lying.

***

I lost Caroline to a dancing, preppy-looking guy, and my shoulder and I made friends with the wall. I was perfecting my lean. I didn’t even realize the band stopped playing, but they must have because all of a sudden Dalton stood right in front of me with his hands in his pockets.

I didn’t say anything at first.

He looked at me with a smirk.

Gosh darnit, I couldn’t just ignore him. “I assumed you couldn’t come to parties.”

“Why would you assume that?”

“I heard that you were sent here because you got into trouble, so I well, yeah,” I said, scratching behind my ear and then crossing my arms over my chest, only to uncross them and cross them again.

“Where did you hear that?”

“I have my sources.”

“So you asked around about me?” Dalton asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I was just curious.” I shrugged, trying to act nonchalant while my stomach did all sorts of flip-flops.

“I asked around about you, at school.”

My face fell. Oh dear lord. I said nothing.

“You lead quite the life. Some say descendant of royalty. Some say uptight rich girl. Some say, ‘Oh that girl, she’s kind of weird.’”

I closed my eyes.

“No, I get it,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he understood what there was to get.

“Dalton, let’s not talk about this here.” I pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth and let out a deep breath.

“I won’t tell anybody,” he said, stepping in close.

“Dalton…”

“Then where? Where can we talk about it?”

“We’re not going to.”

“I can’t just sit there in my room knowing you’re only feet away, yet we can’t talk. It’s not fair. It’s not fair to me.”

“It’s just…”

“It’ll be our secret. Nobody at school has to know. Okay?”

I nodded.

“Good.”

With him so close, I couldn’t say no. I just had to separate myself from the Dalton there with me and the one from that day after the door burst open. After all those men dressed in black rushed in, holding guns and shouting. Someone threw something, and there was smoke everywhere. The people who busted in ran toward the ones who got up from their seats at the dining room table with my dad and ran to get out of the house. Someone shouted, “Don’t move!” Some listened, some did not. Glass shattered as one guy broke a window with a chair and jumped. Nobody seemed to notice the two kids sitting there until it was too late. A guy came out from the back of the house shouting words most kids shouldn’t hear, toting a very large gun. Dalton stood up and reached out his hand for me to hold, and that’s when loud noises rang out. I covered my ears as the pops got louder, and then they stopped and somebody grabbed me around the waist. Dalton was on the ground, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling, his whole shirt covered in blood. It seeped out of the corner of his mouth. I reached out and screamed, “Dalton! Dalton!” He didn’t respond. Somebody carried me outside. I was eleven, and it was the first and only time I ever saw somebody get shot. That was how I remembered Dalton. But then there he was in the school hallway, trying to talk to me. And then there he was, alive and well with me at the party.

***

Dalton Reyes was at my window. Holy shit, Dalton Reyes was at my window! We never made plans for talking, but yet a few hours later, there he was. I opened the window and a cool night breeze blew in, sending shivers down my spine.

“This isn’t what I was expecting,” I said.

“It’s the perfect time. Nobody will know anything.” It was past midnight already. I mean hours past midnight.

“Why do you want to talk to me so badly?”

“I don’t know. It’s like you’re the only one I can really talk to – like I’ve been waiting for five years to talk about the day I got shot.”

“Dalton…”

“You’re part of that day, part of my history, part of my life.”

I sighed. “Come on in.”

I opened the window, and he climbed through, dressed like he was going to explore the tundra in his pajamas. A sweatshirt over plaid, flannel pajama bottoms and a beanie, a scarf, and a pair of gloves to top it off – I knew it got cold at night during the late fall, but he was only coming from next door.

“Bundle much?”

“Don’t want to catch a cold,” he said, dropping down on the couch right under the window.

“I guess not. How did you know I was down here?”

“Saw the light, took a chance.”

“Okay,” I said, sitting down on the corner of the couch, pulling up my knees and hugging them. Actually, I slept in the basement most nights. I didn’t have a TV in my room – there wasn’t space – and I liked to fall asleep with a bit of background noise. Usually a couple of hours after I fell asleep, I’d wake up and turn off the TV. Plus, with all the paneling and low ceiling, it felt safe and cozy down there. “But why are you wandering around this time of night?

He shrugged and said, “So…,” totally ignoring my question.

“Yeah, so.”

Dalton didn’t say anything.

“Well, talk.”

“I don’t even know where to begin.”

“The beginning.”

“How about right afterward?” he asked.

“Okay.”

He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face, shook his head and then spoke. “I kept asking for you. If you were okay, if I could see you. But all they told me was that you were fine and I’d never see you again. That seemed so unfair to me. Granted, we didn’t really know each other, but yet we did, and I think that day sealed our fate somehow, like we’ll always be connected. In the hospital, at home, before I went back to school, my mind was forever on you.” Dalton looked up at me. My words stuck in my throat, so Dalton kept talking.

“For the longest time, when I closed my eyes, you’d think I saw the guy with the gun, then nothing – but no, I saw you. I reached my hand out to you, waiting for you to grab it, and it feels like I’m still doing that after five years.”

This boy would be my downfall, but how could I stay away? I scooted over and took his hand, interlacing our fingers.

He took in a breath and looked at me.

“I’ve thought about you every day since then,” I said.

“Then why can’t you talk to me now?”

“Because I’m a liar, a fraud, and you just don’t fit in.”

“You’re going to have to make room.”

“That’s what’s so scary about this.”

“It doesn’t have to be scary.”

“Nobody at school knows about my real life – that day, my dad, my mom, everything. Everything I say is a lie, and if people see us together…”

“Nobody at school knows about me. I’ve only been there a handful of days. Most people think my name is New Guy. They have no way of linking us.”

“But still, my whole life could fall apart.”

“Okay, how about at school, we pretend we don’t know each other; but here, at home, we have this,” he said, holding up our hands.

“What is this?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Dalton…listen, we just need to be friends, okay?”

“Okay,” he said with a head nod, like my suggestion was the simplest of things. “I better go before somebody finds me missing and freaks.”

“See you tomorrow, from a distance?”

“It’s a plan.” He let go of my hand, stood on the couch, and hoisted himself out of the basement window.

It took me a while to fall asleep after Dalton left. Every last detail of that day played on a loop in my head. To be exact, I was eleven years, two months, and thirteen days old when Dalton Reyes knocked on my front door. I was watching that one court show where the judge tells everybody they’re stupid and yells at them – man, that show used to crack me up. I was all nestled up on the couch because it was Saturday, and if I didn’t want to do anything on the weekend, my dad didn’t make me. Besides, he was busy conducting business with a few associates at the dining room table. I was supposed to pretend they weren’t there.

My dad sat at the head of the table, his bald head gleaming and his black t-shirt tight over his chest and biceps. Kids at school used to say my dad looked like he belonged in an action movie. Maybe he did, but only as the villain. A couple of his associates – that’s what he called them – sat with him, arguing under their breath. One of the guys, Mike, was dressed similarly to my dad with a tight black shirt and jeans, but Mike actually had a little bit of hair and big muscles, which is why my dad called him the muscle. “We call in Mike when we need the muscle,” he would say. Mike got things done. What exactly I didn’t know at that time, but I knew it was nothing good. The other guy was named Clay. He always looked unwashed and disheveled, with ripped and dirty clothes, continually red eyes, and always in need of a shave. Other guys wandered throughout the house, and I was totally used to it.

But that day felt special because Dalton was there. He was so cute and nervous. I said hi, and he looked at the ground with his hands in his back pockets, then up at me through those long dark lashes and said, “Hi, I’m Dalton.” I told him my name, then we stood there for a moment staring at each other and my dad told me to shut the door. Well, he actually said, “Jesus Lexie, you know we keep the goddamn front door closed.” So I asked Dalton in. He nodded and said sure – I was so excited to have him so close to me. I took his hand and led him into the front room where we stood holding hands. It felt so wonderful and meant to be. It was the first time I ever thought that I might have a boyfriend. It was like we already knew each other.

“I like your hair,” he said after a while.

“Thanks,” I said. “I like your face.” It was all I could think of – I should have said I liked his hair too because when he was younger, it all stood up straight, like if he held one of those electric balls. It was really cute.

He looked around at all the people in the house. “Who are all these people?” he asked.

I told him they worked for my dad. He then leaned in close to my ear—we still held hands—and asked, “Is your dad a drug dealer?” Later, according to newspaper articles, all the neighbors started to get suspicious of the unusual activity around my house. I told Dalton not to tell anybody. He nodded and I asked him if he played Dancing Revolution – he did, so we started to play. He was really good at it, too. We’d look at each other and smile, pause the game to talk, and stopped for a bit for a snack. We were having fun and were happy. I thought he was even cuter up close – he was so sweet and talked so soft. I had this urge to kiss him, so as he stood there, sweating after winning a round, I gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I’m really glad you came over,” I said.

“Me too,” he said.

We continued to dance, and I thought it was one of those perfect days until we decided to take a breather and drink some pop – and there was this huge boom. The front door had been rammed open. What must have been a smoke bomb flew into the house and the two of us just sat there, terrified. Dalton’s eyes were so big. All of my dad’s guys started screaming and swearing, and these guys in all black and protective gear ran into the house. The next moments happened so fast, but in slow motion at the same time. Dalton shot up to his feet.

“We have to get out of here,” he said. He reached out his hand to me, and I started to reach for it, but my hand froze in midair when Mike appeared in the doorway at the back of the house that led into the kitchen. He held up this huge gun – wasn’t one of the ones I normally saw the guys with – and he pointed it across the room.

I don’t think anybody realized we were there between all the commotion and noise, things breaking and smoke – lots of smoke. Then an explosive sound – bang, bang, bang – rang out. One of the guys in black shot across the room at Mike, who shot back at the same exact time. His body shook as it was riddled with bullets and bam, right to the ground. Then I saw Dalton. He looked down at me with his mouth hanging open, then he looked at his chest and crumpled to the floor. I still reached my hand out to him. He lay on his back, his legs kind of tucked underneath him, staring at the ceiling. He had this look of disbelief, like what had happened hadn’t really sunk in, but I knew. Dalton’s chest started pouring blood. His shirt went from white to red in seconds. He started blinking and coughing, and I crawled to his side. “Dalton,” I said. I placed my hand on his cheek, and then somebody’s arm was around my waist, picking me up off the floor as I screamed for Dalton and thrashed about, but it didn’t faze the guy holding me. I didn’t take me eyes off of Dalton. He lay motionless on the floor. One of the S.W.A.T. guys had his hands on Dalton’s chest – if it weren’t for that one officer, Dalton would have died. I was carried right out of the house.

Outside, all these cop cars and people in uniforms surrounded an ambulance, just waiting there like it knew. I was handed off in hysterics to a cop waiting outside. It seemed so bright out, and I couldn’t stop squinting my eyes. The cop gave me to a paramedic who checked me out and saw that I was fine, only extremely upset. They had to wait for a social worker to show up, so they stuck me in the back of a cop car to wait. I watched as paramedics rushed into the house and came out with Dalton on a stretcher. They had one of those things over his face where they squish the bag to give him oxygen. They shouted and rushed and swept him away – and I just sat there. Lights flashed, yellow crime-scene tape went up, and then they came out with Mike, the guy who shot Dalton. He was in a black body bag. I then realized that I watched a person die that day. I think part of me died, too. My grandma says it was my innocence. My childhood. Eventually, a social worker came and I didn’t talk. My dad was the only family I had around, and he got arrested that day, so I stayed in an emergency foster home where somebody could keep an eye on me temporarily until things were figured out. My grandma showed up two days later.

Now, Dalton was most definitely back in my life, and we were going to be friends. Just friends, that’s all. Just friends.

Chapter Six

In school, Dalton saw me and gave me a slight nod. I realized I had to acknowledge him at least a bit in public, since I supposedly somewhat knew him because word around school now said he was friends with some distant prince I once courted. Dalton and his darn song.

“I still can’t believe it,” Luiz said, walking up next to Caroline, who stood near my locker.

I didn’t give a response.

“Now the whole school is talking about it.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not, but outrageous lies and stories were my specialty, so why not?

“Where did you meet him?” Luiz asked.

“Remember when I said I went to fashion week when I was younger?” I asked, going along with her.

“That is so, wow.”

Caroline smiled and shook her head – she knew that I was, in fact, full of bullshit. Sometimes I just wished she knew the levels of it. I considered myself the worst possible friend ever, but the truth was just too painful for me. Caroline had never even been to my house. If people knew where I lived, they’d all know – people passing by the neighborhood frequently said things like, “There was this huge drug bust there years ago,” or, “That old lady is the lead of a giant drug ring.” She actually had nothing to do with it. It was all my dad. “That’s the house where that kid got killed.” People seemed to forget that Dalton was still alive.

As I was about to leave school, I got a text: Meet me in front of the library.

I wasn’t sure which library exactly. The school library? I got another text: Sorry, the one near your house.

I didn’t recognize the phone number, but I had a sneaking suspicion on who it was. How did he get my phone number? As per usual, I had nothing to do after school, so I decided to meet Dalton. I got off the bus near the library – as opposed to going one stop over and getting off near my house – and there, sitting on a cement bench with his legs crisscrossed and looking down into a book, was Dalton Reyes.

He always haunted my periphery, waiting and never sure where to go. Now that he was back, I couldn’t call it a haunting – but I was sure the memories would haunt me for a lifetime. I closed my eyes for a second and let out a breath as a memory washed over me. It was so loud. A pool of blood started to form around Dalton, and it was just all so loud. I shook my head, remembering that Dalton was alive and okay – and sitting on a bench waiting for me.

 

I walked up to Dalton and tapped the top of his book. He looked up and smiled at me. He never smiled much in school. He was so handsome, and his smile increased that tenfold. He got these cute little wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, his teeth were perfect, and his lips such a beautiful rosy color. I was transfixed on him, my mouth partially hanging open.

“Hey,” he said, snapping me out of it.

“Something for school?” I asked as he closed his book and slid it into his backpack.

“No.”

“You actually read for enjoyment?”

“Don’t sound so surprised. I’m more than just a pretty face.”

“Shut up, you’re as ugly as all get out,” I said, nudging his leg with the tip of my shoe.

“I get that a lot.” Dalton shrugged like he told the truth.

“What were you reading?”

That was when Dalton blushed. It was the cutest damned thing ever.

“Where My Heart Goes.”

“Oh,” I said, seriously trying not to laugh. There was nothing wrong with guys reading romance novels, but I knew that book – my grandma had read it!

“Let’s go inside.”

“Okay,” I said. Inside was a good idea. It was pretty chilly out, and my coat was a little too thin.

As we walked into the warm and slightly dim library, Dalton went over to the circulation desk. He leaned over and said, “Pssttt,” to a woman scanning in books and wearing a cat sweatshirt.

“Dalton!”

“I was here by myself.”

The woman, about my grandma’s age, looked around Dalton at me, smiling. “By yourself,” she said.

“You’re the best, Char.”

“Only for the young men I love.”

Dalton waved at me over his shoulder, and I followed. We went over to the children’s section and sat at a table that had picture books strewn all over it.

“We’re in the children’s section,” I said, stating the obvious.

“They don’t mind if you talk in the children’s section.”

“Oh,” I said. It made sense.

“And, we’re still technically children,” Dalton said, pulling off his layers – first his jacket, then his hoodie underneath –and hanging them on the back of his little chair.

“True. Should I pick out some easy readers for us?”

“Yes, preferably ones with that cute, little, yellow puppy.”

“So, what’s up with you and the librarian? Is it serious?”

“Totally. We’re going to have beautiful children together.”

“As long as they come out looking like you…” I said, trailing off. I could feel my face flush.

“Hey, I thought you said I was as ugly as all get out.”

“Truly horrific.” I scrunched up my nose and stuck out my tongue, trying to cover up what I couldn’t believe I let slip.

“Thank you. Anyway, I wanted to meet here because my lola is home at this time on Mondays, and my family tracks my every move. Spies and eyes everywhere, like our sweet Char up front. My lola’s friend. My grandma’s been taking me to this library since I was about nine, so Char knows me – she’s to report back to my lola to tell her if I actually stayed the whole time at the library.”

“Jesus, and Char lies on your behalf?”

“We’ll see.”

“So you’re under constant watch?” I asked, pushing some of the picture books to the side.

“That’s why I started reading a lot after, you know, because I had nothing else to do. Reading and making music. God, just my parents, my whole family, really. They have me under, what would you call it? I don’t know. It’s like I’ve been imprisoned in my own life.”

“But how are you in a band then?”

Dalton sighed and his expression fell a little. I wanted to reach out, stroke my finger over his beautiful cheekbones and tell him everything was all right. God, what was I thinking?

“So my parents have held the reins pretty damn tight. I could never go anywhere alone. Never went to another birthday party, not another pool party. Granted, I was severely shy when I was younger, so that was no big deal. But the friends I did have always had to come over to my house. I couldn’t ever go outside by myself. They were and still are so afraid something else would happen to me, so about a year back, I well…I think I just started acting like a normal teenager,” he said, flipping through one of the picture books on the table. He stopped on a page with a little polar bear stuck on an iceberg.

“And what does being a normal teenager encompass?” I asked, closing the book and pushing it to the side.

“Sneaking out, getting in fights, stuff like that.”

“I’ve never snuck out or gotten in a fight.”

“Maybe you’re not normal.”

“Far from it.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not normal either.”

“Are we talking fist fights here?”

“A couple, yeah,” he said, scratching the tip of his nose. “One was over something stupid I started. I just wanted to show people that I wasn’t this little delicate thing. Well, didn’t work out that way. My parents had already caught me sneaking in the house the one night. Okay, and I swear it wasn’t like late or anything. It was like ten o’clock at night, and I went to the movies. Seriously, the movies. I couldn’t even go to the movies without my parents. So that coupled with the first fight, I had to become good friends with my room.”

“That’s kind of crazy, but how does this lead to you being in a band?”

“Okay, so, the only place they did let me go to after that was youth group at the church. Then one day, I picked up a guitar that belonged to one of the youth group leaders – just an acoustic one – and started playing, and some kid started playing along. We got to talking, and I started to bring my own guitar. My parents only let me do that because they thought I was playing Christian music. Which I did. I even wrote my own songs.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Let me bring you higher to my savior,” Dalton sang, leaning back in his little wooden chair.

“You just made that up.”

“And let his holy light shine on me,” he sang, crossing his arms over his chest.

“You’re for real.”

“Yep, and I started staying after with Matt, my now band member, and we’d work on stuff together. Then this guy, Harry, started hanging out with us, and he happened to be a drummer. I told my parents I was training to be a junior group leader, that’s why I had to stay.”

“So you’re really just a bunch of church boys.”

“Yeah, I know, so rebellious, right?”

“But you still did get in some fights.”

“Yeah, but, you know.”

“Okay, so how do you go from hanging out and playing together at youth group to playing at Nat Drummond’s party?” I asked as a mom and little boy, dressed like an early winter apocalypse was about to happen, walked over and started flipping through the books. The mom gave me some stink eye, but I pretended not to notice.

“We all started playing at the youth church services and I started making excuses after school so we could get in some practice. Then some church friends invited us to play at their birthday party. They wanted original songs, which I just wrote in my room and e-mailed to the guys. We didn’t even really practice them before the party. I thought it would be my one and only gig because that was months ago, and my parents found out, and all hell broke loose. But Nat saw me the first day I started school here, and it was like his cousin’s friend’s party we played, and he asked if I wanted to play his party.”

“So his party was like your second official gig.”

“I’m not sure I’d call it an official gig. It was just some dude’s basement, but yeah,” Dalton said, uncrossing his arms and itching the side of his nose.

“What happened when your parents found out about that first party?”

“They pretty much exiled me to my room. Which wasn’t much different from my status before, except that they started formulating ideas on me transferring schools, so on and so forth.”

“And you ended up at your lola’s,” I said, seeing the little boy pull books one by one off the shelf, dropping them to the ground as his mom scrolled through something on her phone.

“Yep.”

“I’m surprised they let you stay there.”

“You and me both. I told them it might be cathartic for me. A reminder to keep me on track. They were also kind of desperate.”

“Is it working?”

“Not at all.”

“You’re the most un-rebellious, rebellious kid ever to live.”

“Pretty much. I hang out with youth group members and sneak off to the library.”

“And hang out with me, which you’re not supposed to be doing.”

“I could start some sort of rebel gang,” he said, his mouth turning up in the corner and his finger tracing the grain in the wood of the table.

“You did say you started some fights.”

“The one was barely anything.” Dalton looked over his shoulder at the boy who started kicking the books on the floor. The mom finally caught on to her son’s antics, huffed, and dragged him away, not picking up a single book her son took out.

I laughed. “And the other one?”

“Just some jerk.”

“That’s vague.”

Dalton shrugged.

“I think your parents might have misjudged you. What’s so wrong about letting you live your life?”

“Apparently, everything.”

I reached across the table and placed my hand on top of his. He then leaned forward and rested his forehead on top of our hands. I ran my fingers through his hair, combing them through a couple of times and letting my hand lay there for a moment before removing it. Dalton sat up and grabbed my hand back. I let him hold it a moment, and it felt reassuring almost, but then I yanked it back.

“Friends, Dalton,” I said. “Friends.” Even though I did hold his hand in my basement the night before, and couldn’t seem to stop touching him as we sat there in the library. “And I hardly know you.”

“I think you know me better than anybody. You just won’t admit it.”

“You can’t just show up in my life and expect…what do you expect from us?”

“I’ve thought about you every day since then.”

“Dalton…”

“I know it’s crazy and really makes no sense, but there’s something. When I saw you in the school hallway, it was like my heart went into overdrive.”

I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes for a moment. “We need to be just friends.”

Dalton nodded, his mouth dropping into a frown, looking defeated. “Friends.”

“Friends.”

Dalton left the library before I did. We didn’t want to get caught walking together. When I got home, I threw myself onto my bed. Why did I have to lie? To Dalton, about life. I knew exactly what Dalton was talking about. I felt it, too. When he looked at me, touched my hand, that deep timbre of his voice – it made me feel all different inside, excited, happy. It was uncharted territory for me, really. I never had feelings for a boy like this before. He had an effect on me, and it left me wanting to kiss him. Those lips of his on mine – I bet they’d feel wonderful.

Not going to happen. I pushed away the thoughts. My life was too much of a complicated web of lies. It couldn’t happen.

Chapter Seven

That night, I went to open my window to let in some fresh air. I worked the old wood frame up and realized I could see across the way into a room in Dalton’s lola’s house. I knew our houses were close, and I knew I could see into their house, but I never paid much attention before. I looked over into what looked like a spare bedroom, but the main reason my eyes were drawn over there was because I saw Dalton hanging from the room’s doorway. I kept seeing him go up and down and at first was a bit confused, and then I realized he had a chin-up bar attached to the doorframe. He wore a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt and, with crossed ankles, he pulled himself up and down, up and down. I could see his biceps flex, and the muscles in his forearms strain as he exercised. I didn’t mean to stare – I wasn’t even aware that I did so – but then Dalton jumped down and looked across at me, wiped a hand across his sweating brow, and smiled. I jumped back from my window, falling onto my bed.

***

“Oh my god,” Caroline said, slapping my shoulder. “That boy is going to devour you alive with his eyes.”

“Whatever,” I said as I walked next to Caroline down the school hallway.

“Word is that he’s been asking around about you.”

“Oh, yeah. He kind of told me.”

“Yep, somebody has the hots for you.”

“It’s not going to happen.”

“Lexie, Lexie, Lexie.” Caroline shook her head and her hair flitted all about in perfect waves. One of her goals was to be in a shampoo commercial, so she had hair tossing, flipping, and shaking down to an art. Her hair did look pretty in motion.

“Lexie, what?”

“You can’t stop love. It just happens.”

“He doesn’t love me.”

“Those eyes of his tell me otherwise,” Caroline said, grabbing my arm and pulling me closer to her.

“I’m going to have to tell him to start wearing sunglasses.”

“Don’t make him hide that face of his. Staring at it has become a highlight of my day. That bone structure.” Caroline hugged my arm and looked wistfully off into the distance.

“Then go ask him out,” I said, exiting the school by way of a bottle neck of students.

“I think he bites.”

“He does not bite. He’s the most harmless thing there is.”

“So now you know him well?”

“Ah!” I threw my free arm up in the air. What did Caroline want from me? “Listen, you know my life,” I said, stepping off to the side once we were outside.

“What, you think he’ll reject you because you’re a habitual liar?”

She’d never called me that before. She knew, but always seemed to accept it. I once looked up insistent lying on the internet, and it said what Caroline called me – a habitual liar. Psychologists used the term mythomania. I met Caroline in eighth grade – she caught on to my lies right away. Maybe because she’s an actress, she could tell when someone faked it, lied, told stories, whatever I did. But anyway, we had to do a family tree project for history. I stood in front of the classroom with mine – a visual web of lies. I dressed up nicely for the occasion—made the lie more convincing—and brought along the knowledge of what I learned a year or two prior; bring in souvenirs, actual proof to seal the deal. In front of twenty-three students, I stood in a pair of ballet flats and a swingy empire waist dress, holding my large board of life up for everyone to see.

“Okay, up here are my great-great-grandparents. My great-great-grandpa was a Furst of Lichtenstein, but moved here against his parents’ wishes and no longer held his title, took the last name Stein, and that was when he met my great-great-grandmother,” I said.

“So you come from royalty?” a classmate asked.

“Yes. I do believe I’m actually considered royalty.”

Then came in Caroline. I will say, at first, she was not my friend.

“You’ve watched one too many princess movies, or was it that one with the prince you saw?” she said, holding her cute little nose up in the air all snooty like.

I drew in my eyebrows, gave her my stink eye, and kept talking. “When he first met her, my great-great-grandfather didn’t know my great-great-grandmother was a runaway princess from Spain, avoiding an arranged marriage.”

A few of our classmates oohed and ahhed. Our teacher nodded her head.

“They married and had my great-grandmother.”

“What about your other great-grandparents?” Caroline asked.

“I don’t know about them. I don’t even know too much about my grandpa from that side, who’s here,” I said, pointing to his spot on the board. “But he was a big time movie star back in the golden age of Hollywood.”

“What about your grandma, your mom’s mom?”

“My mom has been out of the country, so I couldn’t ask her.”

“Oh really, where?” Caroline asked. She was really starting to get on my nerves.

“Fashion week in Paris.”

“Okay, girls, that’s enough,” our teacher said.

“Lexie, have a seat. Meet me after class and maybe I can help fill in the blanks.” That was my teacher’s way of nicely saying, “I know you’re full of it.” But to the students, I was thirteen when I became a descendant of royalty.

Before I sat down, I slyly gave Caroline the middle finger behind my back. I then curtsied and took a seat. She’d been my friend since.

 

“Lexie, you are,” Caroline said, snapping me back to reality and our discussion about my liar status.

“I know, but that’s not why.”

“Then tell me.” She looked at me with pleading eyes – eyes I almost wanted to give in and tell the truth to, be free of the weight.

“I’d have to dive too far into my web of lies and deceit.”

“I’m your friend. I almost want to say best friend. You’re supposed to tell me things,” she said, grabbing my wrist and lightly shaking my arm.

“Just almost?”

“Lexie, I’ve never even been to your house before.” Which was true. I was the queen of evasion.

I sighed. “Ugh.”

“What does that even mean?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is that how you feel about our friendship?” she asked, dropping my arm like all of a sudden she realized she held a sack of poop.

“God, no.”

“You don’t have a lot of friends, Lexie.”

“I know,” I said. I looked Caroline over. She looked perfect as always. If I dressed like her, I would have probably looked a slob. She pulled her hair up in a sloppy, beautiful mess. Her sweatpants hugged her just right, and her nose—which had nothing to do with her attire, but added to the ensemble nonetheless—looked small and button-like as it always did.

“Yes, everybody knows who you are, and you’re pretty, but people…”

“People what?” I asked, my hands now on my hips.

“They can’t make up their minds about you. They’re starting to catch on that you’re deceiving them, even after that Prince Tomas thing at the party.”

“Wow, thanks.”

“I’m sorry, but it’s the truth.”

“I have to get home now.”

“Lexie, wait.”

“No, I gotta go.”

***

I sat on the bus brooding, knowing what Caroline said was the truth. Some guy who smelled like feet and wore a trench coat sat down next to me, partially on top of my thigh. I scooted as far over as I could, pressing myself up against the window, watching everything go by: a hospital, a soccer field, a family walking down the sidewalk, people crossing the street, people in the parking lot to a Jewel, all people who probably didn’t lie about everything. People who weren’t afraid to admit who they were, where they came from, their awful histories.

To most, I probably looked totally normal, sitting there on the bus – at least on the outside. Long light-brown hair down my back, pale brown eyes, eyebrows a little too unruly, my trusty scarf around my neck. But I was really a girl whose mother left her when she was five, whose dad led a drug ring covering the northern suburbs and who now sat in jail for his crimes. I hadn’t talked to him since he was sent there. He’d requested to see me, but I just couldn’t. I couldn’t go. So besides my grandma, all I had were my lies – the way I wished my life was. I just didn’t want to face the real me. The one who felt so alone and abandoned, responsible for a boy almost dying, scared that once something good came into her life it would be taken away. It was just better living in my world of make believe. In that world, I could at least pretend I was happy.

“What’s wrong?” my grandma asked when I walked in the front door. She was on the couch watching a game show on TV.

“Nothing, everything, me.”

“That’s a lot. Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Want to go to bingo?”

“Yes.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Maybe me screaming ‘bingo’ will fill the void.” I dropped my shoulders and dumped my bag on the ground.

“Oh my sweet.” My grandma turned off the TV. “Let me help fill that void.”

“With cookies?’

“If that’s a start, then yes.”

 

“Can I tell you what I think that void is from?” my grandma asked as we sat at the kitchen table eating sandwich cookies and watching the show that was on when I walked in the house. She glanced at the little white TV that sat on the table’s back corner and then back at me.

I sighed. I wasn’t prepared for an actual conversation. I just wanted a cookie.

“It’s your innocence. It was taken away that day. What you saw…”

“Oh please, not that again. Please don’t psychoanalyze me, Grandma.”

“Hey, young lady, you brought up the void.”

“Maybe it’s not a void, it’s…I don’t know. God, I don’t know what to do about him.”

“Ah, I see. Yes, makes sense.”

“What makes sense?”

“Boy troubles.”

“He just…ugh.” I shoved the rest of the cookie I held into my mouth.

“Please stay away from him, Lexie.”

“How do you know who I’m talking about?”

“I know.” She patted my hand and then handed me another cookie.

“Don’t worry, I told him to stay away,” I said, taking the cookie from her.

“I wish it wasn’t this way.”

“Why though? What’s so wrong with us being friends?”

“They’ve made it very clear that we are not to be near him.”

“How? I don’t get it.”

“You were too young.” My grandma shook her head and frowned.

“So tell me, Grandma.”

“It’s all part of the lawsuit. It was settled, long ago, but still.”

“What are you talking about?” There was still so much I didn’t know.

“Our family wasn’t supposed to be within so many feet of theirs. If we were, we could get arrested.”

“How is that possible? We live next door.”

“At first, we didn’t though.”

“I thought that was because of the investigation and evidence and stuff like that.”

“It was, but we also had to be careful. The restraining order was for a year.”

“And after that year we moved here, out of that little apartment.”

“Trust me, I didn’t want to live here, but there was no way I’d be able to sell this house.”

I nodded. Before that day, just me and my dad lived in the house. My grandma lived in Arizona, but she moved out here so I wouldn’t have to switch schools, and so she could take care of other affairs – mainly, selling the house – since my dad was in jail.

“So the restraining order ended four years ago.”

“They told me if we were ever within their son’s vicinity, they would sue us, and I believe them, Lexie.”

“Sue you for what? That’s absurd.”

“Maybe, but they’d find something. Causing undue emotional duress to their child, something like that.”

I didn’t feel like eating cookies anymore.

 

When I got home from bingo with my grandma, I went up to my room. I looked out the window, maybe just a bit curious, maybe just to see Dalton’s muscles flex again. He wasn’t doing his chin-ups though. He stood in the middle of the room wearing a t-shirt that said The Flying Magpies and some severely low-slung jeans, with his guitar strapped to him. I swore he was waiting for me. He didn’t look up, only bent over to flip on his amp and started playing. His head bobbed along to the beat, and then he looked right through the window at me and started singing, and loudly, because I could hear the hum of his voice and guitar through my window. Our eyes locked, and a smile started to creep up the corner of my mouth. He played my Prince Tomas song.

I struggled to pull up my window. Some cool air rushed in on my face, and I could hear his beautiful voice. It was so deep and soothing and made my heart flutter. This was not good.

I rested my chin on the windowsill and kneeled on my desk chair. He licked his lips and kept singing, his expression totally serious and concentrated.

“Get some new material,” I said through the screen, then realized he didn’t have his window open and probably couldn’t hear me. He quickly remedied that though, sauntering the few steps across the room and lifting his window. I repeated what I said, trying to erase the slow-mo image of him licking his lips that played on repeat in my head. He pointed at me, walked backwards, and started a new song. It was a fast one, and he started jumping around the room singing, probably too loud because his sister stuck her head in the door and shouted something at him. He laughed and continued his song a tad quieter. Luckily, his sister did not see me.

Chapter Eight

At school, Dalton gave me a smirk. I tried to hold in my smile but couldn’t. His powers of adorability were strong. And I swore, every time I saw him, it was like in slow motion, and there might have been music, like total movie moment, and then his smirk—I melted inside. I watched his back as he walked away, the way his jeans hugged his hips perfectly and the wonderful shape of his bottom. Oh dear lord, I liked Dalton Reyes. I didn’t know how much longer I could resist.

He was all I could think about in class. The way he smelled, the way he felt so close to me, the softness of his touch. I got in trouble with yet another teacher for not paying attention. This time it was my gym teacher, and I got hit in the head with a basketball. Mrs. Neilson yelled at me about focusing as I snapped back to reality in the gym.

“Just because this is P.E. does not mean you get to slack off,” Mrs. Neilson yelled. She might have been a drill sergeant at one point in her life because her only form of communication was yelling. “Do you understand?”

“Huh?” I responded.

“Lexie, are you even aware of what class you’re in?”

“Gym.” Oh man, I forgot and said the word – Mrs. Neilson’s trigger word.

“This is physical education, Lexie, not gym. This is not some class for an easy A. Physical, it’s in the title. Gym is an antiquated class for little kids on scooters. This is physical education.”

She was still carrying on when I interrupted her. “I seem to be experiencing double vision. I need to go to the nurse.”

“The ball barely touched you, Lexie.”

“If my parents found out that my eyesight is at risk, you and the school will get in lots of trouble.”

“What’s so special about your eyesight?” she asked, not caring that I could possibly be having vision problems.

“As part of one of my parents’ outreach programs, I read to elderly patients in one of their non-profit hospices, and I am the best at what I do.” Okay, I knew what I said really made no sense. “Patients seek out my family on word of my abilities, and if they get lawyers involved…”

“Lexie, get out of my gymnasium, and go to the nurse.” See, she couldn’t even bring herself to say “gym,” even to refer to a type of classroom.

“Much appreciated,” I said.

After gym, one of my classmates found me in the hall.

“What’s the name of your parents’ hospice?” he asked. “I’d like to volunteer.”

“So does everybody else in the world. There’s a waiting list to volunteer. Would you like me to put your name on the list?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

“What’s your last name again?” I asked. To be honest, I didn’t even know his first name.

“Graham, James Graham,” he said, swiping his long bangs across his forehead.

“Okay, cool, James – I’ll put you down. Oh, and I need a phone number to reach you when a spot becomes available.”

I collected all of James’ information and went on with the rest of my day, thinking of a good name for my parents’ outreach program. In case anybody asked, I always had to be prepared. Lies sometimes require lots of details. Not initially, but as you get further into them.

***

I got home from school, and my grandma sat at the kitchen table with a solemn look on her face.

“What happened?” I asked, always assuming the worst.

“Got a phone call.”

“Okay…,” I said, going over in my head if I did anything worthy of the school calling home. Oh man, I hoped it wasn’t about gym. I never went to the nurse.

“It was your dad.”

“Oh, geez,” I said, going into a full body slump.

“He just wants you to visit.”

“No.”

“You haven’t seen him in five years.”

“Yeah, with good reason.” I crossed my arms over my chest.

“He loves you.”

“If he really loved me, he would have done everything he could to keep me safe, keep my friends safe. He would have had a totally different job. If you can even call what he did a job.”

“Just think about it.”

“I already have.”

“Lexie…”

“I have homework to do.”

I went up to my room, but didn’t even attempt my homework. Instead, I sat in front of my sewing machine with my arms crossed. I really hadn’t seen my dad since that day, and I had no plans of ever seeing him. If he loved me so much, he would have tried to lead a clean life. I wouldn’t have cared if we had no money or lived in someone’s basement. We would have had each other, and that should have been enough, but it wasn’t. He was evil and selfish, his line of work required it. My grandma once told me it wasn’t a huge operation – which I do believe was a lie – but still, he got himself thrown in jail and got Dalton shot, not to mention all the people he had corrupted with drugs. He also turned me into a liar – okay, I might have already been one, but he encouraged it – not to mention whatever he did that made my mom go away. Grandma claimed it was her, not him, but I don’t know. If I was married to a man like my dad, I’d leave too – but I’d at least take my child with me.

Why couldn’t I have been born into another family?

I stood up, looked out my window, and there was Dalton in the room across the way, sitting in an office chair with his knees drawn up, reading a book, and biting his thumbnail. I just watched him for a while, the way his brow furrowed and un-furrowed, and on occasion he mouthed a line or two, biting the corner of his lip. He looked over his book, right at me. Busted. He put his book down on the shelves next to him and stood up, walking toward the window. I opened mine, and he opened his.

“It’s for school,” he said. “The book. No torrid love affairs tonight.”

“Okay,” I said.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing, really. Brooding, maybe.”

“Brooding?”

“It’s nothing.”

“I bet it’s not,” he said, then turning away from the window. “I ate already,” he shouted. He then sighed and walked away from the window to the door of the room, sticking his head out and shouting something else. He came back to the window shaking his head. “My lola and lolo are constantly trying to shove more food in me.”

“Ah,” I said.

“By the time I leave here, I’ll weigh three hundred pounds.”

“I think the weight would look good on you.”

“I hope so.”

I smiled.

He smiled back. “I have to go eat more food, even though I ate already.”

“See you in a few extra pounds then.”

“You should take a nap now.” His lips pressed in a smirk.

“Why?”

“So when I sneak over later you won’t be tired.”

“Who said you could sneak over?” I asked, putting my elbows and forearms up on my windowsill as a cool breeze touched my face.

“You did.”

“I did not.”

“I bet you want me to.”

“I’m not sleeping in the basement tonight.”

“I bet around midnight the light will be on.”

“You’re wrong, my friend.”

“Our friendship is official now, good.”

“Go eat a second dinner, Dalton.”

“Later.”

I already knew I would accidently fall asleep in the basement watching TV.

***

There he was, six minutes past midnight.

I opened the window, and he crawled in. He had on basketball shorts, a pullover hoodie, knit hat, and a pair of Chucks with no socks.

“I think the shorts and hat contradict each other,” I said as he plopped down onto the couch.

He answered with, “Do you think I really need new material?”

“No,” I said, sitting down on the other end of the couch. “I actually really like your stuff.”

“Thanks,” he said, looking down at his hands.

“So, what’s up?”

He shrugged. “Just wanted to talk.”

“Really?”

“Would you prefer we do something else?”

“God, no.”

He smiled, turned on the couch so he leaned against the arm of it, and stretched his legs out across the cushions, his feet landing on my thigh.

“So why were you brooding tonight?”

“It’s nothing,” I said, glancing down at his feet, leaving them there.

“You wouldn’t have mentioned the brood if it was nothing.”

I sighed. “Um…my dad wants me to visit him.”

“Okay.”

“Last time I talked to him, I was eleven.” I lay my head back on the couch and stared at the panels of the drop down ceiling.

“Do you miss him?”

“Am I wrong if I do?” I asked, rolling my head and looking at Dalton, a sympathetic expression on his face.

“No, he’s your dad.”

“I can’t let go of what happened. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to forgive him.”

“In all fairness, he didn’t shoot me.”

“But his actions led to it, so it’s just as bad.”

“Maybe at least call him?”

“I don’t know. What do you think I should do?”

“Whatever you feel in your heart,” he said, pulling his feet off my lap and sitting up. He hugged his knees and stuck his chin on top.

“That’s no help.”

Dalton shrugged. “Sorry, it’s not my decision to make. Maybe you need to talk some things through with him.”

“Ugh, why is my life so complicated?”

“Is that why you lie, so people don’t know the real you?”

“Maybe. Explaining everything, my whole life, it’s just too much. Nothing about it’s good.”

“What’s so wrong about it?”

I sighed. It was the first time that I tried to put it in words that weren’t just floating around in my brain. “My mom, my dad, that day. I think lying like became my natural defense mechanism. It started right after my mom left. At school, kids would ask me why they never saw my mom. Why I never talked about her. I didn’t want to have to tell them that my own mother left me. I wasn’t worth sticking around. It’s a crappy feeling to have.”

“Yeah, sorry. That does suck.”

“So, then my dad told me to make something up about his work, and it just kept growing, and I grew to kind of like making things up. I used to make up stories about my life and anything random. Like this one time in third grade I convinced everyone that I had a zombie trapped in my basement, and if I ever let him go, a zombie apocalypse would start. I gave kids nightmares for years. I think some are still scared of me because of it, but I always feel oddly better after I tell a lie.”

Dalton let go of his knees, and scooted over on the couch so we were shoulder to shoulder.

“I feel like I ruined your life. I always thought about how you felt afterward, about what you saw. It messed me up, so I imagined it kind of did the same to you,” Dalton said.

“Yeah, I guess it did, but it’s not like you had anything to do with it. I was kind of messed up even before that day. It was just the icing on the cake. Don’t ever think you had any sort of negative impact on my life. My dad did. The people who worked for him did. The guy who shot you did. You had nothing to do with ruining me. You were an innocent victim of my crappy life.”

“Don’t say that, Lexie. I always imagined the wonderful things you did next door. The great and adventurous life you led that scared my lolo and lola. Please don’t say your life is crappy.”

“What kind of stuff did you imagine?”

“My favorite thing I came up with is kind of embarrassing, weird.”

“Now you have to tell me.”

“It’s of you sitting in front of a mirror and brushing your hair.”

“Brushing my hair?”

“I loved your hair. I thought it was so beautiful that you brushing it, well, I guess it was like a ten year old turn on.”

“I’m not sure if that’s weird or kind of cute.” My heart yearned for him and ached for my mother. One of the few memories I have of her is that she would always sit me on her lap and brush my hair. She would brush it so gently and sing me a song. I remember how much I used to love it, and sometimes, if I let myself, I swore I could bring myself back to her sweet singing, the way she smelled like jasmine and how she would hug me and say, “All done.” I always keep my hair long and perfectly straight.

“Thinking of it used to give me a boner.”

Dalton snapped me out of my moment of nostalgia. “Dalton!”

“It really did.”

“And what about now?’

“I’d have to excuse myself to use the bathroom.” I slapped him in the shoulder.

“Okay, what else?” I asked, trying to keep our conversation from getting too…I wasn’t sure what, but we needed to stop talking about boners.

“My lola didn’t like your dad, and at the time I didn’t know why. She used to say it was dangerous over there, so I thought perhaps, you were someone of the utmost importance – like a princess in hiding, and people were always trying to kidnap you.”

I laughed. “I’ve always spun these lies and tales involving me and royalty. There’s this story I used to tell about a prince and a princess.”

“Really?”

“Do you want to hear it?” I asked with a raised eyebrow. It was so easy with Dalton. I didn’t have to hold anything back and the stories I told him were just stories, not lies, because he knew the truth.

“Of course.”

“I did a creative writing assignment in seventh grade about it,” I started, snuggling back into the plaid pullout couch. The brown from the plaid blended with the brown of the paneled walls, and with the lowered ceiling, it felt like a warm, safe cave down there. “There was a young prince and princess from two different kingdoms. The young royals couldn’t have had any more different backgrounds. The prince came from a kingdom of upstanding citizens where they held truth and kindness in high regard. They had strong family values and loved each other deeply. The young princess came from a kingdom where wealth mattered the most. They honored things like greed and gluttony and didn’t care how they gained things. Crime ran rampant in the princess’ kingdom. The prince and princess were warned to stay away from each other.” I stopped a moment and looked at Dalton. He nodded at me. I’m quite certain he knew who and what my story was about.

“Okay, I swear I’m not making this up. But what the Queen says is pretty much along the lines of what your lola said.”

“Really?”

I nodded and continued. “‘They’re just not nice people over in that kingdom,’ the queen would tell the young prince,” I said, glancing down at Dalton’s thigh. I wanted to place my hand on it, but shook away the idea and continued with my story. “‘You shouldn’t make friends with Royals from kingdoms so close. We don’t want them snooping around, now do we?’ the king said to the young princess. So they watched each other from afar. Until one day, the prince got up enough courage and went to the princess’ kingdom. Together, they had a day of delight and fancy – one of the best in all the time they could remember. Then the evil guard invaded the princess’ kingdom, led by a wicked witch who cursed the young prince, and he was never able to visit the princess’ kingdom again. The end. After my teacher graded the paper and handed it back, I told her it was all true. She looked at me and said, ‘That’s nice, honey.’”

“That’s a positive spin of events,” Dalton said when I finished.

“Yeah, I like that version better.”

“In a way, it was like a curse.”

“Yeah?”

“But the curse has been broken.”

“Not totally. We’re just working around it. I think it was also like part haunting.”

“But I didn’t die,” Dalton said, placing his hand on his thigh. I swore he knew what I was thinking. “Well…I take that back. Actually, I did. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I stopped breathing and on the operating table, I flat-lined. The surgeon stuck his hands in my chest and massaged my heart back to life or something.”

“Oh my god.”

Dalton nodded and looked down at his hand lying on his thigh, probably wondering if I would hold it.

“But I swear your spirit separated itself from you, maybe at one of those moments, and has been with me ever since.”

“So I’ve been haunting you even though I’m still alive?” Dalton asked with a tip of the head.

“Yes. Sometimes, I’d turn and see you out the corner of my eye, or my mind would just start thinking about you like I had no control over it. And all the questions I always had. You have been a part of me since that day and like you said, it’s like somehow I’ve been reaching my hand out to you ever since.”

“I think it’s pertinent that we never be separated again.”

“Dalton…”

“I’m sorry, but we need each other whether you want to admit it or not.”

“My life might fall to shambles because of you.”

“Well, I’ll be there to help you pick up the pieces.”

“We’re not dating or anything.”

“Okay, but you promise always to remain a part of my life?”

“I promise.” I wanted to scream out, “No, what are you making me say!” – but my heart knew that I needed to make that promise.

“I don’t want to haunt you anymore.”

“We’re going to have to work on that.”

Dalton lay his head on my shoulder, and I took his hand in mine. I had to show him at least I was there for him. We sat like that and continued talking about nothing important, like our classes and living with our grandparents – all the while his hand so warm in mine, sending tingles through my body that I tried desperately to ignore. I leaned my head on his, and I never felt so comfortable with another person before. After a while, he said he probably should be going, and he got to his feet with his hand still in mine, pulling me up to standing. We were nose to nose. I closed my eyes for a second, breathing in minty-apples – an odd, but wonderful scent for a sixteen-year-old boy. He took my other hand and looked down at me, and I looked up into his dark brown eyes and my stomach did a flip-flop as a small smile crept across his face. He squeezed my fingers and then let go. “See you tomorrow, Lexie.”

 

Chapter Nine

At lunch, Caroline threw herself down in the seat in front of me. She blew her hair up out of her face and plopped her bag onto the table.

“You don’t have lunch this period,” I said.

“Minor details,” she said, eyeballing my lunch tray. I knew at least half of my food would be surrendered to her. I didn’t mind, though. One, because she was my friend and we always ate each other’s food, and two, because the cafeteria was filled with an awful stench of something that had burnt. A burger catastrophe, perhaps. I usually ate burgers for lunch, but none were available that day, so I ate what was on special – some sort of rice and meat casserole. Combined with that stank, I willingly pushed my tray toward my friend.

“Just minor,” I said as she picked up my spork and dug in.

“There’s a sub in my physics class,” she said with a mouth full of food. She claimed her mother was a terrible cook, so she could pretty much eat anything because it tasted better than what her mom made.

“They still take attendance.”

“Like I said…”

“Minor details.”

“You’re catching on, but really I wanted to ask you something. A very cool opportunity has come your way.” She pointed the spork at me and gave a slight nod.

“Oh no, you didn’t meet a prince from Nigeria online, did you?”

“No,” she said, laughing. “You know how I did that car dealership commercial?”

“Yeah.”

“They want me to do another commercial, this time for their ‘Hey It’s Winter, Buy a Car’ Savings Event.”

“That’s great,” I said as a tray across the cafeteria crashed to the floor. I looked up with pretty much everyone else in the crowded cafeteria – only I didn’t snicker and point or holler like many others.

“It’s about me and my best friend. She’s picking out a new car, and I told her grandpa had some good deals for her.” Caroline looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Ha, that’s Dane. He’s in my history class. Going to have to give him crap about that later.”

“Sounds amazing.”

“Dane?”

“Ha, ha.”

“But seriously, they asked if I knew anybody.”

“Who needed a car?”

“No, who wanted to be in the commercial.”

“Oh, okay. Don’t they have talent agents for stuff like that?” I asked, taking the spork from Caroline and trying a bite of what I thought was goulash. It was awful. The school followed healthy dietary guidelines, therefore making all the food taste like butt. Yet, they still served burgers – my lunchtime saving grace. Well, normally.

“They don’t want to have to pay the actors too much, and when I got the role, I just answered an ad in the paper. I didn’t go through my agent. You gonna finish that?”

I gave Caroline back the spork. “And what does this all have to do with me?”

“You’re the friend for the commercial.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. I showed them a picture from my phone, and they about flipped. They think you’re perfect, and probably kind of hot.”

“I don’t know. People might like see and recognize me from the commercial.”

“Probably not.”

“Are you sure? They recognize you.”

“Of course I’m not sure. I just want you to do this with me.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said, looking back to the tray fiasco across the cafeteria. The red-headed Dane flailed his arms around and explained something to the custodian, who leaned on a mop.

“Think right now.”

“I should have said I’ll sleep on it.”

“No, please, just say yes.”

“When is it?”

“This weekend.”

“Fine.”

And so I would be in a car dealership commercial.

***

I was taking out the trash when Dalton appeared out of nowhere. While I was dressed like a shlub—old worn-out sweater and slippers—he wore a snug thermal and a knit beanie. I tried not to let my mind wander to how good he looked.

“Hey,” he said, looking up at me from under his lashes and digging the toe of his shoe into our driveway.

“Hi,” I said, glancing down at my slippers. Why, oh why, of all days did I have to dress like that? I shouldn’t have been concerned with how I looked in front of Dalton, but I really was.

He sucked on his lip and stood up straighter. “I was going to offer you help, but it looks like you have it covered.”

“My grandma is leaving for bingo soon, and she’d probably just shit, seeing you out here.”

“Is that a normal reaction for your grandma or is shitting reserved just for me?”

I sighed. “Dalton, we’re going to get in trouble, or more like you’re going to get in trouble.”

“Why?” he asked.

“Your family wants you nowhere in the vicinity of me and my family. My grandma told me about the restraining order the other day. They can’t see us together.”

“Oh.”

“See what I mean?”

“Well, my family doesn’t have to know,” Dalton said as he grabbed my hand and swung my arm. He had this mischievous grin on his face, and then it dawned on me that we were holding hands for the fourth time. I wanted to say I wasn’t keeping track, but I was. I wanted to let go, but I just tried to pretend that I didn’t notice. But dear lord, did I. His hand entwined in mine seemed so perfect, and he gently squeezed my fingers as if to say, “Hey, we’re still connected. Don’t let go. I tried to let go for years, but deep down, I knew it was impossible, despite all of my protests. God, I liked him. I liked him so much – it even felt like more than that. We had some sort of bond that couldn’t ever be broken, but I had to try my best to keep that bond apart. Then the front door opened. Dalton jumped back and darted across the lawn.

My grandma came out of the house and locked the door behind her.

“Win me lots of money,” I said as she opened the car door.

“I’ll see what I can do. Leftovers in the fridge,” she said.

I waved as she pulled out of the driveway and drove off down the street. I walked back up to the house, where Dalton stood at the top of the driveway.

“How long does she usually stay away?” Dalton asked, his shoulder leaning up against the house.

“Somebody will see you,” I said, standing in front of him.

He straightened up and stepped in close. “This doesn’t have to be so difficult,” he said, taking my hand again while totally invading my personal space, which I didn’t mind much really. I looked up into his dark eyes.

“Dalton,” I said.

“It’ll be okay,” Dalton said.

“Maybe when we were eleven, whatever this is between us would have worked out, but it’s not going to,” I said.

“And why is that?”

“Because I’m not going to let it,” I said, even though I really liked being around him.

“You can’t deny what we have forever, Lexie,” Dalton said, taking a step closer, causing me to step back against the house.

“I’m a strong-willed girl. I think I can.”

“You sure?” Dalton put one hand over my shoulder, our bodies so close to touching. This overwhelming urge to be in his arms overtook me. I wanted his lips pressing hard against mine, taking my breath away.

He leaned in closer. I could feel the warmth of his mouth, so close to mine, and he tilted his head. I closed my eyes, waiting for the kiss. My breathing quickened and then softly, he said, “Good-night, Lexie.” I slowly opened my eyes, and he walked away. I swore I saw a smirk on his face.

I fell back against the house, feeling like something needed to be fulfilled. I was left with this disappointment and this tingly feeling throughout my body. I slid down the house and dropped my arms to the side. Dalton Reyes was such bad news for me, yet I wanted him so badly.

Chapter Ten

The next day at school while I did my morning ritual—standing at my locker and talking to Caroline—Dalton walked past, lightly brushing my shoulder and grabbing my wrist, ever so gently rubbing his thumb on the inside of it, then slowly pulling his hand away and continuing down the hallway.

“Holy shit, what was that?”

“What am I going to do?”

“Have an orgasm in the hallway?”

“You’re bad.”

“Seriously, though, you closed your eyes and inhaled. The whole thing was pretty hot.”

“You’re delusional, but what am I going to do?”

“Dalton Reyes.”

“I’m not going to do Dalton Reyes.”

“Give it time. You will. But seriously, what is with you two and why would going out with him be so bad? I’d go out with him, but he only wants you.”

“My whole life is a sham, and by going out with him everybody will figure it out.”

“So, what does it matter?”

“It matters. It matters to me.”

***

That night, as I got ready to work on a new shirt, I just happened to look out my window to see Dalton doing chin-ups in his lola’s spare bedroom. He wore a pair of basketball shorts and a tank top. He had himself some very nice muscles – long and lean, not overly muscular or anything. I wanted to run my finger down his bicep. I tried to snap myself out of it and focus on the shirt I planned to work on, when I heard Dalton’s window open. He called my name, and I did my best to ignore him. I needed to have some control over the situation.

“Lexie,” he said one more time.

“Yes,” I said, giving in way too easily.

“What are you up to?” he asked as I opened my window.

“I’m about to cut out a pattern for a shirt.”

“Oh,” he said, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead.

“Did you want something?”

“I told my sister I was going to spend the evening at the library. She’s the only one home tonight. Meet me there?”

“Hmm.” I tapped my chin with my pointer finger.

“She’s dropping me off, so we can’t go together.” He frowned and blinked his eyes.

“Fine,” I said. “See you in a bit.”

I grabbed my school bag and headed downstairs.

“Grandma, I’m heading out,” I shouted because I wasn’t sure where in the house she was. It was a small split level, so if I stood in the living room and said something loud enough, she’d be able to hear me wherever she was. She emerged from the basement with a laundry basket.

“Where are you going?”

“Library.”

“You never just go to the library.”

“Well, now I am.”

“You need to stay away from Dalton.”

“I’m not going anywhere near him.”

“You got a dreamy look on your face when you said you’re going to the library,” my grandma said, sliding the laundry basket onto the kitchen table.

“I did not!”

“Were you looking in the mirror when you said it?” she asked, pulling out a pair of her oversized underwear and shaking them before folding them.

“No.”

“So, then you couldn’t see, but your head tilted a bit, you blinked, and got a slight smile.”

“Stop it, Grandma.” I could feel my face turning red.

“You’re going to get him in trouble. Besides, he’s trouble.” She pointed at me with her now folded briefs.

“No, he’s going to get himself in trouble. I have nothing to do with what he does.” I crossed my arms.

“You have everything to do with what he does.” What did she know about what he did and how it involved me?

“I have to go study, Grandma. I’m meeting my friend, Caroline.”

“If I called her phone would she corroborate your story?”

“Grandma, I rarely ever go anywhere or do anything. Can’t you just let me peacefully go to the library?”

“I’ll be here when you need a shoulder to cry on, when his sister and lola find out you two are sneaking around.”

“We’re not!” I suspected someone saw us the other day and said something to her.

“Go to the library, Lexie.”

“Bye, Grandma.”

“Bye, baby girl.”

***

Dalton sat outside the library on the same bench he was last time, reading by way of a streetlight overhead.

“What is it this time?” I asked. He held up the book for me to see.

“Dying Too Young,” I read. The cover pictured a teen couple sadly embracing. “Depressing?”

“Severely.” He shoved the book into his backpack and stood up.

“Why are you reading it then?”

“Helps keep things in perspective,” Dalton said with a shrug.

“Because you didn’t die?”

“Kind of,” he said, bobbing his head back and forth a little.

“Are we really going to hang out at the library?”

“Do you want to?”

“Not especially.”

“I have two hours.”

“Eat?”

“Sure.”

“Mount Holy Burger?”

“I’d actually prefer a healthier option. If that’s okay.”

“Um, sure.”

“There’s this pita pocket place that’s pretty good.”

“Let’s go.”

“Hold on one second,” he said. “There’s a hair.” He touched right next to my mouth, and I swore I felt a little electric shock from where he touched my skin. “It was stuck in the corner of your mouth.” Two of his fingers stayed next to my lips.

“Thanks,” I said, darting my eyes to the ground because I knew if I made eye contact, I’d probably lean in and kiss him, still reveling in the feeling of him lightly touching my face. As I looked back up, he smiled and slowly dropped his hand.

“Welcome,” he said. We started walking down the sidewalk to get to the pita place. It was almost dark out and the streetlights were all lit, traffic swishing past on the busy street. It was a little cold and I didn’t wear gloves, so when Dalton took my hand in his and it felt so warm and wonderful, I didn’t pull my hand away. Neither of us said anything about being interlocked by way of hand holding—it just was—and we talked the three blocks down that we had to walk.

“Are you a good student?” Dalton asked out of the blue.

“Why do you ask?”

“You seemed pretty desperate not to study.”

“I’m okay – not the worst, not the best. Enough to get me into college. What about you?”

“I’m trying.”

“Trying?” I asked, looking up at Dalton. For a second, his face fell into a frown, but then went back to his usual serious mask.

“I’m forever playing catchup. I’m still technically a sophomore.”

“But I see you near the junior lockers all the time.”

“They were nice and put me in a junior homeroom, but credit-wise, still a sophomore. Been taking a class each summer to catch up.”

“Did you miss that much school?” I asked, stepping over a large crack in the sidewalk where a tree’s roots pushed up through the cement.

“Yeah, it ended up being a big, complicated mess.”

“Why?”

“Another story, another day.”

“But you will tell me?”

“Soon, very soon.”

“You’re very cryptic.”

Dalton shrugged and held the door open for me as we arrived at the pita place. A big orange sign that read Fresh Pocket hung above the door.

 

We found a booth in the corner and sat down with our food. Everything in the restaurant was orange and green – even our booth. The colors of freshness, I guess.

“Okay, I know we keep talking about that day, but like you said, I never really had anybody to talk about it with. I mean, I have my grandma, but that’s more like her going, ‘Everything is just fine, honey. You’re safe.’ She says that part a lot. And being with you…it’s…uhh…,” I said.

“You know, just one day, just one moment in history can change your life forever. That day permanently altered our course in life. It’s trying to figure out how to live this new course…that’s the hard part.”

“Are you saying your life is hard?”

“I think it would have been easier if I never got shot, but it’s the life I have now so…,” Dalton said, putting his pita down and shrugging.

“What if you didn’t want to accept it?”

“Then I’d just have to give up because I’m pretty sure they haven’t invented time machines yet, so there’s no changing what happened.” Dalton took his pita wrapper and scrunched it up in his hands.

“There’s just living.”

“Exactly, you just have to choose to live it,” he said, looking at the scrunched up wrapper and placing it next to his pita pocket.

“I think I’m still on the figuring it out part of that.”

“Sometimes, I don’t think it will ever all be figured out. Somehow you have to, I don’t know, like learn to accept it or something. Make peace with it.”

“Have you?”

Dalton sucked on his bottom lip and shrugged.

I sighed and Dalton nodded, then we finished our food and headed back to the library. As we walked, Dalton reached over and took my hand in his. Holding hands became our thing – it felt so nice just holding his hand, walking in the cool night air, and talking about whatever came to our minds.

“When I was seven, I was obsessed with making things out of paper,” Dalton said.

“Really?” I asked, a night breeze blowing over us. I shook my face in the wind and looked up at the sky. It was a clear night, but since we were so close to the city, we never saw too many stars.

“Yeah. I had homemade paper folders, swords, hats, stuffed animals….”

“You made homemade stuffed animals out of paper?”

“Yep. I would tape the edges with masking tape and stuff them with toilet paper. My mom used to get so mad at me.”

“Why?”

“For wasting toilet paper, tape, and regular paper,” Dalton said, licking his lips. He really needed to stop licking his lips around me. It drew all my attention to his face and his beautiful mouth, which in turn meant that I was most likely staring.

“But it’s cute.”

“She pretty much saw the mess I left everywhere. Scraps of paper, failed experiments, my completed projects which I could never throw away.”

“Kind of sounds like my bedroom now.”

“You make paper creations?”

“More like fabric ones. Clothes.”

“That’s cool.”

“It might be.”

“The library,” Dalton said as we approached our starting point.

“Sister picking you up?”

“Yeah,” Dalton said, walking over to the building. “Let’s wait over here in case she comes early.”

“Okay,” I said, letting him lead me to a corner of the library that was partially covered by a bush. I leaned back against the building and glanced up at Dalton. He looked down at our linked hands and, with a step, closed some of the space between us. I took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. He dropped his hand from mine and put it on the building right above my shoulder. Our eyes met, and we looked at each other, perhaps wondering where we should go next.

“You know what?” he asked.

“What,” I whispered.

“Sometimes, I would incorporate tinfoil into my paper creations.”

“Really,” I said, placing my hand on his chest. I had this sudden urge to touch him and couldn’t resist. Even though he was layered, I could feel his hard chest beneath. He took in a breath when I touched him. He then took me in his arms, a gentle hug. We didn’t say anything as we stood there holding each other. His hands slowly started to travel south, and I enjoyed the trip they took. Our bodies drew closer together.

Dalton pressed up against me, his hands on my hips. My arms hugged him, my face buried in his chest. He nuzzled his face into my neck.

“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve known you were the one since I was eleven years old.” He softly kissed my neck, his breath tickling my skin.

“Dalton.”

“We just have to try. So what if the circumstances aren’t what we want them to be?”

He continued kissing my neck, holding me close to him. I wanted to tell him to stop, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want him to. I experienced so many new feelings. My heart beat wildly and my hands slightly shook. I think that was because they didn’t know how to deal with the excitement I felt. He tucked my hair back and kissed behind my ear. I gripped him tighter and let out a breath.

“Mmm,” he said, nibbling on my ear, one hand sliding up my back and the other moving to my butt. I leaned into him, his hard body against mine. Then I felt his excitement for the situation and it brought me back to reality.

“I have to go,” I said through a deep breath as he started to kiss under my chin.

“Lexie,” he said.

“I have to go.”

“Please don’t say that.”

I put my hands on his chest to push him away, but it ended up being more for stability because my knees started to wobble as he kissed my jawline. I just couldn’t. I pushed him from me. Before I had a chance to walk away, he spun me around, pulling me close to him, my butt pressed up to his hips. Oh sweet Jesus. He had one hand low on my stomach and the other on my shoulder, brushing my hair away. “Good-night, Lexie.”

“Night, Dalton,” I said softly, leaving him standing there.

Chapter Eleven

I was supposed to be in a car commercial, but my mind was everywhere but. Caroline picked me up that morning and I stared out the car window the whole ride.

“Earth to Lexie,” she said.

“Huh?”

“We’re here,” she said, parking the car in the dealership lot, a sea of sedans, coupes, SUVs, and minivans all around. All looked so shiny and clean, lined up in neat rows.

“Oh, okay,” I said.

“You stared out the window the whole drive.”

“Sorry.”

“What were you thinking about?”

“More like who.”

“A boy? A boy, really? A boy.” Caroline’s whole face lit up, a smile ear to ear.

“It’s beyond complicated.”

“It’s Dalton, isn’t it?”

I sighed.

“I see the way you look at each other in the hall. I’m jealous. Even though I heard he’s a bit of a prima donna,” Caroline said while she opened the car door.

“Why? Did someone say that?”

“I heard that he said he wouldn’t play Nat Drummond’s party if anyone was smoking anything while he was in the house.” She got out of the car, scrunching up her face and then bending back in, coming out with her purse. She held her purse up with a smile.

“Really?” I asked. Dalton didn’t seem like the prima donna type.

“Yeah.”

“He seems to really be into leading a healthy lifestyle.”

“How do you know that?”

“We’ve kind of been hanging out.”

“What! Why didn’t you say anything?” Caroline bugged her eyes and flung the car door shut.

“It’s kind of a secret. His lola – that’s his grandma – would flip if she found out, and I don’t want people at school to know.”

Caroline ran around to my side of the car. “Why? Why, and why?” She took me by the shoulders and shook me.

“Can we talk about this after we shoot this thing?”

Caroline pressed her lips together. “Fine, but then you tell me everything,” she said, giving me one last shake.

 

I stood in my spot, Caroline to my right, Grandpa standing close. I started to sweat, not because I was hot, but all of a sudden I felt really nervous.

“You okay?” Caroline asked.

I nodded and smashed my lips together.

“You’re not going to puke, are you? Please don’t puke on me. Turn in that direction at least,” Caroline said, pointing to the floor on my other side.

A guy squatted down near us holding some sort of gadget. He might have been checking for radiation levels.

“Should I be worried? What’s he doing?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a light meter. Making sure the lighting is right, so we look awesome.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, looking around the dealership – the cars parked all around us; large bright lights standing close; and grandpa, aka Mr. Chavez, itching his junk.

“Scene one, take one,” said a short girl with oversized glasses, snapping one of those boards – I didn’t know they actually used those.

“And action,” the director, a college guy named Bliss, said. Seriously, that was how he introduced himself.

“Grandpa, my best friend wants to buy her first car,” Caroline said.

“Here at Chavez New and Used Cars, we can make your friend’s driving dreams come true.”

It was my turn. I scrolled through my brain to find my line. Eventually recovering it, I said, “That. Would. Be. Great. Grandpa.” No, I was not skilled in the art of acting. I sounded like some sort of robot version of myself.

Mr. Chavez took a step forward and said his lines about the winter savings event that was “going on now.” It actually wasn’t – it would still be some time before the commercial was released.

Then it was me again. “I. Willtakethe. Red one.”

“Good choice,” Mr. Chavez said with a large smile, flashing what I thought were a shiny, white pair of dentures.

Then in unison, Caroline and I said, “Thanks, Grandpa.”

The commercial was horrible, but everybody else thought otherwise. “Great job” and “awesome” were said all around us.

 

I told Caroline as much as I could about me and Dalton. We sat side by side in pleather armchairs waiting to be told we could go home.

“So you have a connection from hanging out with him once?” she asked. She held her hand out in front of her, studying her nails. I knew manicure time would be upon us soon.

“It’s hard to explain,” I said, looking down at my chipped purple fingernails.

“Please try.”

“I’d rather not.”

“But why?”

I sighed. “Something bad happened that day, okay? And I never saw him again until—”

“That day in the school hallway,” Caroline said with wide eyes, like everything just clicked.

“Yeah.”

“Wow. Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“Not now. I don’t know if Dalton has told anyone here.”

“Oh my god, Lexie. My mind is going to bad places. Nobody like touched you guys or anything?” she asked, grabbing my hand and squeezing it in a vice-like grip.

“No! No, but it’s just bad, okay? And I’ve never told anyone before. Dalton’s always been like my secret.”

“And you want to keep him that way.”

I shrugged and winced a little. She smiled and lightened her hold on me. “I don’t know,” I said. “If people learn everything about Dalton, they will eventually learn everything about me – and I don’t know if I’m ready for that.”

“I’m here, okay? To listen and stuff when you’re ready. I know you have a reason for your lies, your way of distancing yourself and not letting others close, but I have yet to learn why.”

“Maybe soon,” I said, thinking about how Dalton said that he’d be ready to tell me some things soon, too. Maybe the time had finally come. “Distancing myself from others?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, totally – basic like Psych 101 stuff,” Caroline said with a roll of her eyes.

“Hmm, maybe you’re right.”

“Great job, girls.” Mr. Chavez said, walking toward us across the showroom. He had on a pair of gray slacks and a polo shirt with the car dealership name embroidered on it, and it looked a little too tight. I could see the outline of his belly button from his protruding gut.

“Thanks, Mr. Chavez,” Caroline said, flashing a toothy grin.

“Yeah, thanks. I had fun,” I said.

“I’m going to keep you on my speed dial.” Mr. Chavez then did that fake gun shooty thing with his fingers. Caroline shot back, and I waved.

“Oh my gosh, we so have to do another commercial together. Maybe Dalton could be in it,” Caroline said.

“Shut up.”

“He’s super hot.”

“Yeah, I know.” We made no attempts to get up and leave. The pleather chairs were actually pretty comfy.

“Just making sure you know. Don’t let him get away.”

“I’m going to try not to.”

“He’s also very mysterious. Has an edge to him. There’s a lot of speculation going around.”

“Like what?” I asked, picking up a minivan catalog from the side table next to my chair.

“Witness protection.”

“Okay, that makes no sense. They wouldn’t send him to live with his lola, and he certainly wouldn’t have the same name.”

“All right, next one. The mob.” Caroline tapped her chin with a finger and nodded her head.

“Nope.”

“He just got out of juvie.”

“Can’t see it.”

“He’s a runway model, and you guys know each other from Paris or something like that. The theories always fluctuate.”

“He’s too short.”

“The truth is boring. I can’t just believe he’s your neighbor’s grandson.” Caroline sighed and looked up at the overly bright fluorescent lights.

“That’s it.”

“But something happened. That’s the good stuff we all want to know.” Caroline sat up and looked into my eyes.

“The we all in your statement, is the exact reason why I’m not saying.”

“Can you tell me sooner than later?” she asked, not blinking.

“It depends. Is the we all still involved?” I asked, not blinking back. The contest was on.

“What if I just changed it to just me?” she asked, widening her eyes, trying not to blink.

“Then maybe.” I couldn’t help it, I blinked. Caroline smiled, victorious.

Once I got home, I looked out my bedroom window to see if Dalton was where I usually saw him – nothing. I texted him and got no response. I just saw him the night before, but I missed him. I wanted to talk to him, take in his presence, feel his breath on my skin. I wanted to know what his lips felt like on mine. I slept in the basement, just in case he showed up. I hoped I wasn’t too late. What if he gave up on me overnight? The day before I would have said that was just fine, but I realized that it would make me sad. I couldn’t contain my feelings for Dalton Reyes anymore.

Chapter Twelve

I got a text from him the next morning: not feeling well, talk to you soon.

I wanted to go next door with chicken noodle soup, tuck a blanket around him, and watch him while he slept, but I knew his family would never let that happen. I moped downstairs for some breakfast.

“It looks like you woke up on the wrong side of the bed,” my grandma said, holding her jumbotron coffee mug.

“I think I went to sleep on the wrong side,” I said, slipping into a kitchen chair.

“Want to talk about it?”

“No. Can I have a couple of friends come over today?”

“Yeah, sure, of course.”

“Thanks, Grandma.”

***

Caroline and Luiz showed up together.

“Hey, guys,” I said, letting them in.

“Okay, what is going on? This is odd behavior for you. Reaching out for friendship, unheard of,” Caroline said, standing in the front room with her arms crossed.

“Let’s go to the basement.”

Luiz grabbed Caroline’s elbow. “She invited us over so she can off us in the basement. What did we ever do to you?”

“C’mon,” I said, leading the way, passing through the kitchen where my grandma still sat, reading the newspaper, and drinking her coffee. “Caroline, Luiz, my grandma.”

“Hi,” they both said.

“Hi, girls,” my grandma said, quickly glancing up. “I’ll be right here if you need anything.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said.

“Why are we going to the basement?” Luiz asked as we walked down the few steps off of the kitchen.

“Truth be told, I really am going to kill you and there’s more space down here.” In actuality though, I might have been ready to reveal some things, but there was no way I was bringing them in on my Enzo lie, and once they walked into my room it would become pretty clear. They would think I was off my rocker.

Caroline and I sat down on the couch, and Luiz took the old recliner. It was red corduroy and held together by duct tape in some spots. It also smelled faintly of feet.

“That’s the window he crawls in?” Caroline asked, pointing over her shoulder.

“Wait, what? Who?” Luiz asked.

“You didn’t tell her?” I asked Caroline.

“Not my story to tell.”

“Tell me what?” asked Luiz.

I explained everything to Luiz. During my story, she climbed off the recliner and onto the couch with us.

“And you’re not going to tell us what happened that day when you were eleven?” Luiz asked once I finished.

“Not yet.”

“He seriously lives next door?” Luiz asked.

“For now.”

“Did you ask us over here for boy advice?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“I thought you were going to sort things out with him,” Caroline said, knocking me with her shoulder.

“He’s sick right now, said he’d talk to me later.”

“Do you think he’s lying?” she asked.

“No, I just, I don’t know. What if he’s avoiding me?”

“You’re talking nonsense.”

“He lives next door,” Luiz said.

“Yeah, I said that already.”

“Let’s go over there.”

“I can’t.”

“Caroline and I.”

“No, why? I’m not that kind of unhinged person. I mean, I wanted you here because I’m trying to work out my feelings for a boy. I’ve never had to do this before. I didn’t invite you over so we could stalk him,” I said, the three of us shoulder to shoulder – feet pulled up, crossed, and tucked under.

“I’m just curious where he lives. I want to see him in his habitat. I mean, it’s all pretty mysterious. You have a secret day you don’t want to share. He acted out, as my mom would call it. His parents dumped him here. Is it all connected?” Luiz asked.

“No, and you won’t find any answers going over there.”

“Maybe we can just get Dalton to talk to us,” Caroline said, pulling the bottom of her sweater sleeves over her hands.

“He’ll think I sent you over there to see if he’s actually home or something.”

“If he says anything, we’ll say you had nothing to do with it,” Luiz suggested.

“I don’t want to get him in trouble.”

“How would two friends visiting from school get him in trouble?”

“They’re like really strict, and he’s sick. Just let him rest, Luiz.”

“You’re no fun,” she pouted.

I shrugged.

“So before that one bad day, you never hung out with him?” Caroline asked.

“No, but it was like…you’ll think I’m a weirdo.”

“We already do, Lexie,” Caroline said.

“Thanks.”

“So…”

“Okay, so his lola moved next door to us about a year before that day. Soon after, on the weekends, her grandkids would visit – Dalton and his sister, Hailey. I’d see them coming and going, and then I’d see Dalton hanging around all alone outside his lola’s house.”

“He calls his grandma by her first name?” Luiz asked.

“No, ‘lola’ means ‘grandma.’”

“Oh, okay.”

“I only met his lola a handful of times, and none of those encounters were ever very pleasant. She’s a get-off-my-lawn type of old lady.”

“Did you often stand on her lawn?” Caroline asked.

“You guys, do you want to hear my story or not?”

“Are you making it up?”

I looked over at Caroline. “No.”

“Okay, real quick. How often do you make stuff up?” Luiz asked.

“Honestly?”

“Yeah.”

“All the time.”

“Why?” Luiz looked truly perplexed.

“I have issues, okay?”

“You invited us over, so that might be a step in the right direction,” Caroline said, squeezing my knee.

“Right direction of what?” Luiz asked.

“Of telling us something real about her,” Caroline said with her eyebrows up, slightly shaking her head.

“So, your parents?” Luiz asked.

“I live with my grandma.”

“Where are your parents? I’m guessing your mom doesn’t work for some fashion designer?” Luiz started to catch on.

“I don’t know where my mom is. She left when I was five, and my dad…” My heart rapidly pulsated in my chest. Did I dare to speak the truth out loud? I felt like I was going to throw up.

“You okay?” Caroline asked.

I nodded. “Um, yeah, it’s just…”

“You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to,” Caroline said in a gentle tone.

“Thanks…” I looked from Caroline to Luiz. It was about time I started to let some people in. They didn’t need to know everything right away, but at least I could start somewhere. “My dad’s in jail.”

“Really?” Caroline asked.

“Yeah.”

“Wow, that sucks,” Luiz said, summing up my situation perfectly.

“It does.”

“But you didn’t invite us over here to talk about your life, right? Well, regular life. Love life, though,” Caroline said. The great friend that she was, she picked up on my discomfort level.

“I think I’d lie too,” Luiz said.

“Luiz!” Caroline said.

I smiled. I needed to have my friends over more often.

“Okay, about before – get-off-my-lawn,” Luiz said.

“Oh, yeah, so sometimes I’d see Dalton outside, always by himself. Usually just sitting on the lawn reading or walking back and forth on the sidewalk with his Mimkendo DS. The first time I saw him, my heart skipped a beat.” I almost totally forgot about that day, that feeling. It made my heart skip all over again.

“Really?” Caroline said.

“Yeah, I know, cheesy. But ten-year-old me was enamored. I thought he was so cute. He was kind of small, but that was okay. I thought he had the prettiest face. I wanted to stare into those eyes of his and kiss him. He was the first boy I ever liked.”

“That is so cute,” Caroline said. “You can still tell, when you guys look at each other.” It always boiled down to the way we looked at each other.

“But the thing is, we didn’t really know one another. It was like from afar. He’d sometimes catch me staring out the window at him, and he’d show off.”

“Like how?” Luiz asked.

“I think he used to take gymnastics because he would stand on his hands, do backflips, stuff like that.”

“Adorable,” Caroline said.

“Why didn’t you ever go out there and talk to him?” Luiz asked.

I let out a sigh. “That’s where things started to get complicated for me. I was told to avoid kids in the neighborhood, and my dad rarely let me have friends over. I went to their houses. Most who knew me thought it was because of the zombie in the basement.”

“What?!” Luiz said.

“Some story I told in third grade, really stuck with a good number of kids.”

“You’ve always been an odd cookie, huh?” Caroline asked.

“Yeah,” I said softly.

“I didn’t mean to upset you or be mean or anything. It’s what initially drew me to you.”

“Okay, whatever,” I said, having a total self-deprecating moment.

“Really, I thought a girl who could make up that extensive of a royal history must have had a really good imagination and be pretty awesome to hang out with.”

“You really don’t come from royal blood?” Luiz asked.

“No, and you know what?” I asked. I turned around on the sofa, lay on my back, and threw my feet up over the top, my head dangling toward the floor.

“What?” She took the same position as me. Caroline followed suit.

“I never had tea with a prince, either.”

“But Dalton…,” Luiz said, placing her palms on the floor next to her head and doing some sort of off-the-couch backbend.

“He wanted to get on my good side. And hey, you said you always thought I was full of shit, anyway.”

“I only said that because I was kind of jealous.”

“Oh,” I said. I could have never imagined that somebody would be jealous of me, but I knew as soon as she found out the truth, her opinion would change.

“Okay, so why didn’t Dalton ever come to your door?” Caroline asked.

“His lola told him he couldn’t come over and plus, I think he was kind of shy. So we’d just wave to each other and on Halloween, he stood out on the sidewalk so I could see his costume, and I stood behind the screen door so he could see mine. I don’t think either of us realized at that time that we could see in each other’s houses through the window in my room. So it was like some odd, short-but-long-distance, non-speaking thing we had going.”

“And then the day he finally mustered the courage to come over,” Luiz said.

I sucked on my lip. “That’s where this story ends.” I somersaulted off the couch and onto the braided rug beneath us that covered most of the old tiled floor. I lay flat on my back, Luiz’s words circling through my mind.

“I think it’s just beginning,” Caroline said, smiling. She pulled herself up to sitting and then climbed off the couch, joining me on the floor.

“I never really liked someone like this before. This is all so new to me. These feelings,” I said, still trying to shake Luiz’s words.

“Do you daydream about him?” Luiz asked. She came and lay down next to me, sandwiching me between the two of them.

I could feel my cheeks starting to flush. “Um, maybe, yeah.”

“Does he interrupt your thoughts even though he’s not around?” Caroline asked.

“Yeah.”

“When you see him walking down the hall is he like in slow motion?”

“Would I be a weirdo if I said yes?”

“Nope, you’d just be in love.” Caroline flashed me a smile.

“I’m not in love. I just like him.”

“A test. Try to say ‘Dalton’ without smiling or getting a dreamy look in your eyes.”

“That’s silly, Luiz.”

“No, it’s scientific.”

“For science, Lexie,” Caroline said.

“Fine.” I sighed and then said, “Dalton.” I clamped my lips together trying to keep in the smile his name brought to me.

“Oh my god, you’re so in love.” Caroline threw her arms around me, squishing me in a hug.

“But we—”

“Don’t say you barely know each other. You know way more about each other than you think,” Caroline said, letting me go.

“I feel all…like my heart…”

“Aw, you can’t even form a coherent sentence.” Luiz shoved me in the shoulder.

“Stop.”

Luiz’s face fell. “It was a playful shove.”

“Not that. It’s just…what if he really doesn’t like me?”

“That boy loves you,” Luiz said.

“You think?”

“We don’t think. We know,” Caroline said.

Luiz nodded, agreeing with Caroline.

“I told him I just wanted to be friends, like secret friends.” I scrunched up my face, feeling guilty that I told him that.

“Oh that poor guy – he’s probably been in agony this whole time.” Caroline crossed her hands over her heart and sighed.

“I told you about all those times where we got kind of close. He wasn’t in agony – he was messing with me.”

“Because he likes you. He was showing you what he has to offer,” Caroline said.

“I think we should squeal now.” Luiz squealed at her own idea.

“I think we’re acting like a bunch of tweens.”

“Squeal, Lexie,” Luiz said.

I sighed.

“Squeal!” Caroline demanded.

“Fine,” I said, smiling and then letting out a squeal.

“Oooh, new love is so exciting!” Luiz sat up and slowly wobbled to the ground with her hand on her forehand. I guess Caroline wasn’t the only dramatic one.

“I just have to see if he’s actually going to talk to me tomorrow.”

“He so totally will,” Caroline said, sitting up and crossing her legs.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep.”

“Call me if you need.” Caroline smiled at me.

“I’ll take your word on that.”

 

Chapter Thirteen

I climbed into bed that night feeling all excited and happy. I wouldn’t deny my feelings anymore. Sure, things might get complicated and messy, but I wanted to be with Dalton, so those were risks I was willing to take. I might have acted a little wonky the next day because I seriously awaited a text from Dalton. Part of me hoped he’d be magically cured so he could climb in my window and we could profess our feelings for each other, but he did say he was sick, so my hope was a little farfetched. Maybe I was acting childish, but I got a little down because by mid-afternoon, I still hadn’t received a text. So I texted him a simple, Hey. A few minutes later, I got back: see you in school tomorrow? I texted back, sure. And that ended our communication for the day – not the great start I had hoped for. To help squelch my darkened mood, I went to the front room to watch game shows with my grandma.

“Hey, kiddo,” my grandma said. She sported jeans with fantastic flares and a long sweater vest with pockets.

“Hey.”

“What’s up?” she asked, pulling a lip balm out of a pocket.

“Nothing. Silly, really,” I said, bringing my legs up onto the couch and hugging them.

“Spill.”

“I really, really like somebody and I thought he really liked me, too, but…I don’t know.”

“He’d be a fool not to like you.” She applied her lip balm and snapped the lid back on.

“You have to say that. You’re my grandma.”

“Granted, but it’s also the truth. Just please don’t tell me it’s Dalton Reyes.” She slid the tube back into her pocket and frowned at me.

“Okay, it’s not Dalton Reyes,” I said, grabbing one of the decorative pillows on the couch and hugging it to my knees. I needed a distraction.

“Lexie, what did I say about that boy?”

“I know. I know, Grandma.”

“Marisol saw the two of you outside the house when I went off to bingo.” She shook her head and then glanced at the TV. Somebody was about to win their showcase.

“There’s nothing wrong with us being together, Grandma.”

“It will only lead to trouble.”

“He should be able to date whomever he wants.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?” I asked, dropping the pillow to the floor between the couch and coffee table, only inches from the TV stand. Our big, overstuffed, leather couch took up way too much room.

“He’s nothing but trouble and heartache waiting to happen.”

“Grandma, I talk to him. I know all about his supposed trouble.”

“Was he truthful?” she asked, saying yes under her breath. The contestant not only won their showcase, but also the other player’s. That lady would take home quite the haul.

“Grandma, of course he was – and if not, I don’t care. You guys can’t control us.”

“I’m not trying to control you, honey. I’m just trying to spare you pain.”

“How? There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there?”

“It’s not my right to say. There’s just more than what I said about our family going near theirs. That’s all.”

“Well, fine, if you won’t tell, then…”

“Then what, Lexie?” My grandma gave me a stern look.

“Grrr, I don’t know, but something. I just came down here to watch some dumb TV with you, not for you to deny me love.” I had no idea if what Dalton and I had was love. Maybe I hung around Caroline too much, because I pretty much said it for dramatic flair.

“It needs to remain an unrequited love. It’s for the best.”

“You always say that!” My heart pounded in my chest and I balled my fists.

“Lexie…”

“Grandma.”

“Don’t get hurt.”

That happy, excited, I-think-I’m–in-love feeling had burned out. I didn’t watch game shows with my grandma – instead, I stomped up to my room and pouted in the dark, then did my homework.

***

“Okay, what happened to that squealy, excited girl?” Caroline asked the next morning.

I glanced around the school hallway. The usual hustle and bustle – everybody going off to class, a teacher stapling something to a bulletin board, something being said over the intercom. “She went away.”

“Oh, no, she needs to come back,” Caroline said with a nod. She threw her hair over her shoulder, adjusted the large purse on her shoulder that she used as a school bag, and nodded again.

“My grandma’s not telling me something. There’s something about Dalton,” I said, dropping my shoulders and grabbing the lock on my locker.

“What?”

“I don’t know, and she won’t tell me.” I popped the lock open and looked into the void. It was such a mess inside.

“Dalton Reyes becomes even more mysterious. Sexy.”

“She tried to forbid me from seeing him,” I said, turning toward Caroline, ignoring my locker and the fact that we had to get to class.

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah.”

“What’d you say?”

“Said I won’t listen, pretty much.” I shrugged. “She says she doesn’t want me to get hurt. At first, she didn’t want me to see him because she said we might get sued, but it’s not that.”

“Sued?”

“Never mind.”

“Hey, there he is. Talk to him and tell me how it goes.”

“Okay,” I said as Caroline waved and walked away down the hall.

“Hey, Dalton,” I said. He didn’t seem to hear me and kept walking, looking at the ground. “Dalton,” I said once more.

“Huh?” He stopped, scratched his neck, and looked at me.

“You all right?”

“What?”

“Are you okay?” I asked as the bell rang, the few left in the hall hurrying off to class.

“Oh, yeah, sorry. Just thinking about something. I’m fine.”

“Over your ailment?” I asked. I wanted to stand close to him, touch him, something – but I wasn’t sure exactly what the two of us together were.

“Yeah, just a thing,” he said, his voice tired.

“A thing?”

“Yep,” he said, looking into my eyes, a smile nowhere near.

“Okay,” I said. I sucked on my bottom lip and inhaled through my nose, slowly letting it out. “Want to crawl in my basement window tonight?”

“More than anything,” he said, his face still serious.

“Okay, see you tonight then – but if you still don’t feel well, it’s okay.”

“I’ll be there.” He reached out to grab my hand, but pulled away.

“Tonight,” I said.

“Tonight.”

 

Chapter Fourteen

Dalton squatted down outside, using his hands to look in the window at me, leaving a steamy breath mark on the glass. I stood on the couch and opened the window for him, coughing as I did so.

“Are you sick?” he asked, looking a little panicked. “I should go.” He scrambled to his feet.

“Dalton,” I called.

He squatted down again.

“It’s nothing.” Cold air flowed in, and I really wanted him inside. The days were just taking on a chill, but the nights were already cold.

“I don’t want to catch anything.”

“You won’t.”

“Would you be offended if I came back with a surgical mask?”

“What?” I was totally confused.

“I’m totally serious,” he said, biting the corner of his lip, his eyes a little wide.

“Are you a germaphobe?” I asked.

“No.”

“Okay, listen, this is going to be embarrassing and gross,” I said, still standing on the couch with him outside.

“Okay.”

“I had something in my throat.”

“Phlegm?”

“No, you ever get those little hard things in your throat that you sometimes cough up?”

“No.”

Needless to say, it was an embarrassing moment. “See, I’m gross.”

“No you’re not,” he said, pulling down his knit hat and blowing out a breath.

“You better get inside,” I said, jumping off the couch so he could climb in. He dropped himself down and stepped off the couch near me. “But why were you so eager to run away if you’re not a germaphobe?” I asked, feeling the cold that still clung to him. A shiver traveled down my spine.

Dalton sat down, put his elbows on his knees, and put his hands over his face. “I haven’t been totally truthful with you,” he said, looking up and pulling off his hat and gloves.

“You mean, you lied to the liar?”

“You don’t lie to me,” he said.

He was wrong on that part because all along, I lied about my feelings for him.

“I just omitted some things, something pretty major about myself,” he continued. He stood up and started pacing back and forth, playing with the zipper on his jacket. He stopped pacing for a moment and looked up at the ceiling. “Ah.”

“Ah, what?” I asked. His obvious nervousness made me anxious.

He closed his eyes and took in a breath. “Give me a sec, okay?”

“Yeah, sure.” Oh my word, what in the heck would he tell me? Was he a stalker? Were the speculations at school actually true? Or maybe he really hated me all along.

He started talking, which thankfully helped soften my anxiety. “Okay, so, okay,” he said, shaking his hands like he was air-drying them. “I’m going to sit down, okay?”

“Of course, yeah.”

He sat down in his usual corner with his feet flat on the ground and his palms on his knees. He then rethought his position and crisscrossed his legs, facing me, and took his jacket off, sitting there in a gray sweatshirt and blue plaid pajama bottoms. He blew raspberries with his lips. “So after I got shot…”

“Yeah?” Just those few words made my heart thump in my chest.

“Well, the surgeries went okay.”

“That’s good.” Maybe my heart could calm down – it didn’t sound too bad so far.

“But then I caught an infection – a lung infection. I guess that happens sometimes after heart surgery.”

“Oh, I bet that sucked.”

He laughed. “Yeah, and well, it all went downhill from there.”

“What do you mean?” The thumping in my chest picked back up. My heart calming down didn’t seem to be on the horizon.

“The infection spread to my heart and lots of people get over viral heart infections, right? Yeah, so, my heart was already weakened, so it didn’t get over it. They thought they could keep it under control, which they did for a bit, but then I went into congestive heart failure.” He looked down at the couch cushion between us.

I had no words. I thought he was okay afterward. That’s what my grandma kept telling me. I shook my head and licked my lips. It couldn’t be true. No. He was supposed to be okay. I scooted closer, closing the gap between us, our knees touching.

“Yeah, um, so I had a heart transplant.”

“You had a heart transplant?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh my god. How did that…I mean if you had heart failure…” I reached out and touched his knee. It was like I had to check that he was there with me – that it was Dalton, not some other boy who climbed in my window and told me something awful. Unfortunately, it was him. Not a ghost or a stranger, just Dalton who made my heart ache.

“They maintained it for a while just with medication, and I wasn’t horribly sick at first, but then it got harder to breathe or do anything – I was so tired all the time. My fingers, toes, and lips started turning blue because of lack of blood flow to them. I started going south, so they put in this device to keep me going, and I got another infection because I’m really good at catching those. We all thought my time had come. I ended up staying in the hospital until I got a new heart.”

“Oh my god, Dalton.” Even the truth that I thought I knew was a lie.

“So that’s why I was concerned about you having a cold, because my meds suppress my immune system and I’m pretty susceptible to stuff.”

I had to force myself to speak. If I didn’t, I would have turned into a big, crying mess. “What if I did have a cold and gave it to you? What if I have one and don’t realize it?”

“No, don’t worry about that,” he said, taking my hand off his knee and holding it, squeezing it to reassure me. “If I caught it, I’d just get a bit sicker than your average person with a cold. Just have to make sure I get checked out – blood tests, so rejection doesn’t occur. Same with the flu. I get my flu shot every year, even if it might not be effective for me, but I haven’t gotten the flu yet – just colds. Got strep once and that landed me in the hospital, a respiratory infection…” Dalton laughed. “That sucked, but I’ve been very fortunate.”

I didn’t know how he could laugh when all I wanted to do was cry. “Oh my god, that does not sound fortunate.”

“Infection is my enemy.” He looked down at our hands.

I put my other hand on his opposite knee. “So are you okay?”

“For the most part. I’m still alive for now,” he said with a nonchalant shrug, taking my other hand and interlacing our fingers before resting them back on his knee.

“Oh god, why do you say for now?” I asked, leaning in over my lap.

“I made it past the first year – that’s a big deal – and the second, and we’ll see in around eight years.”

“What happens in eight years?”

“Only around fifty percent of heart transplant recipients make it to twelve years after transplant, so I might die.”

“Oh, no, don’t say that.” I swore I felt my heart leap up into my throat.

“I’m a fun friend to have.”

“But that won’t happen to you, right?”

He shrugged. “Fifty-fifty. I could always die before then, or after then. If everything goes well, my life expectancy is twenty to twenty-two years post-transplant.”

“You’ll only be….” I wanted to barf.

“Thirty-four, maybe?”

“But that’s so young.”

Dalton looked up into my eyes. “A few people have made it longer. I found this one guy online and he’s doing fine after twenty-five, maybe twenty-seven years, so yeah. It’s all so uncertain.”

“Dalton, I…”

“There are new advances in medicine every day.” He leaned in over his lap so our foreheads touched.

I nodded my head because if I spoke I would cry.

“I’m fine, okay?”

I nodded.

“As long as I always take all my medicine, I’m okay.”

“What happens if you don’t?”

Ever so quietly he said, “I die.”

Tears escaped my eyes. I was so lucky my grandma slept like a brick. If she heard me crying – and she probably could have if she was awake because I didn’t have the TV on – she most definitely would have come running downstairs.

“No, I take my meds, so it’s okay. I’ve got my immunosuppressants, my anti-rejection drugs. They help keep my heart and body at peace, even though they like to go to war. Sometimes my meds have to be adjusted because my body likes to act out.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if I felt worse then or when I saw him get shot – both were beyond horrible. No matter what he said, or how much he reassured me, it was still so awful, to have to go through all of that and then know you might not make it to old age.

“My body has tried to reject my heart several times.”

“All because you knocked on my front door.”

“No, no, no, come here,” Dalton said. “It has nothing to do with that. I’m okay.” He wrapped his arms around me and scooted himself by my side, holding me tight.

“But you’re only going to live to be thirty-four, thirty-seven.”

“It could be longer, much longer. But if not…”

“You have to live your life.”

“Exactly. So, I’m sorry if I’m pushy with my liking you. Sometimes I think it’s like I have to try to get everything in. I want to experience love, just in case, you know…”

“Oh my god, Dalton, don’t say stuff like that to me,” I said, burying my face into his shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” he said even though he had absolutely no reason to be.

I officially wanted to spend every last minute of the next twenty to twenty five years with Dalton Reyes. Jesus Christ. “No, I was wrong. You have every right to say stuff like that.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have told you,” he said, resting his chin on my head.

“No, if anything you should have told me earlier. What if I got you sick?”

“I’m a big boy. I know what to do around sick people.”

“Dalton…”

He ran his hand over my hair. “I’m alive. That’s what counts.”

I took in a deep breath and sat up. I couldn’t wait any longer. I had to kiss him. I put my hand on the back of his neck and pulled him in, our lips brushing together. As soon as our kiss was about to turn into something more than just a light touching of the lips, he pulled away.

“I don’t want you kissing me just because of what I said, because you feel sorry for me or something,” he said, wiping tears off my cheek with his thumb.

“I told you to come over tonight because I was planning on kissing you.”

“Are you sure? What if I never told you about my heart?”

“I would have kissed you anyway.”

“It looks like you’re not lying,” he said, looking into my eyes.

“That’s because I’m not.” It was the most honest I had been in my whole life.

“I don’t want you to regret this.”

“I would never regret kissing you.”

“Even though you know…”

“Dalton, you’re going to live a long wonderful life, and I’m going to be a part of it.”

“You have been for a while.”

“Well, let’s not stop that then.”

We both leaned in – his lips were so warm and soft on mine, and it all felt perfect. If I regretted anything, it was not kissing him sooner. His hands were in my hair, one of mine on his chest in an awkward lean. My fingers touched his jaw. I had never been kissed like that before. I was certain our kiss aligned all the planets, made the stars twinkle brighter, and even though it was nighttime, woke all the birds who started chirping a happy tune – and I knew I was falling hard for Dalton Reyes.

***

I went to bed that night filled with joy, but still a sadness lingered – a sadness that we had to go through what we did when we were younger, a sadness for Dalton and his heart, a sadness that we were kept apart for so long. As I drifted off to sleep I tried to think only happy thoughts about Dalton – how he felt in my arms, how my lips still tingled from our kiss, how he reserved his smiles for me.

 

Chapter Fifteen

I felt different the next morning in school. I let my guard down more and it made me feel a bit lighter. The whole truth wasn’t out, but at least I could express my feelings for Dalton. Keeping your feelings in was never a good idea. In the hall, Dalton stopped and looked at me, a smile creeping across his face. I walked over to him. I really wanted to jump into his arms and never stop kissing him, but I contained myself.

“I wasn’t sure if you wanted to…you know…”

I knew what he was getting at, so to answer him, I stood on my toes and put my hand on his neck, pulling his lips to mine. He smiled at me through our kiss. My stomach did all kinds of wild flips. Our lips pressed harder together and Dalton drew me in to him – then we heard someone clear their throat.

“I see you two have sorted things out,” Caroline said.

With my hands still on his neck, I turned toward Caroline. “Yes, we did.”

“That’s a good way to start the day,” Dalton said, taking my hand.

“You guys have been together, what? How long? And you’re already barf-inducing.”

“Don’t be jealous,” I said.

Dalton dropped my hand and squeezed me in a hug. He took in a breath, then let go of both me and his breath. “I should get to class.”

“Okay, see you later.”

He kissed me on the top of my forehead and took off down the hall. I swore there was a spring in his step.

“I kind of am jealous,” Caroline said.

“I think I’d be jealous of me, too.”

Caroline shoved me in the shoulder, and we got on to class.

***

Dalton met me by my locker at the end of the day, my new reality waiting for me. Dalton and I were officially together, and it was exciting, but still a little scary. But then I looked at Dalton, his hands shoved in his pockets, his lips moving a little—I think he sang to himself—and any fears I had vanished from my mind.

“I have a doctor’s appointment tonight,” he said as I approached him.

“Okay,” I said. We hugged and then something dawned on us.

“Would you ride the bus home with me?” he asked.

“Definitely.”

***

The bus ride was all sidelong glances, smiling, and hand holding. I felt so relaxed and happy, despite everything he told me the day before. It just felt good having my feelings out there, being with him, even though we had to keep it secret outside of school. And despite Dalton having an appointment, I did actually see him briefly that night – just feet away, through the window next door – such a small distance that somehow felt like miles. Dalton rested his chin on the windowsill with his hands clasped on top of his head. He looked happy. Then I saw a figure in the doorway behind him.

“Close that window, Dalton. You’ll catch a cold.” His sister pushed past him and pulled down the window – I ducked down, hopefully in time.

I got a text seconds later:

She asked whom I was talking to.

What did you say?

No one – told her I was singing to myself. Supposedly, I’m not allowed to open the window anymore.

What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

See you tomorrow.

Goodnight.

Goodnight.

I held my phone to my chest and smiled. I was so enamored with Dalton. I didn’t want to wait until the next day to see him, but I had no choice, so I closed my eyes and hoped I’d find him in my dreams.

***

Once again, Dalton and I sat side by side on the bus coming home from school. The bus smelled like old hot dog water and the driver couldn’t control the breaks – every stop flung me into Dalton’s side. One guy dropped his groceries, reaching for a pole before he lost his footing from the bus driver’s subpar driving skills. Dalton occasionally glanced at me and smiled, but then put his serious face right back on. He wouldn’t let go of my hand.

“Come over,” he said.

“Have you been smoking crack?”

Dalton laughed. “No, but there is about a three hour window today where nobody besides me will be home. It doesn’t happen very often.” He squeezed my hand.

I thought about it for a quick second before I spoke. “Okay, I’d love to.”

 

We got off the bus and walked over to his lola’s house, under trees that already lost some of their leaves, the sky overcast as a wind blew. Dalton let us into the house. It was the first time I was ever in there. It felt odd, but thrilling knowing that I shouldn’t be there.

“Best to go to my room. Then we can lock the door.”

I nodded and followed Dalton up the small wooden set of stairs that led to the second floor. Their house was almost an exact replica of ours, only flip-flopped. I walked up the stairs and studied the two portraits hanging on the wall – one of Hailey and one of Dalton.

“This is exactly how I always remembered you,” I said, taking in the picture of Dalton – his black hair all standing up straight trying to reach the sky, his lips turned up ever so slightly in a smile.

“Yeah, that’s my sixth grade school photo.”

“It’s kind of weird that an old one is so prominently displayed.”

“My whole family has been kind of weird ever since I was eleven. I mean, granted, they were never that normal to start, but after then…”

“I don’t blame them, really.”

Dalton nodded and pointed to a door right in front of him. I climbed the rest of the stairs and walked down the short, wood-paneled hallway.

“My room,” Dalton said, ushering me in.

“Looks in transition.” The room was full of stuff, but the yellow walls stayed bare – clothes hung out of duffle bags, books sat on the floor, some boxes were still taped shut.

“Yeah, I don’t know how much I should settle in,” Dalton said, scratching the tip of his nose. “My dad’s supposed to be gone three months, but he said there’s a possibility of extending that, so I don’t know.”

“That stinks.”

“Yeah, but we need the money. That’s why he took the position. All my medical bills have tapped us dry.”

“Well, that stinks, too. What about your mom?”

“Um, I think she kind of hates me right now,” Dalton said, looking down at the hardwood floor.

“Marisol said she went because she needed a break or something.”

“Yeah, a break from me. We got into this really bad fight, and I said something that really upset her.”

“That’s no reason to run away.”

“It was really mean.” Dalton sat down on the edge of his bed with his hands pressed together between his knees.

“Still,” I said, sitting down next to him.

“I told her when I die, I hope it’s in front of her and that it ruins the rest of her goddamn life.”

“Harsh…but she left you. I’d think she’d want to spend every possible minute with you that she could.”

Dalton’s face fell. “I might not die, you know. I could have years longer than expected. Medical research could come up with something.” He looked sad when he said it though, like he didn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Dalton. I didn’t mean it like that.” I lay my head on his shoulder.

He sucked on his lip and nodded his head a little.

“It’s just that you’re her son. She should never want to leave you.”

“I always tell them to pretend that I’m normal, carry on how they usually would. That’s what they’re doing. She just needs some time to think, clear her head. I’m a lot to handle sometimes.”

“But at least your mom will come back.”

“Yeah, I guess I’m lucky.”

“You’re the most unlucky, lucky person that I know.”

“How I’m the most un-rebellious, rebellious person that you know?”

“You’re a walking contradiction,” I said.

“Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Want a snack?”

“Okay, sure.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

Standing in their kitchen, I felt like I’d get in trouble at any moment. Dalton searched through the cabinets while I looked out the window over the sink into the backyard – a simple patch of grass, much like ours, but his lola had flowerbeds on two sides of the yard. We just had a tool shed.

“We have SkyFlakes, bread, peanuts, or dried mangos. Take your pick.”

“What are SkyFlakes?”

“Pretty much saltines,” Dalton said, handing me a foil packet of crackers.

“SkyFlakes it is.”

“Something to drink?”

“Water would be just fine.”

“Boy do I know how to treat a girl – crackers and water.”

I smiled at Dalton and we headed up to his room with our snacks.

I sat down on his bed, leaning up against the headboard. Dalton sat cross-legged next to me.

“I want to know everything about you, Lexie,” Dalton said, ripping open a package of dried mangoes.

“Okay.”

“So start talking.”

“Well…my full name is Alexis Annalise Stein.”

“That’s exactly what I was going to guess,” he said with a totally straight face. He was fantastic at making jokes without cracking a smile.

“And yours?”

“Dalton Fernando Reyes.”

“That’s a good name. Sounds important.”

“Thanks. I like yours, too.” Dalton leaned in and gave me a kiss on the lips. The kiss started out soft and slow with his hand gently touching my jaw, then I reached up and put my hands on the back of his neck, drawing us a little closer. He dropped his mangoes, and his hands were in my hair, holding the back of my head – and the kiss deepened. Our mouths parted – his tongue explored my teeth and I sucked on his lip. We pressed so close together that our legs entwined, and it was like we became one. We were that kiss.

His kiss wouldn’t calm all my fears and anxieties about life, nor would it make everything better. No, I didn’t believe kisses could do those sort of things, but kisses could do many other wonderful things. His kiss sparked something new, awakened things in me both physically and emotionally. I could keep it with me always, like a thimble in my pocket.

It made me realize that I never wanted to let him go. It also made me hyperaware that I was a girl – one that had desires. It made me think about having sex for the first time. I tried not to think about boys like that. I never wanted to let anyone get close enough, but things were so different with Dalton. I wanted to bare my soul to him, let him see the very essence of my being, and that kiss just added to that.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t like I was going to jump his bones right there, but I knew that when the time came, he’d be the one. The tingling throughout my body was a pretty good indicator.

Ours hands caressed and explored each other’s bodies – his hands on my back, mine on his butt, his thumb brushing across my breast and my reaction of a stuttered breath. I held him tighter and our lips crashed together. My heart beat fast – I couldn’t control my breathing and his body pressed so close to mine. He was so warm, his arms and back so firm – and then we heard a noise.

Dalton bolted up to sitting. “Oh, shit.”

“Someone’s home,” I said.

“Crap, crap, crap,” Dalton said under his breath.

“So, okay, what happens if we get caught?”

“If I mess up again, they said they’d send me away. Therapeutic boarding school or one that takes medically fragile students. Luckily, they haven’t found one yet that caters to both, but if they have to, they’ll pick a side…” His eyes widened and he shook his head.

“And off you go.”

“We have to get you out of here.”

“Will you explain to me what exactly a therapeutic boarding school is, and the whole medically fragile thing?” Even though I was pretty sure that related to his heart transplant.

The stairs creaked as someone walked up them. “Dalton,” a female voice called.

“It’s Hailey. The closet.”

I got off his bed and into the closet. Dalton closed the door on me and I could hear him throw himself onto his bed.

“Dalton,” Hailey said again, knocking on the door.

“What?”

“Just making sure you’re home.”

“Where else would I be?”

“The library, school…hopefully only somewhere that you’re supposed to be.”

“Alas, I’m on my bed.”

“What are you doing just lying there? You feel okay?”

“Yeah, just a little nauseous still.”

“That happens when they increase your meds.”

“I know – doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“It’s for the best, Dalton.”

“I know, Hailey.”

“Want me to sit with you?”

“No, but thanks. I kind of want to be alone.”

“Okay, get me if anything else feels off. You did good, telling Lola and Lolo. They’re proud of you, and so am I.”

“Thanks.”

I heard the bedroom door shut, and opened the closet door. “You weren’t supposed to hear any of that,” Dalton said.

“Are you okay?”

He nodded. “Yeah.”

“What happened?” I asked, the two of us still standing on either side of the closet doorway.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yeah, not tonight?”

“I have an appointment.”

“Doctor?”

“Actually no.”

“Are you going to tell me?”

“Maybe, soon.”

“Okay, let’s get me out of here then.”

Dalton opened his bedroom door a crack and looked out. “I think she’s in her room,” he whispered. He opened the door more and motioned over his shoulder at me. We tiptoed to the stairs, pausing when a floorboard squeaked. I followed Dalton down the stairs and was just outside the kitchen when his sister’s bedroom door opened.

“Hey, Dalton,” she called.

“Yeah?” he said, shoving my shoulder, so I stumbled back into the kitchen.

“Dad’s on the phone. I don’t know why he doesn’t just call yours. He talks to me for like a minute and then asks for you.”

“Can’t help it if I’m the favorite.”

“Shut up, you ass. Come get the phone.”

“Be there in a sec.”

Hailey’s door opened, and she came out into the hall. “He’s right here, Dad,” she said into her cellphone.

Dalton sighed and motioned with his hand behind his back to the back door. I nodded, and he went to get the phone from his sister. I walked across the small kitchen. Unlike ours, theirs had been updated – tall cabinets and granite counters – but unfortunately the backdoor seemed to have not been involved in that process. It was the original, old wood door. I unlocked it and pulled, but it stuck, and when I pulled again, it made a loud groaning sound. I tried again, biting my bottom lip. It was like opening a door to some ancient crypt. I was too scared to try it even more. I heard footsteps and darted down a small flight of stairs into the basement, which was also similar to mine and my grandma’s – low ceiling, paneling, tile floor. But the difference came with how it was set up. It seemed they used it as a bedroom, most likely his lolo’s and lola’s. I could hear Hailey in the kitchen. I scooted further into the basement and texted Dalton, making sure my phone was on silent so Hailey wouldn’t hear it when Dalton texted me back.

Trapped in basement.

Crap. Hold on one sec. Still talking to Dad.

You need to get the backdoor open for me.

Okay.

After a bit, I heard Dalton call his sister’s name. “Kitchen!” she yelled.

I heard Dalton’s footsteps.

“Where’s my phone?”

“On your dresser.”

“Why didn’t you just give it back to me?”

“I don’t know – I stuck it on your dresser. I think somebody was calling as I walked away.”

“Sometimes, Dalton, you’re so dense.”

“And sometimes, you’re a witch.”

“Go get my phone.”

“No.”

“God, you’re so annoying.”

“I hear it buzzing. Whoever tried to call might be texting you.”

I could hear Hailey’s footsteps leave the kitchen. I tiptoed up the basement steps as I heard Dalton enter the kitchen.

“You might be as good of a liar as me,” I whispered.

Dalton shrugged and opened the back door. I slipped out under his arm and I could hear Hailey yelling at him as I darted away.

Chapter Seventeen

“So, you’re okay, but not okay,” I said to Dalton as the two of us sat on a bench outside of school. We still had a few minutes before the bell rang. The sun was actually out that morning and it felt good on my face.

Dalton shrugged. “Like you said, I’m a walking contradiction.”

“What was your sister talking about when she checked on you in your bedroom?”

Dalton sighed and ran his hand over his face. “I wasn’t feeling right and ended up in the ER and they had to adjust my meds.”

“What does that mean?” I asked, watching cars pull into the school parking lot, the occupants getting out one by one.

“Um…,” Dalton said, scratching behind his ear. “I was showing symptoms of rejection, so they had to increase some of my medication.”

“You were what! That sounds so not good.”

“It’s not as bad as it sounds. It happens from time to time. Just a small war within me. They’ll double check to make sure everything is okay, and I’ve never had it be otherwise. Adjusting my meds usually works.”

I grabbed Dalton in a hug, burying my head in his chest. “I still don’t like the way that sounds, like those names of the boarding schools.”

“Which one did you like worse, the therapeutic boarding school or the one for medically fragile students?”

“I don’t know. I think I know what they mean, but I’m not positive.”

“Okay so, a therapeutic boarding school is for kids with problems. Some mental, some like ADHD, problems with authority, depression – a whole range of things.”

“How do you fit in?” I asked, taking his hand and crossing my legs beneath me. I glanced at a spot of dirt, void of grass from all the feet through the years.

“Because of some things I did, my parents thought I was acting out and a therapist said I had delayed onset PTSD, but I don’t think I do.”

“Why would they say that then?”

“I’ll tell you, but not right now. Okay?”

I wasn’t sure I liked how Dalton wasn’t sharing the whole story with me. Maybe the two of us were more alike than I ever imagined. He was scared to tell the truth. “Okay, and about the medically fragile thing?” I asked.

“Well, as you know, heart transplant – which in itself was awesome because I’m still alive, but it comes with other problems,” Dalton said. “High blood pressure, pre-diabetic,” he started ticking the items off with his fingers, “anemic – being anemic isn’t a big deal for me personally right now, but it is one extra pill I have to take every day, and trust me, I take a lot of life-sustaining drugs – another thing that qualifies me as medically fragile. They have schools just for people like me.”

“And they would seriously send you away?” The thought of him leaving me again made my heart ache. I hoped his parents were only bluffing, trying to scare him straight.

“They say they’ll do anything to protect me, and that’s what they think they’ll be doing.”

“But how? Sending you away, all by yourself, makes no sense to me.”

“They want me to be in a calm environment away from outside influences, but luckily, they didn’t have enough time to come to a conclusion before they left, so now it’s this threat they’ve been using to try to keep me in line while they’re away.”

“Okay. We have to be very careful then, to not get caught – but still, meet me after school. We have to go to the library.”

Dalton nodded.

***

“I’m the one with all the lies, but it turns out I’m not the only one with secrets.”

“Yeah,” Dalton said, sitting across from me at a wooden table. We were tucked away amongst shelves of books at a table we came upon in the adult section of the library, hidden enough so we could talk.

“You need to fill in the blanks. What are you not telling me?” I asked as I plopped my backpack on the table.

Dalton covered his face with both of his hands. “I know,” he said, looking up at me, his eyes wet. “Um…”

“Dalton,” I said softly.

“Um, it’s about the second fight I got into.”

“Okay.”

“I beat the shit out of someone, got arrested, and am now on probation.”

“What!”

Dalton nodded.

“Oh my god, that’s what my grandma must have meant. She knows. She kept saying you were trouble.”

“So that’s the main reason my parents wanted to send me away. But with the fight, the guy’s friend showed up and pushed me off his friend and started punching me, so I…uh…fought back.”

“Why wouldn’t you tell me any of this?” I asked quietly. We were trying to keep our voices low, but I don’t think it mattered much because somebody came and sat down in one of the aisles near us, watching a pretty loud Korean soap opera on their laptop.

“It’s one more thing to add to everything else. One less reason for you to like me.”

“Dalton…I….” I wasn’t too sure what to say.

“The actual story is kind of embarrassing.”

“You getting beat up after you beat somebody else up?”

“No, the reason why.” He looked down at the table.

“Tell me, please,” I said softly.

“Somebody at my old school started this rumor that I received my heart from a baboon. They watched some old movie like that, and I guess thought it would be funny if they said that about me. Well, it took off pretty well. Most just thought it was funny, and when they made monkey noises at me, they thought it was harmless.”

“That’s awful.”

Dalton nodded. “So I was at this skate park near my house just watching everybody. I couldn’t skate because my parents were always too worried. Another possible side effect of my meds is osteoporosis, and you usually don’t find out you have it until you break a bone, and that was too much of a risk factor for my parents, so I’d just go and watch everybody skating. Well, this one guy…I didn’t even know him, but he knew me and started making monkey sounds and calling me ape boy, and I snapped, pretty much. Luckily, I didn’t have osteoporosis because otherwise it would have been much worse.

My main response is that I’m okay, but I think you would say, I’m the most un-okay, okay person ever. Everybody in my life always worries so much about me – physically and mentally – that after a while, I just started answering with, ‘Everything is okay.’”

“Even when it wasn’t, like all those kids being jackasses?”

“Yeah, if I complained about the teasing, somebody would have made a big ordeal about it. ‘Stop being mean to the heart transplant kid’ would probably have gone viral on the internet, and I didn’t want any extra attention. I just wanted people to think I was okay, even if I wasn’t.”

“And then you just went off on the guy in the skate park.”

“Yeah, it was scary, too, because I was just so focused on getting out all this pain I had burrowed down. It was the absolute wrong way to deal with my emotions, and I felt like crap afterward for what I did.”

“What happened after his friend jumped in?”

“He got in a good few punches, and I managed to get to my feet just as the cops arrived. Ryan, the guy I beat up, was still lying on the ground with his friend standing near him. I got arrested, and they took Ryan to the hospital.”

“Shouldn’t you have gone to the hospital because of all your stuff?”

“I was bleeding some, but I was scared and not thinking about getting checked out. The cops made a mistake and didn’t stop to look for a medical alert bracelet as they slapped the cuffs on me.” He stuck his hand up his sleeve and pulled down a silver chain bracelet. “So they took me to the station all bloody and stuck me in an interrogation room. My blood doesn’t clot well, so my nose and lip kept bleeding – started dripping all over the table and bruises started popping up everywhere. I bruise real easily, too.” Dalton stopped and rubbed the back of his neck. “A cop came in to start to question me and he was like, ‘What the?’ because I guess I looked pretty out of it.”

“They should have gotten you medical help.”

“Perhaps, but they saw me standing, so I seemed all right. I mean, I was – just my lip and nose bleeding – but they wouldn’t stop bleeding, and having open wounds isn’t the best thing for me, either,” he said, rolling his bracelet between his fingers.

“What happened then?” I asked, realizing the person watching the Korean soap opera had turned down the volume and was leaning in our direction.

“They finally took me to the hospital, and my mom was so pissed – yelling at the cops and the detective that showed up about delaying my medical care, infections, all that kind of stuff. My parents’ lawyer showed up, and I went home several hours later.”

“And so you got probation.”

“Yeah, everybody was mad that Ryan’s friend didn’t get charged, but he was just protecting his friend.”

“But he didn’t have to beat you up in return.”

“Still, I started it. Our lawyer was all like, ‘How do you feel after you beat up a medically fragile boy?’ But I deserved it. It almost made me feel normal. You know how much I’ve despised the term ‘medically fragile.’ It’s only been said a few times around me, but I don’t want to be seen that way.”

“Dalton, god, I’m sorry you went through that. I don’t think you deserved it.”

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but it pretty much landed me here.” Dalton forced a small smile. “And I worry that Ryan could be mentally damaged for life. I could have caused him some kind of lasting terror, or who knows.”

“He sounds like kind of a jerk.”

“Even if so, he still didn’t deserve what I did to him.”

“So, you still are the most un-rebellious, rebellious person I know.”

“Hey, I beat somebody up.”

“Something you shouldn’t be proud of, and I can tell you’re not. Just watching you tell the story, I could tell how bad you feel about it. That doesn’t seem very rebel-like to me.”

Dalton sighed. “The aura of my mystique vanishes.”

I smiled at him. “Thanks for telling me.”

“Welcome.”

“So there’s really so much more to you sneaking around, like now I mean.”

“Yeah, most of it goes against my probation.”

“Won’t you get in trouble?”

“Not if I’m not caught,” he said with a crooked smile.

“So could you have gone with your parents if you weren’t on probation?”

“If I wanted, yeah. But now, they basically think I need a babysitter. My parents are so distrusting of me now that they sicced Hailey on me. Well, I say distrusting – they say they just want to make sure I don’t do anything stupid again.”

“So maybe you should stop climbing in my basement window.”

“Not a chance.”

Chapter Eighteen

Later that night I let Dalton in, and he dropped down through the window, onto the couch that had the sofa bed pulled out. I looked from it to him.

“There is nothing suggestive about that. Okay? I just wanted to stretch out and watch TV.”

“Okay,” he said with a smile. “I’m kind of tapped out of talking for the day. Can we just lay here? Watch a little TV maybe?”

“Yeah, of course.”

Dalton lay back with his hands behind his head and scooted in, and I lay my head on his chest. The TV was already on to some kind of cutest pet show. As we watched, I could feel the rise and fall of his chest, and he absentmindedly ran his fingers through my hair.

“That little dog is really cute,” he said.

“He really is. I always wanted a little dog. Do you guys have any pets?”

“No, not advised.”

“That stinks.”

“It kind of does, but you get used to it after a while. Also not advised: roller coasters and haunted houses. So if I wanted to take a cat to a haunted amusement park, I am to proceed with caution. Luckily, I’ve never had the desire to do so.”

“Me, neither.”

We watched some more of the cute animals show and then flipped it to a station that happened to be showing From Rags to Fab. “My favorite,” I said.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“Okay, introduce me to this Rags to Fab.”

“It’s kind of my inspiration.”

“For the clothes you make?”

I sighed before I spoke. “If I tell you, promise you won’t think I’m like a freak or something.”

“I would never.” His expression was genuine, and he rolled on his side so we were face to face.

“So, you know I lie about my life and stuff. I’m not sure you’re aware of the depth of my depravity.”

“You are not depraved, but I got a hint of the lying. You have people believing that you have some sort of a relationship with a prince.”

“It was just tea until your song, but yeah. That all started in seventh grade, but that’s a different story for a different day.” I could feel my face flush. “So, here it goes. People think I get my clothes from an exclusive fashion designer that my mom may or may not work for.”

“Your mom?”

“Yes, only Caroline and now Luiz know that she left when I was five.”

Dalton’s face fell into a frown.

“It’s okay, don’t worry.”

“Now you sound like me.”

I smiled at Dalton and he reached out and took my hand in his. Our fingers felt so perfect laced together. It almost distracted me from what I was going to say. He then reached up and brushed his other hand across my cheek. My stomach flipped and my heart sped up. Just his lightest touches threw me into a fluster.

“What was I saying?”

“Mom, fashion…”

“Oh yeah, so,” I said as he squeezed my hand. I then told him my whole Enzo deal.

“You’re really talented.”

I could feel my face turn pink, yet again.

“And you make the labels for the inside of the clothes, too. That takes dedication.”

“If you’re not dedicated, you can’t sell the lie.”

“But you don’t lie to me?”

“No, like I’ve said, I have no reason. You know my truths.”

Dalton leaned his forehead against mine, putting his hand on the back of my neck. “All this sneaking around we have to do, is it bad for you?”

“No, why would it be?”

“I’m making you lie even more.”

“It’s my field of expertise.”

“I don’t want to…I don’t know how to say it…”

“Be an enabler?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Don’t worry, you’re not. Besides, you’re worth every lie I tell.”

Dalton tilted his head a bit and pressed his lips against mine. I kissed him back, slightly parting my lips, welcoming his tongue. Our kiss deepened – I wrapped my arms around his neck and every inch of my being came alive. His kisses were electric. I rolled over on top of him, my legs straddled to his sides, and his hands were on me, mine pressed into the bed next to his ears.

He moved his kisses under my jaw and down, giving special attention to a spot on my lower neck. His lips brushed over my skin, and I wondered if he could feel the rapid beating of my heart. I felt all kinds of amazing, but wasn’t exactly sure when to take the next step. I didn’t know how long the duration of the bases were supposed to be, or did it even matter? I returned his kisses – under the jaw, below his ear, his neck, and most importantly back to his mouth.

I straightened my back and sucked on my bottom lip. I crossed my arms at my waist and grabbed the sides of my t-shirt. I cocked an eyebrow at him and with a smile, he nodded his head yes. I slowly pulled my shirt off and over my head. I found out that it can be really enjoyable when you take your shirt off around a boy you’re making out with.

***

At school the next day Dalton attempted to smile, but it turned more into a pursing of his lips. “You feel all right?”

“Just a little nauseous.”

I put my hand on his cheek.

“My meds do that sometimes, especially with the higher dose.”

“Are you going home?”

“I’m going to try to stick it out as long as I can.”

“You don’t look so good,” Caroline said, approaching us in the hall.

Dalton slapped one hand over his stomach and the other over his mouth. He nodded at me and darted down the hall.

“Well, I guess that answers that,” Caroline said, clapping her hand on my shoulder.

I looked over at her.

“I’m sure he’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. Man, poor Dalton. I knew he would hate if I said that out loud, but he got a pretty raw deal. “I just wish it could get better for him.”

“I’m sure whatever he has will pass.”

I shook my head.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” Caroline asked, raising a freshly arched eyebrow.

“I don’t know if he wants people to know.”

“He’s dying?” Caroline took my shoulders and spun me toward her.

“No.”

“Then what?” she asked, shaking me a bit as a teacher in a sweater vest eyeballed us.

“Nothing.”

“The girl with the lies dates the boy with the secrets.”

She couldn’t have been more correct.

***

Dalton continued to climb in my basement window and kept showing up in his lola’s spare room doing a random assortment of stuff – a little Dalton show through my bedroom window. At school it was so easy and natural being together. We had nobody to worry about catching us. I was still somewhat worried somebody would find out who Dalton was, learn his backstory which in turn was tied into mine, and I would be the laughing stock of the school, but nobody seemed really interested. It seemed my classmates enjoyed coming up with wild theories on Dalton instead of actually getting to know him.

In my basement, we had to worry about somebody catching us, but it was kind of thrilling and fun – and sometimes he’d show up with his acoustic guitar.

“You brought your guitar,” I said the first time he climbed in my window with it.

“Um, yeah.”

“Don’t worry, my grandma is a heavy sleeper and she leaves the TV on.”

“Okay, cool,” Dalton said, sitting cross-legged on the couch with his guitar. I sat next to him, and we turned toward each other so we were face to face, knee to knee.

“So, are you going to play me something?”

“Um, I was going to, but now…” I could see his cheeks take on some color.

“What changed?”

“I didn’t know if you’d ever hear me play this song. This is so much more personal now.”

“Which is a good thing. I love your voice, Dalton, and whatever you sing.” I put my hand on his plaid-pajama-pant-covered knee.

He nodded and started to slowly strum. He was right – it was personal and intimate. At first, when I saw his guitar, I wasn’t sure how I would react. I was scared he would sing me a song, like he was doing. It was an awful lot of attention, and I wasn’t really used to that. But every minute sitting there was wonderful. I was drawn in by his voice, his eyes glancing up at me, the shadow of a smile creeping across his face.

“That was beautiful,” I said when he finished his song.

“Thanks,” he said, looking down at his guitar, picking at the edge of it. “I usually don’t sing slow songs, or write them for that matter.”

“You should do it more often.”

He looked up at me. “It wasn’t too cheesy?”

“Of course not.” I so loved it. He wrote me a song. A boy wrote me a song!

“I wrote it for you. I’m pretty sure you could tell.”

I smiled at him. “You are so perfect.”

“Hardly.”

“You are, to me. That’s what counts.”

“Okay. You’re pretty perfect yourself.”

“Well, yeah, I know that.”

Dalton reached over our laps and shoved me in the shoulder.

“Hey!” I said.

“Want another song?”

“Of course.”

“You’re a pretty good sounding board. I don’t get to practice with the guys too often. We try it over PeoplePhone sometimes, but it’s best to play in front of somebody.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“You get to see the person’s response. How they react while you play tells you a lot. Their eyes, the way they hold themselves, if they’re falling asleep or not.”

“And watching my response?”

“I think I have a pretty good song on my hands.”

“You really do.”

“And guess what?”

“What?”

“We’re going to play a real, true, live gig – not just somebody’s basement.” Dalton’s whole face lit up and he bit his lip, possibly trying to contain the huge smile slowly spreading across his face. So cute.

“That’s awesome,” I said, throwing my arms around him. “Tell me all about it.”

Dalton drummed his fingers on the side of his guitar. “Nothing like super awesome, but it’s a local band showcase in the city. I guess one of the people who runs it saw our video from Nat Drummond’s party and got a hold of Matt.”

“That is super awesome.”

“You’ll be there?”

“Front row.”

He played some more and eventually took off his guitar. We lay side by side on the couch with our limbs entangled, taking in each other’s essence until he had to go.

 

Chapter Nineteen

It was the third time Dalton came over and wooed me with his guitar—he’d been over many times, but not always with his guitar. We lay back on the pullout bed – I anticipated some major making out that night – and his scrumptious lips pressed against mine. His tongue discovered mine intertwining with his. Breathe, Lexie, breathe. He brushed his thumb across my cheek, sliding his hand behind my head, scooping his other hand under me, his palm warm on my back. He lowered himself down on me, our bodies pressed together – his kiss deepening, sending tingles throughout me. My one hand was on the back of his neck and the other in his hair, and with us so close and all the kissing and touching, I thought I would melt.

Dalton pulled off his bottoms and then my shirt, lying back down on top of me. With his body pressed against mine, my mind lost all control. I just reacted and let out a little gasp as he kissed me right above my collarbone then gave a little lick, smiling up at me. It felt so wonderful having him in my arms, tangled in each other, his soft lips kissing me all over. I didn’t want it to ever stop. Every part of me was alive and excited. I pulled him back up so his lips were on mine again, his hands exploring.

“Dalton,” I said as my brain reeled, thinking how I wanted him to keep doing exactly what he was doing, touching me in places no boy had ever touched before. I rubbed my hands along his back and held him while our lips crashed together. They were lips I had become so familiar with – lips that I loved, just like every other inch of him. I started to breathe deeply and my heart drummed so fast in my chest. I took his hand and guided it to my back. He looked in my eyes and I nodded. Dalton unclasped my bra and slid it off, tossing it to the side.

“Lexie,” he said, in his deep gorgeous timbre, taking in all of me.

I wrapped my arms around him again and he pushed his hips down onto me. Then I could feel him, really feel him. He was just as excited as I was. I put my hands on his butt and pressed him closer. He moved against me, lightly rubbing himself up and down, and our hips started moving in synch.

“Okay?” he whispered in my ear.

“Yes, god, yes.”

“Sure?” he said as I felt him between my legs.

“Please, Dalton. Don’t stop.”

The two of us moved together, keeping with the rhythm. He kissed me and I kissed him back. I had never felt anything like that before in my life – having him only in his boxers, between my legs, only my undies and cotton bottoms acting as a barrier. But I knew we had enough layers to be safe.

I closed my eyes as he gave me kisses and I slid my hands up his shirt, feeling his warm skin. Then my body started to tremble. I held him so tight. He knew what was happening and made sure to keep doing exactly what he did to make me feel that way.

“Oh, oh.” Dalton continued to rub and press himself against me, and I could feel it building, and then it was like bam. Jesus Christ, I didn’t know anything like that could happen when you still had your bottoms on, but dear Lord it could. I knew it would be a moment I would think of later and just smile. I would have to make sure I made way more memories like that. Once my new fantastic feeling started to subside, I breathed heavily, my breasts moving up and down with my breath. He kept grinding me a bit and started to moan, then jumped up.

“I’ll be right back.” He ran into the bathroom.

I was still kind of trembling, and I can only say reveling in what just happened. My heart carried on with its wild pace and as I began to calm down, Dalton came out of the bathroom. He lay down next to me and gave me a sweet little kiss on the lips.

“Um, thanks.” God I was so awkward sometimes. But really, what do you say after that?

“Thanks to you, too.” He brushed my hair behind my ear and kissed my forehead.

I smiled at him and nuzzled into his shoulder. “Can we do that again some time?”

“Most definitely.”

“Without our clothes on?” I asked.

Dalton laughed and smiled at me. I wanted to do what we just did over again, and again, and again with him. I just wanted him, at all times, no one else.

***

“Okay, so, Saturday night, bowling alley,” Caroline said into the phone.

“We’re going to spend our Saturday night bowling?” I asked, running the hem of a shirt under the foot of my sewing machine, thread punching into the fabric in a straight line.

“Well, yeah. Have you ever bowled? It’s pretty fun and Rico’s coming.”

“Wait, isn’t that Mr. Chavez’s grandson?” I asked. She had mentioned him a few times since we filmed the car commercial.

“Yep.”

“Oh, okay then,” I said. I did a back stitch and then pulled the shirt from the machine, cutting the thread. Maybe I’d wear what I just created out for bowling.

***

Before Caroline picked me up at my house I wanted to try something. I texted Dalton and asked him not to be mad. I really hoped it wouldn’t ruin our evening, either. I was so nervous. There was a hammering in my chest. I stood on the front porch to Dalton’s lola and lolo’s house. I rang the doorbell and waited. I took in a deep breath, letting cool air fill my lungs as I waited for someone to answer the door. The door opened partway and I heard Hailey yell, “Who is it?” from somewhere in the house. Dalton’s lolo yelled back, “I’m checking,” and the door opened all the way. He saw me standing out there and said, “Oh.”

“Um, hi,” I said. “Is Dalton home?”

Dalton’s lolo didn’t say anything to me. Instead, he yelled into the house, “Gloria!”

I knew I shouldn’t have been there, but I had to try at least once. It wasn’t going so hot.

“What?” Dalton’s lola yelled back, and after a few seconds she appeared in the doorway.

She saw me and said, “Oh, I don’t think so,” and slammed the door.

Well, at least I tried. I went back to my house to wait for Caroline. She got there about a half hour later.

Chapter Twenty

“Rico’s meeting us there later,” Caroline said as I let her in.

It felt kind of strange having her over again. Things were slowly changing for me, and I wasn’t quite used to it yet. People were getting to know the real me, but I still worried they wouldn’t like what they found once I stripped down all of my outer layers.

“Okay, cool,” I said, grabbing my coat from the front hall closet.

“I’m leaving, Grandma.”

“Have fun, you two. I’ll be at bingo tonight if you need anything,” she said from the kitchen.

“I think I’ll be okay, but thanks. Bye.” I pulled on my coat, and we got into Caroline’s car. “Dalton’s meeting us there, too – his lolo is dropping him off.”

“Why doesn’t he just ride with us?”

“A war of the worlds would break out,” I said with a feeling of dread, thinking what I did might have been severely stupid.

“I’m happy you two are together. You’re good for each other.”

“Thanks. I never thought dating a boy would be good for me. I’ve been going for the whole strong, independent woman thing.”

“Which is great, don’t get me wrong there. But it’s like you’ve been waiting for Dalton all this time to…um…blossom.”

“Blossom?”

“Yes, blossom. That’s the word. You just seem more at ease. I know it has to do with the day that shall not be mentioned, but somehow he lightened you, lifted a load from your shoulders.”

“Okay, I wouldn’t go that far. It’s just like reassurance of some kind. I don’t know. I just feel comfortable with him.”

“Because he knows you unlike we do,” Caroline said, turning right onto the busy street.

“Yeah, maybe, but it’s still complicated.”

Caroline shook her head and smiled. “Complicated or not, keep it going.”

“Why would you say that?”

“What?”

“Keep it going.”

“Because I don’t want you to get scared and dump him or something,” she said, biting her bottom lip as she changed lanes.

“I’m not going to dump him.”

“Hopefully not, but I think you’re a ‘when the going gets tough, it’s time to get packing and lying’ kind of person,” she said with an edge to her voice.

“I lie. I don’t leave people.”

“Just don’t make up some lies about why you think your guys’ relationship is so complicated,” she said, pulling into the parking lot. Caroline came with a bite that night.

“Caroline, we need to stop talking about this. Dalton and I are together and happy, end of story.”

“Okay, fine for now, end of story. Now let’s go bowl.” Caroline parked and we walked into the bowling alley. We found Dalton waiting at the shoe counter, looking cute as usual. The bad lighting in the bowling alley couldn’t even do him wrong.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said back, smiling.

“Oh my god, he knows how to smile,” Caroline said.

Dalton stopped smiling.

“No, seriously, don’t stop. It’s adorbs. You’re adorbs.”

Dalton looked from Caroline to me. The sound of bowling balls striking pins rang out, the girl behind the counter looking at us. She seemed to really want us to get our shoes. She started tapping her hot pink nails on the counter.

“Never mind her,” I said, referring to Caroline, but the woman behind the counter stopped clicking her nails and looked at me with a scowl. I gave Dalton a quick kiss and then looked around the bowling alley. “Your lolo left, right?”

“Yeah, he just dropped me off outside.”

“Okay good. How were they after I came by? How’d you get free? I was afraid my little stunt would cost us the evening. I should have told you what I was going to do.”

“It’s okay, but they were pretty pissed. They said you had no right being there, but I told them I had nothing to do with it – that I needed some time with friends and not just my sister and them, two old fogeys. My supposed good behavior helped me get out.”

“You should keep up that supposed good behavior.”

“I’ll try my best. You might have to start locking your basement window,” Dalton said as Caroline walked away, making a gagging sound.

“Never. You just need to not get caught.”

“Thanks for trying.”

I hugged Dalton and squeezed him tight because sometimes it felt like he would be taken away from me again, and I would do anything to stop that from happening. We got our shoes and found a lane. Caroline made a joke about touching Dalton’s balls and his face turned a bright shade of red. As Caroline would say, it was adorbs.

Before Dalton picked up the bowling ball he decided to use, he pulled out a pack of sanitizing wipes from his back pocket. He plucked one out of the pack and wiped down the ball, not forgetting to clean inside the finger holes.

“What are you doing?” Caroline asked.

“You know how many germs are on these things?” he asked, as somebody from another lane shouted a woohoo. They got a strike.

“That’s the fun of bowling – the risks you take, the balls, and dear Lord the shoes.”

“I’ll stay healthy, thanks.” He pulled out another wipe and cleaned his hands.

“It’s not like you’re going to contract anything from bowling.”

“You never know.”

Caroline rolled her eyes. “I’m going first.” She plunked herself into the chair in front of the computer and typed in her name. Then mine, Dalton’s, and Rico’s.

“Where is Rico?” I asked.

“He just texted me. Got held up at work. Should be here shortly.”

“Cool.” I looked around the bowling alley. Some kids from school were there and some families, couples, and a small league who all wore matching pink bowling shirts. The place smelled of feet and stale popcorn – not the best scent ever, but it helped me feel at ease. Maybe because we were out doing something totally normal. I was with my boyfriend and best friend and we were going to have some fun. We started bowling, and it turned out that Dalton was a horrible bowler. I was actually better than him, and I’m usually better than nobody in bowling.

“And into the gutter,” I said on about his fifth gutter ball.

After his turn, he turned his back on us and pulled his pack of wipes out of his pocket.

“Try not flicking your wrist so much,” Caroline said. She happened to be a great bowler. Bingo was my grandma’s thing. Bowling was her grandma’s thing. “What are you doing, Dalton?”

“Nothing,” he said, about to slip the sanitizing wipes back in his pocket. They were the reason he always smelled like minty apples.

“Wait, bring them here.”

“I think I’m going to grab a bottle of water,” Dalton said. I knew he didn’t want to show her because she’d probably make a deal out of it again. I didn’t want to, but I felt kind of bad for him. He had to take so many precautions just to lead a regular life. Dalton went to get water, and I gave Caroline a shove in the shoulder.

“What?”

“Leave him alone.”

“He’s like Mr. Hygienic or something.”

“Who cares?” I said. Caroline could be insensitive at times. Rude might be a more appropriate word.

“Ooo, let’s get some of those chili fries, and some pop, and a jumbo pretzel,” Caroline said, bouncing on her toes as she looked over at the menu board across the bowling alley, totally ignoring me.

We ordered our oodles of junk and found a little round table to stand at and eat it. I started in on the chili fries with Caroline, and Dalton drank his water.

“I bought plenty for everybody,” Caroline said.

Dalton held up his water.

“Seriously?” she asked, contorting her pretty face. I didn’t know what was with her, but she was in a real mood.

“Not hungry.”

“Oh my god, just have one fry.” Caroline pushed them toward him.

“No thank you.”

He had some will power. I guess he was used to sticking to healthy foods, where I was not. I’m quite certain I had chili dripping down my chin.

“Oh my god, I thought you were some cool dude,” Caroline said.

“Why are you being such a jerk?” I asked her.

Dalton pursed his lips together.

“What?” she said.

I gave her a dirty look.

“Oh my god, let up. I’m just messing around. Oh good, there’s Rico.” She almost sounded relieved.

Rico came over and they gave each other a quick hug. “Rico, you remember Lexie.”

“Oh yeah, of course. Hi.” Rico was tall and wide, with a prominent nose. A younger, much fitter version of his grandfather.

“Hi,” I said.

“And this is her boyfriend, Dalton,” Caroline said, pointing at Dalton, then waving across the bowling alley at Luiz, who was there with someone. They both headed toward our table.

Rico scrunched up his face and stared at Dalton. “Wait, you look familiar,” Rico said, reaching across the table and stealing a fry.

Dalton looked around like Rico could have been talking about someone else. “Um, okay,” he said pensively.

“Where do you go to school?”

“Now I go to North,” he said, rolling his water bottle between his hands.

“Major or Shermer? Or wait, the better question is, where did you go before?”

“Major East.”

“That’s where my cousin goes. Now I know you,” Rico said, shaking a finger at Dalton.

Dalton’s eyes widened.

“My cousin is Kyle, Kyle Renson.”

“No shit.” Dalton’s mouth hung open.

“Yeah. You’re Dalton, right?”

“Yeah.” He nodded his head, like he was trying to convince himself who he was.

“I thought you were dead.”

Dalton’s lip twitched up and his brows furrowed.

“Holy crap, Dalton Reyes is in the house.”

“I thought he was dead,” another guy said as he walked up.

“Charlie Kobayashi,” Dalton said.

“Wait, no, he’s in juvie,” said Charlie with a smile that lit up his whole face. He walked over and gave Dalton a hug. “Good to see you, man.”

“Yeah, you too,” Dalton said.

“Institutionalized,” Rico said.

Charlie cupped his hands and called across the bowling alley. “Kyle.”

Dalton bowed his head and shook it, looking back up as a smirk crept across his face.

“Wait, you guys know Dalton?” Caroline said.

“How long has it been?” Charlie asked. “Since we were in like third grade.”

“Dalton Reyes,” Kyle said, walking over.

“Hey, man,” Dalton said.

“Introductions,” Kyle said, looking over at me and Caroline.

Introductions were done all around, Luiz included. She finally made her way over and it turned out she was with James Graham. I really hoped he didn’t ask me about volunteering again. He had stopped me in the hall a few days before to ask.

“Oh my god, I so need the scoop,” Caroline said, slapping her hands on the table.

Dalton slowly shook his head back and forth, any chance of a smile gone.

“Yeah, dish,” Luiz said.

“Um,” Charlie said.

“Okay, no ‘um’s. Mr. Reyes here is what legends are made of,” Kyle said, slapping Dalton on the back, then shaking his headful of shaggy blond hair.

“Please, seriously stop,” Dalton said quietly.

“Are you guys ready for a wild ride?” Kyle said, slipping off his puffy black coat.

“Why must everybody sensationalize my life?” Dalton asked, rolling his eyes.

“Because our lives are boring,” Kyle said.

“Are you serious?” Dalton asked as our whole little crowd standing around the table trained their eyes on him.

“Dalton, ignore Kyle. I’m sure he’s just messing around. Right, Kyle?” Charlie said. Charlie was my favorite of the new people.

“Dude, you almost killed a guy,” Kyle said.

“I did not almost kill a guy,” Dalton said through gritted teeth.

“Sorry, rumor mill.” Kyle shrugged.

“What are they talking about, Dalton?” Caroline asked.

“I need some fresh air,” Dalton said, scrubbing his hands over his face.

“Dude, you okay?” Charlie asked.

“I’m fucking fine,” Dalton said, walking off.

I went to go after him but he turned around. “Lexie, please just give me a minute.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said, but I was so torn. I decided to go back over to the table and give Dalton some space.

Chapter Twenty-One

“He’s a diva.”

“Caroline,” I said.

“The Dalton I know is the complete opposite of a diva. He would much prefer to be ignored,” Charlie said, leaning on the table with crossed arms.

“Okay, you guys, he played this party and refused to go on if anybody smoked. Not just cigarettes, pot too. I mean come on, it’s a party. And he walks in here like it’s under him. Everything is full of germs and the food, he refuses to eat.”

I stared at Caroline in dismay. I opened my mouth to defend him, but Kyle jumped in. “You don’t even know him. How can you say that stuff?” he asked.

“What is your guys’ problem?” Caroline said, looking annoyed. She glanced over at Rico, who looked about as torn as I felt.

“Hey, anybody up for some pizza?” I asked, hoping to steer the conversation toward eating.

“Lexie, stop. I want to know what their deal is. Dalton’s hot and all, but he seems a little high maintenance.”

“Yeah, if he’s not, he’ll right back in the hospital,” Charlie said, standing up straight. Dalton hadn’t mentioned him, but from Charlie’s demeanor, I could tell they were good friends.

“Wait, what?” Caroline scrunched up her face.

“She doesn’t know you guys. No one does,” I said.

“Oh…oh!” Kyle said.

“A fresh start, that’s what he said,” Charlie said.

“Somebody needs to fill me in here.” Caroline crossed her arms.

Charlie bit his lip and sighed. “I’m going to tell you this, but nobody better stare at him if he comes back in here.”

“What?” Caroline looked thoroughly confused.

“Dalton had a heart transplant,” Charlie said.

“Oh, shit.” Caroline pretty much summed it up perfectly.

“Yeah, which was a great thing because he didn’t die, but it hasn’t been exactly easy for him. He and his new heart aren’t the best of friends.”

“So that means he can be a diva?” Caroline asked.

“No, he’s trying to keep himself alive,” Charlie said through gritted teeth. He looked like he wanted to hurt Caroline. “So many things can trigger a rejection episode, smoke being one of them. He has a compromised immune system, so he has to be extra careful with germs and shit – always washing his hands, hand sanitizer. He can get sick so easily, and when he’s sick, it’s usually big time. Shit, like he had bronchitis last year and everybody seriously thought he would die. He used to tell me that his heart and body were at war.”

“He said sometimes, nothing huge,” I said.

“No matter how big or small, a war is still a war.”

“I knew none of this,” Caroline said softly. Rico put his hand on her shoulder and she reached up and held it.

Some of it was pretty new to me, too.

“So when he transferred schools…,” Caroline started.

“It’s pretty morbid, but some people just assumed he died,” Kyle said, looking around at everyone hanging onto his and Charlie’s every word. Rico, with his hand still on Caroline’s shoulder, nodded along. Kyle being his cousin, he more than likely already knew the whole story. Caroline was bugged eyed and wanting to know more. Luiz and James stood side by side, still in their coats – what Charlie and Kyle were saying seemed to take precedent to taking off cold weather gear.

“How long did he have bronchitis?” Caroline asked.

“They didn’t think he died because of that. If you have a heart transplant, it buys you some time. Some people are very lucky, but like I said, Dalton not as much,” Charlie said, shoving his hands in his pockets.

“Is he going to die?”

“Eventually. Everyone does, but his life expectancy is much shorter than ours. He made it past that first year or two, so that alone was awesome.” He pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms.

“Oh my god, this is so horrible. I mean, just awful. Why wouldn’t he have made it past that first year?”

“By the time he got his new heart, he was so sick, and when you’re in that bad of shape, I guess there’s only a fifty percent chance you’ll make it past the first year or two.”

“What do you mean bad shape?”

Charlie then told Caroline pretty much what Dalton told me about getting an infection and so on.

“He would have gotten a heart earlier, but the first time one came around he had some viral thing or something, so they couldn’t do it and he had to wait for another while his condition deteriorated. Machines kept him alive.” Charlie uncrossed his arms and rubbed the back of his neck, looking at the ground.

Oh, Dalton. Again a detail he left out. It seemed he gave me the light version of everything.

“Fuck,” Caroline said loudly, causing almost everyone in the bowling alley to turn and look at her.

“I think this is why he was avoiding telling anyone at his new school,” Charlie said. “I think he just wanted to seem like anyone else for once.” I wanted to say that Dalton was like anyone else, that Charlie had it wrong, but Kyle spoke before I could.

“Somebody who gets shot twice in the chest during a botched drug raid when they’re eleven doesn’t have a chance at ever at being like anyone else again.”

“What the hell!” Caroline slapped her hands on the small table.

“Yeah, and there’s that,” Charlie said with a shrug.

“But that doesn’t have to do with his probation,” Kyle pointed out.

Luiz and James both looked at me. I guess they assumed I would help explain.

“Stop the train and clarify,” Caroline said.

“We can just stop this conversation,” I said. “It’s not nice to talk behind somebody’s back.”

“We’re just telling them what happened. We’re not saying anything bad about him,” Kyle said.

As if he was suddenly summoned, Dalton came back to the table. “I think I’m going to head home.” Dalton tapped the edge of the table and turned to go.

“You’re not going anywhere. I need to know the whole story,” Caroline said, going over to Dalton and grabbing his sleeve.

“Is this the day you were talking about when you were eleven, Lexie?” she asked.

“Oh!” Kyle said, his eyes bugging out of his head. “You’re the other minor from the house – Max Stein’s daughter.”

“She’s Lexie Stein,” Caroline said.

“This just got bizarre,” Kyle said, staring at me.

“Please don’t say it,” I said. “Please no.” I felt like I was going to pass out.

“What in the hell were you guys talking about while I was gone?” Dalton asked.

“I’m sorry I called you a diva,” Caroline said. She threw her arms around his waist and lay her head on his chest.

“What?” Dalton asked, scrunching up his nose. “Why are you hugging me?”

“Okay, maybe never to your face, but they told me some things about you.”

“Why were you guys talking about me?”

“I was prodding, okay, don’t get mad at them,” Caroline said.

Dalton looked around at everybody with his mouth partially hanging open. “Um…”

“Can somebody explain how Lexie’s presence is bizarre?” Caroline asked, still hugging Dalton.

I shook my head.

“You guys are upsetting her,” Dalton said.

“Lexie, tell me,” Caroline said, finally releasing Dalton from her grip.

I couldn’t say anything. I just shook my head.

“Five years ago, Dalton went over to this girl’s house. He told me all about her – her long silky hair and her smile, how her front teeth were just a bit too large but it was cute because they would catch her bottom lip. Anyway, he went over there to hang out and ended up getting shot twice in the chest. Caught in the middle of a drug raid on the notorious Max Stein. So it’s bizarre because Dalton is hanging out with the girl where all of his problems started,” Kyle said.

I went with my gut instinct and fled.

“Lexie, wait,” Dalton yelled after me as I ran out of the bowling alley.

The words “the girl where all of his problems started” were on repeat in my mind. Oh god, everybody knew, or at least they would know, but that wasn’t the worst of it. Kyle was right. Dalton caught up to me as I stood on the curb with my face in my hands.

“Lexie,” he said, coming up from behind and wrapping his arms around me. “I’m sorry that all happened.”

“Dalton, please don’t apologize. You have nothing to do with the mess that is me. And now everybody knows about you, too.”

“That doesn’t matter about me. I still wish that didn’t happen,” he said quietly, his warm body enveloping me, protecting me from the cold night air.

“I guess everybody was bound to find out eventually, but I hoped it would be on my terms. At least now I know how everybody sees me. I know I’m being selfish – your problems are way larger than mine.”

“That is not how anybody sees you. And you have a right to your own problems, no matter what mine might be,” Dalton said as a car drove up and the door opened. A couple of tweens climbed out.

“I’m where everything went wrong with your life.”

“No, you’re where everything goes right. You’re a big, fricking awesome thing in my life, and I am so eternally grateful for that.”

“Lexie,” I heard Caroline call.

“Oh god, I just want to go home. I don’t want to hear from her right now.”

“I’ll walk you,” Dalton said, handing me my coat.

“What about your lolo?”

“I’ll call and say somebody gave me a ride home,” he said, pulling his jacket on and taking his gloves and hat out of his pocket.

We started walking away before Caroline could find me. We walked hand in hand on the way home. It felt like there was so much weight between us. The load that Caroline talked about might have been trying to make a comeback, but I had to ignore it. I could handle it. At least I thought I could, but I might have just been kidding myself.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

I let us in the front door—I knew my grandma was still at bingo—and led us down to the basement. I didn’t want to rehash the night. I needed to get Kyle’s words out of my head, so I needed a major distraction. The foldout bed was still out, so after we shed our coats, I pulled Dalton down on it with me. Our lips met with a hungry passion. I think both of us wanted to forget the evening.

His hands slid up my side and he pulled at the bottom of my shirt, hooking it in his thumbs and slowly pulling it up, kissing my tummy up to the bottom of my ribs. I lifted my arms above my head so he would know it was okay to take it off. He slid my top off, tossed it over his shoulder and leaned in, his lips lightly brushing over my neck. He started to kiss me all over, and I pulled on the bottom of his t-shirt. He sat up.

“Are we taking this too far?” I asked. He’d never taken his shirt off in front of me, and I was just so caught up in the moment, I didn’t think when I grabbed his top.

“No!” he said. Dalton sighed and ran his fingers up and down my stomach.

“You don’t have to take your shirt off.”

“It’s only fair.”

“It’s okay, Dalton.”

He sucked on his bottom lip and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes for a moment. “Nobody has seen it, ever – besides my family.”

“You don’t have to show me.”

“I think I do.”

I nodded and he slowly began to pull his shirt up. He started to tremble as I helped pull it over his head. I didn’t look at first. I just held him. We sat there, embracing each other so tight and just breathing. He still shook. “It’s okay, Dalton,” I said, guiding him down to the bed with me. We lay side by side, our noses almost touching. He had his eyes closed. I placed my hand on his chest and he took in a quick inhale. I knew he had a scar, but I never imagined how large it would be. It looked like some big beast clawed him right down the middle. He had other small scars too, places where tubes and things had to be inserted and then the ones from the bullets. I rested my head on his chest and he rested his chin on top of my head, squeezing his arms around me. I took in a couple of slow, deep breaths. I witnessed it and it gave me nightmares – I couldn’t even imagine going through something like that.

“Do you think it’s gross?” Dalton asked after a while.

“No, I just didn’t think it would be so large.”

“After I got shot, there was no time for worrying about the aesthetics and outcome of my scarring, I guess. They had to open me up fast, and it turned out I had internal bleeding elsewhere besides my lungs and heart. Bone fragments from my ribs pierced my stomach and intestines, so they just ripped me right down the middle. Time saver.”

We just held each other more. He kept taking in deep breaths and slowly letting them out. There was no kissing, only light touching – my palm on his chest – yet it was one of our most intimate moments together.

“I learned some new things about you,” I said after a while.

Dalton didn’t say anything. He took in a deep breath and let it out. “I was just…I wanted to…”

“Dalton, it’s all right.”

He nodded and grabbed my hand from his chest.

“Are you mad about tonight?” I asked. “Everybody will know now.”

“At first, I was, just hearing everybody talking about it. But not really,” he said, running his hand through my hair. “I guess I can’t hide forever, especially from you.”

“You never have to hide anything from me, Dalton. You should be proud of all that you have made it through, everything you are.”

“Yeah, but sometimes it feels like that’s all I am. I wanted to be a nobody, as short as it lasted.”

“Dalton, you will never be a nobody.”

We fell asleep in each other’s arms – our bodies close, his leg over my hip.

We didn’t mean to fall asleep, and I only realized we did because I heard voices, but it didn’t dawn on me until it was too late.

My grandma said, “Let me go get her. She sees him around at school. Maybe she knows where he is.”

Footsteps came down the stairs – more than one pair. Oh crap. “Dalton,” I said softly. I called his name again, and grabbed for my t-shirt. Luckily, I didn’t take off my bra that evening.

“Hey, Lexie,” my grandma said.

Dalton shot up to sitting. This did not look good. We both looked at each other with wide eyes, then at my grandma, who stood in the basement with Dalton’s lola and his sister. Oh, shit.

“Dalton Fernando Reyes.” His lola spoke softly, but with palpable venom in her voice.

His mouth hung open and he kept looking back and forth between his lola and me. He hadn’t the slightest idea what to do.

“Um,” I said, glancing at him and his chest—bare, scarred, and muscular—then down at myself. I still held my shirt in my hand. “This is not what it looks like,” I said, pulling on my shirt. I found Dalton’s and threw it at him. He caught it and climbed to his feet, holding it in his hand, his arms hanging at his sides. For a moment, the room lacked all air. We all paused before everybody started screaming and yelling. Then I wanted to curl back up in Dalton’s arms and never come out.

“What do you think you’re doing, Lexie?” yelled my grandma.

“I knew staying at Lola’s was a bad idea!” said Hailey. The last time I was around Hailey, I never got a good look at her, but now that I stared at her with my eyes wide in dismay, I saw that she looked so much like Dalton. Same dark eyes – hers held a lot of anger, though – same cheekbones and straight black hair. She was about five inches shorter.

“Dalton Fernando, you put your clothes on this instant,” screamed his lola. In all fairness, he was only missing his shirt. He still wore his jeans.

Dalton just stood there holding his shirt.

In the shrillest voice, his sister screamed, “Dalton!”

He put on his shirt.

“You’re coming with us now, young man,” his lola said, her upper lip snarling up a bit. For a woman who wasn’t very large and had a bob haircut, she was pretty darn intimidating.

He finally found his voice. “Wait, Lola, we weren’t doing anything.”

“You know you’re not supposed to be with her.”

“Why? It’s not fair.”

“Think of everything she represents, this house.”

“Hey, lady, my granddaughter represents greatness,” my grandma interjected.

“You let this little hussy run around and corrupt Dalton. He’s confused enough as it is. He doesn’t need the distraction of all that,” Dalton’s lola said, waving her hand up and down in my direction.

“Okay, listen,” said my grandma. “They shouldn’t have done what they did, but they’re just kids.”

“Just kids, coming from the woman whose son was a drug lord.”

“You need to leave my house, Gloria.” My grandma looked like she was ready to punch out Dalton’s lola.

“Let’s go, Dalton. You’re to never come back here and never to see her again.” Dalton’s lola pointed a finger directly at me.

“No,” he said defiantly.

“Jesus, Dalton, let’s help paint the picture for your little friend here, why none of this is healthy,” Hailey said, focusing all of her attention on me. “My brother nearly died upstairs, in this house. On the way to the hospital he did die, and they had to resuscitate him. And while he was in the hospital, his lung collapsed again and he got an infection, and almost died – again. He has so many health issues, because of what happened here with you people. If he wasn’t all googly-eyed about you, he never would have come over here in the first place. For years, every time he heard a loud noise he’d have a panic attack. You frickin sneezed around the kid, he’d freak. He’s so angry at everything in the whole goddamn world. I bet he hasn’t told you any of that, has he? He still has nightmares sometimes, wakes up screaming.”

“Hailey, stop,” Dalton said.

“What? You don’t want her to know the truth? You’re still a scared little boy, Dalton. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, all your acting out is because of fear. You’re so damn scared.”

“I’m not acting out. I’m just trying to live my life.”

“By being with a girl who is nothing but trouble,” Hailey said. “You know why we came over here?” She didn’t give anyone a chance to answer. She pulled out her phone and showed us a picture. “I got tagged in a photo with a caption that read, ‘Your brother looks pretty hot these days.’ He’s leaning up against a wall talking to you at a party. I went up to your room to ask about it, but then realized that this pic was from weeks ago. Then surprise, surprise…you weren’t in your room. You say you’re trying to live your life with this girl, coming back to the place that almost killed you?”

“Everybody, let’s go upstairs,” my grandma said. “You two, march.” She pointed at me, Dalton, and then the stairs.

With our heads bowed, we obliged.

“I see you all have some family issues to sort out,” my grandma said, once we were all in the front room.

“Family issues?” Hailey said. She was on a bit of a rampage. “They’re just as much your family issues as they are ours. How about a reminder? I heard you guys couldn’t afford to refinish the floors.” Hailey bent down and grabbed the edge of the throw rug in the center of the room. She pulled it back, yanking it up and tipping over the coffee table.

“Look at that, Dalton. Look. That’s your blood. Do you need a better reminder? The stipulations you’re breaking?”

Dalton’s eyes were red and wet. He pushed passed all of us and ran out the front door.

“You’re just cruel,” I said.

“He needs to be shown. It’s the only way to get through to him. He’s still not okay, and he’s messing up his life because of it. I can’t believe he would take such risks, all because of you.”

“He’s not messing up his life,” I said, trying not to let the sting of her last words sink in.

“I don’t know what getting arrested in your book counts as, but to me, it’s messing up your life.”

Dalton’s lola nodded her head. She agreed with everything Hailey said.

“He didn’t mess up his life because of that.”

“He can’t leave the state, let alone the county, and he can’t be left alone. We are to know where he is at all times and him being here goes against his probation. God, I can’t believe he’d act so stupid.”

“Don’t say that about him.”

“And what do you know about him?”

“Everything I need to.”

Hailey stared at me with unblinking eyes.

I didn’t say anything.

“You are to never step foot near him again,” Hailey said with her eyebrows drawn and teeth gritted. She looked ready to pounce.

They both left without another word, and I stood in the front room with my grandma staring at the large, horrible stain on the hardwood floor. Dalton’s stain – his blood, from his body, forever on our floor.

“Maybe we just need to burn down this house,” my grandma said.

“It will still haunt us.”

“But seriously, this is a major ‘I told you so’ moment, cookie,” my grandma said, hugging me.

“I know.”

“You have to stay away.”

“What if I can’t?”

“They’ll hide away that child forever, lock him up, and he’ll never feel joy again.”

I started crying. “They can’t take him away from me again. They just can’t.” My heart couldn’t take it. Everybody always left me. I had to do something about it, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what.

“They’ll try their damndest.”

I didn’t want it to be the end of me and Dalton, but what if they were right? Maybe I needed to stay away.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

I stood staring into the dark abyss of my locker, the notebook I needed buried under layers of junk. The thought of digging it out just seemed too much. I didn’t have the energy. I stayed up way too late coming to a decision about mine and Dalton’s relationship. I was lost in my thoughts when I felt a pair of arms around my waist.

“They can’t do this to us,” Dalton said over my shoulder.

I didn’t say anything at first, my heart pounding in my chest and my hands already shaking a bit. I took in a deep breath and let it out before I spoke. “But is ‘us’ really a thing?” I asked, turning around and looking up into Dalton’s eyes.

“What do you mean? Of course it is,” he said, pulling his head back and eyeballing me.

“But this makes no sense, the two of us together.”

“It’s love, it doesn’t have to make sense.” His face brightened a bit with his statement.

“I don’t think it’s love. Maybe an infatuation, but not love,” I said, placing my hand on his chest.

“I love you, Lexie Stein,” Dalton said, going to grab my hand.

I pulled my hand away and dropped my arms to my sides. “Dalton, all your problems started with me. I think you just think you love me because I’m the only good memory of that day. You love the memory of me.”

“Just stop, Lexie. You’re wrong.” He shook his head and touched my jaw, trying to get me to look at him.

“It’s guilt that drew me to you. I felt I had to take care of you because of what happened,” I said, looking down and being too big of a coward to look at him and say it.

“As I’ve said before, you have nothing to be guilty over.” He bent down a little, trying to look at me.

“Maybe it’s just pity then,” I said, looking up with a hardened expression on my face. I had to get him to believe that I was telling the truth.

Dalton shook his head, and I spotted Caroline standing near. She drew in her eyebrows, looking directly at me. I tried to pretend I didn’t see her.

“You even said you might rush things because of your situation. I just felt sorry for you and let you love me so you could have that in case anything ever happened to you.”

“You didn’t let me love you. You have no control over my feelings for you,” Dalton said, grabbing onto my upper arms.

“It’s not love, Dalton.”

“If I die tomorrow or twenty years from now, I’m still going to love you and nothing can ever change that. No matter what you say,” he said firmly.

“Enough of this, of us.”

“Where is this coming from?” He looked so confused and looked deep into my eyes, trying to see if they would reveal an answer.

“A reality check.”

“Because we got caught, the bowling alley? What?”

“Because of everything we are together. What you are. Who you are. God, just everything about you,” I said, wiggling from his grip and stepping back.

Dalton licked his lips and shook his head. I didn’t say any more and crossed my arms. I felt awful.

He looked at me, his eyes growing red. I stared at him, expressionless. He let out a deep breath. “Okay, fine. I get it. Maybe it is for the better then,” he said softly.

I nodded.

Dalton turned and walked away. I leaned back against my locker and slid down. I didn’t care who saw me. I started bawling. What just happened? It all went so wrong. But what did I expect? As my grandma was fond of saying, it was for the best.

Caroline squatted down next to me. “What the hell was that all about?” she asked as a few of our curious classmates slowed down to stare at us.

I looked at Caroline and snapped my head forward. I almost forgot I was mad at her.

“Lexie.”

I drew my lips tight and crossed my arms on top of my pulled-up knees.

“Was that about last night?” She sat down and leaned her back against the wall.

I shrugged.

“I’m sorry I acted like an ass.”

“You weren’t really behaving that far outside your realm.”

“Did you just insult me?” she asked. “Look, never mind. I feel really bad. I didn’t know any of that stuff about Dalton, and even not knowing it, I still shouldn’t have messed with him. They’re making another prune juice commercial, and I didn’t get the part. They decided to go younger – a constipated baby. I was mad about that, and well…”

“Sorry,” I said, looking at the wall of lockers directly across from me.

“Yeah, so…I was in a bad mood. But anyway, that stuff about you…Kyle shouldn’t have said that. Is that why—”

“I had to end it,” I said, interrupting her.

“You made it sound like you didn’t like him for everything that is wrong with him.”

“There’s nothing wrong with him.”

“Why didn’t you tell him that then? Did you see his face when you said it was because of who he was? He looked devastated.”

“He took it the wrong way.” I was the one now acting like an ass.

“What way was he supposed to take it?”

I didn’t answer her. I was too busy crying.

“C’mon, get up,” Caroline said, grabbing my bicep.

“No.”

“We stay here, we’re going to get in trouble, and then you can’t explain things to me. To the bathroom.”

Caroline stood me up by way of aggressively tugging at my arm and led me down the hall while everyone stared. We got to the bathroom and Caroline kicked the door open and dragged me in.

“You need to talk,” she said.

I took in a deep breath and let it out. My chest hurt. My heart hurt. I needed to collapse, but instead—sitting on the white laminate floor of the school bathroom—I told Caroline the story of when Dalton got shot.

 

“And yeah, that’s what happened,” I said, once I got it all out. I couldn’t believe I told her, and all of it to boot – the fear, sadness, how Dalton haunted me, my dad, all the blood, seeing someone die. I felt exhausted afterward but relieved at the same time.

“Jesus,” Caroline said. “Poor Dalton. Shit, and you, too.”

“More poor Dalton than me.”

“That’s just all, holy crap. I mean, seriously, holy crap. How could I not know about this?”

“I never told you.”

“It’s like somehow someone must have known.”

“I wasn’t allowed to go near Dalton. At first, because of the case against my dad – my grandma told me not too long ago that they had a restraining order, and we were both minors so our names were never mentioned in anything. His family kept things pretty private – never did any interviews or anything.”

“I couldn’t imagine how you felt afterward, seeing him like that and then never seeing him again until that day in the hall. Lexie, that day in the hall. That must have been so huge.”

“It was pretty intense. I never knew what happened besides that he was supposedly okay and then there he was.”

“And he really wasn’t okay.”

“Nope.”

“Is that what this is all about? The fight?”

“I started all of his problems. I know I shouldn’t feel guilty, but I just think when he looks at me…I mean…the memories, what I represent. He doesn’t think he would now, but it will dawn on him, and he’ll leave me, too. And the struggles with his family just to be with me – he doesn’t need that.”

“That boy will never leave you. He loves you. You can just tell. It oozes out of him. He, too, seems lighter when he’s with you.”

I took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Maybe it really is just for the best.”

“Okay, what do you see when you look at him?”

“I don’t know,” I said as the bathroom door swung open. It was a girl I didn’t know, but she looked at us crossed-eyed and then kicked a stall door open with her black combat boots.

“Do you look at him and have horrible flashbacks and stuff?”

“That first day I kind of did, but it was more fear that my whole life would crumble.”

“It was a fake life that would have crumbled. I’m sure it’s scary being all exposed, but…”

“But what?”

“Give me a second. I’m trying to think of some words of wisdom here.”

“Second’s up.”

“Just don’t throw away something so good. I really like Dalton.”

“I’ll take him if you don’t want him,” the girl yelled from inside the stall.

“He’s hers, sorry,” Caroline said, a huge smile on her face. She then mouthed, What the heck?

I covered my mouth and laughed. “You just think he’s hot,” I said once my laughter subsided.

“Well, yeah, but he’s also a nice person. The only nice person I know that doesn’t really smile.”

“He smiles.”

“But I think from him, you have to earn that smile. He reserves them for certain moments, mostly when he’s around you. After learning everything, I can say I’m nothing short of in awe of him. I mean, I’d probably be a total shut in if I was him.”

“You can’t keep him contained. He tends to escape.”

“Yeah, for you.”

“He said that before he moved here he kept getting in trouble for sneaking out.”

“Speaking of trouble, your boyfriend is on frickin probation. I had bad boy fantasies when I first saw him in the hall, and they turned out to be kind of true.”

“But I don’t know if he’s my boyfriend anymore.”

“He totally still is. But okay, so how did he get probation?”

“He beat somebody up.”

“Shit, go Dalton. God I’m loving this dude.”

“How is beating somebody up a good thing?”

“I bet he had his reasons, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he actually did, but—”

“No buts, don’t want to hear it.”

“What am I going to do?”

“You’re going to apologize to him. You crushed his heart. Wait, should I say that? Is it like in poor taste? Because of his issues?”

“It’s fine, Caroline.”

“And asap, apologize asap. You two need to be together,” Caroline said just as the girl emerged from the stall. She looked over at us and jutted her chin in my direction, then nodded. I nodded back and bathroom stall girl left without washing her hands. “Gross,” Caroline said, scrunching her nose up in disgust. I once again nodded. “So, back on track. You dating him has made you reevaluate things, I guess. Inviting me and Luiz over and telling us things about yourself. That was like huge. Plus, you love him.”

“Oh my god, I really do. What did I do?”

“You got scared.”

“I’ve been scared since I was five. Everybody leaves me, Caroline.”

“Not true. Your grandma stuck around, I’m not going anywhere, and we’re stuck with Luiz – and Dalton isn’t going anywhere, either.”

“I hope not.”

“Now, let’s get out of this bathroom.”

“Okay, thanks,” I said, standing up and hugging Caroline. “I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that you’re a great friend.”

“I’m the best.”

I forced a smile and we headed off to class. My heart ached, but I felt a little better. Holding that in for years weighed me down. I wasn’t sure what the aftermath would be—the truth out there, floating around. I knew mine and Dalton’s story would spread. People would find out I was a fraud, but that wasn’t anywhere near as scary as it used to be.

***

During my lunch, I went to the class that Dalton had, but he wasn’t there. At the end of the day, I had no such luck, either. “I can’t find him anywhere,” I told Caroline as we headed out to her car. She was giving me a ride home. Now that she knew where I lived and what my house was known for, I was more apt to accept her offers for a ride.

“Somebody said he went home early. Told the teacher he didn’t feel well,” Caroline said.

“I texted him, but he didn’t respond.”

“You might have to give him time.”

“What happened to apologizing?”

“You might have to wait until he’s ready.”

“What if he’s never ready?”

“Trust me, he will be.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

Once I got home, I texted Dalton and tried to call, but nothing. How did I ruin something so good? I know I listened too much to what others said about us, about me, but I thought they were right. I thought I didn’t deserve Dalton. I should have tried to contact him, find him, something – and it turned out that he wasn’t even that far away, going through so much while I spent my days making up stories. But I didn’t know what went on. I listened and trusted the adults in my life. I was only eleven.

I slowly came around to the fact that my way of thinking for the past several years might have been severely skewed. I needed a distraction, but I didn’t even want to get up. I stayed supine and stared at my ceiling, my heart aching even more than it did earlier. I must have made him feel so bad about himself. Why was I such an ass? I wanted to go next door, disregard his family’s threats, but that would just make things worse.

I didn’t see Dalton at school the next day. He seemed to do his best to avoid me. But did I really blame him? All I wanted to do was cry.

***

Three days had passed, and it was torture. I just wanted to talk to him, be near him. If he didn’t want to be with me, he could at least let me have a proper good-bye. I sat on the couch in the front room with my grandma watching game shows and bouncing my knee.

“What is with you?” she asked.

“You have to ask?”

“Getting over your first love is hard.”

“I don’t plan on getting over him. Maybe I’ll move on, but I will never get over Dalton.” I shot up to my feet.

“Please don’t make me say I told you so.”

“You already did. He’s not whoever you think is,” I said, tired of everybody telling me what was for the best and who I should associate with.

“Honey, the boy is on probation.”

“But do you know why?”

“Actually, no.”

I told my grandma the story.

“That just shows he can’t control his rage.”

“He is one of the gentlest people I know, Grandma. We really like each other, and I’m an idiot because I let everybody get into my brain and make me think I wasn’t good for him.”

“No, sweetie, no. I bet you’re actually wonderful for him. It has nothing to do with you as a person.”

“It has everything to do with me as a person – our family, what I represent, how knowing me ruined his life. I thought it was all true, and when I realized it wasn’t, it was too late.”

“Oh, baby. I’m so sorry if we ever made you feel that way.”

“By not letting me see him, it somehow made it feel like it was all my fault.” My eyes started to well up. It was official: since my fight with Dalton, I had become a watering can.

“Come here,” my grandma said.

I got up off the couch and sloughed over to my grandma. I curled up on her lap.

“Now everybody at school will hate me because they’ll know I’m a liar,” I said, nuzzling into my grandma like a toddler.

“So you tend to exaggerate and falsify stories sometimes.” She petted my hair all the way down my back.

“Everything is just so messed up.”

“It’ll get better, I promise. If he doesn’t talk to you again, well, he’ll be missing out on something great. And things at school will blow over. It’ll all just take time.”

“I love you, Grandma. I don’t know if I say that enough.”

“Love you too, sweetie.”

***

Someone pounded on our front door. I answered, just to have Gloria, Dalton’s lola, shove her way into the house.

“Where is he?”

“Who?” I asked, noticing others on our porch.

My grandma came into the front room, wiping her hands on a towel. “What’s going on?”

“Where’s Dalton?” Gloria asked.

“He’s not here,” I said.

“I don’t believe you. I bet he’s in the basement.”

“No, last time I talked to him was the day after you guys were here. We’re not seeing each other anymore if that makes you happy.”

Gloria sighed and ran a hand through her hair.

“Would you like to look in the basement?” my grandma asked.

Gloria nodded.

“Invite in whoever else is with you. It’s pretty chilly tonight.” My grandma was too nice sometimes.

Hailey walked in followed by a guy wearing a pea coat and glasses that I had never seen before. I thought he must be Hailey’s boyfriend, but he looked a couple of decades too old for her. Then, to my surprise, Dalton’s mom – a petite blond woman whom Dalton barely resembled.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Where’s Dalton?”

“That’s why we’re here,” she said.

Gloria came back up from the basement. “He’s not down there.”

“He’s going to get his dumb ass sent to juvie,” Hailey said, biting her thumbnail.

“How about everybody have a seat?” my grandma said. “Kristin, nice to see you.”

“We’re sorry for barging in here like this,” Kristin, Dalton’s mom, said. “But we don’t know where Dalton is.”

Everybody listened to my grandma and situated themselves on the couch. It was a sectional, so everybody could sit, but they all remained in their jackets, ready to spring out the door.

“He’s missing?” I asked.

“He might not technically be missing. He’s just not home and he could get in a whole heap of trouble because of it,” the guy with glasses said. “I’m Rick, Dalton’s probation officer.”

“And why are you in my house?” asked my grandma, sitting on the arm of the couch next to Gloria, who snarled. I stood over near the front door – I wasn’t sitting until I knew what was going on.

“I stopped in for a visit next door because Dalton didn’t check in with me today, and I was in the neighborhood, heading home,” Rick said, like that explained their presence.

“He didn’t go to school or counseling last night,” Hailey said, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Hailey, please,” Kristin said.

“All of which are probation violations,” Rick said.

“Are you going to arrest him?”

“What happens next is up to the court, but we have to find him because he’s just building up more offenses against himself,” Rick said.

“And you guys think I’m harboring him or something?”

“Lexie, we know you’ve been a good friend to him, so we thought he told you something,” Kristin said.

“I didn’t see him in school today, and Hailey just said he didn’t go, so that makes sense. He’s been avoiding me.”

“Any clue?” she asked.

“Wait, aren’t you supposed to be overseas?”

“I am, or was – in Dubai,” Kristin said, looking down at her hands as she wrung them together. “But I wanted to come back to surprise the kids. I needed to talk to Dalton, really. I felt bad about how we left things. I was angry. He’s just so hard to understand sometimes.”

“So you left him.”

“I didn’t want to, but since Dalton got arrested, we’ve been fighting. We had a big fight the night before John was supposed to leave, and I told Dalton I just needed some time away.”

“Away from him, you mean?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.

“That’s sucky of you.” I was being rude, but at that moment, I didn’t care.

“It really was, and I haven’t been able to sleep. He won’t talk or text me, won’t answer my e-mails.”

“But you left him at a time when he probably needed you the most.”

Kristin nodded. “Do you know what he did that got him in trouble in the first place?”

“He beat somebody up, pretty bad.”

“I just felt like I couldn’t control him anymore,” Kristin said, dropping her shoulders.

“But you can’t. It’s his life, and he should be able to, well, live it. He shouldn’t have everybody controlling him and treating him like some precious, breakable thing that—”

“He’s out of control,” Hailey said.

“Hailey,” Kristin said. “We just want him to be safe and healthy.”

“You need to let him live his life.”

“We’re not here to take advice from a teenager. Where is my goddamn brother?”

“We need to know,” Rick said, his voice deep and raspy.

“Um, what’s the date?” I asked.

“It’s the third.”

“Oh,” I said.

“What does ‘oh’ mean?” Rick asked.

I smiled. “He’s okay. In trouble maybe, but he’s okay.”

“Do you care to elaborate?” Rick asked.

I really didn’t want to say, but the whole lot of them looked pretty desperate. “If I tell you where he is, I have to come with.”

“Lexie,” my grandma said.

“I’m not telling otherwise. Send me to jail, for all I care.”

Rick stood up, hovering over me, looking very intimidating.

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Are you arresting him?”

“I’m a P.O. – I don’t arrest people myself, but I’m not having him arrested. Let’s just go get Dalton.”

“Okay.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

I got my coat while everybody waited outside, discussing who was driving with whom.

“This seems odd,” I told Rick.

“No, it’s protocol, but right now I’m off duty. I’m just doing the family a favor by helping them locate their son.”

“Can he really go to juvie for this?” I asked as we all stood around in the driveway.

“Like I said, that’s for the court to decide – but it is one of the possible outcomes.”

“Stupid, Dalton.”

Rick laughed. I was starting to like him.

“It’s for his own sanity, I think.”

“Running away?” Rick asked.

“He didn’t run away. He’s just trying to breathe.”

 

My grandma and I rode with Rick, and the rest of Dalton’s family followed in Kristin’s rental car.

“Where to?” Rick asked.

“Have you heard of The Empty Door?”

“That club?”

“It’s not a club per se. It’s a music venue.”

“He snuck off to a concert?”

“Pretty much. I just hope we make it in time.”

 

There was absolutely no street parking, so we had to park in a lot down the block. We met everybody else on the sidewalk. The night was cold, and I pulled my hat down over my ears.

“C’mon,” Rick said, leading the way.

“Why did you have to come with?” Gloria asked.

“Because I really wanted to see this,” I said. I took a step to the side to let a couple of people pass, putting me behind Gloria and in front of Hailey. A lot of pedestrians were out so we walked in one long line. I don’t know why Dalton’s whole family had to come.

“You want to see us dragging Dalton out of there kicking and screaming?” Hailey asked, zipping her jacket up to her chin.

“No, I shouldn’t have let him being mad at me stop me.”

“What does that have to do with any of this?”

“He asked me to come before, you know.”

“Let me guess,” Rick said. “Another probation violation?”

“He invited you to a club?” Hailey asked, her nose all scrunched up.

I sighed. “Not a club, not really.” I wanted them to see for themselves, so I didn’t elaborate.

“Okay, bar then. Are we going to be pulling him from there drunk off his ass?”

“You don’t know him at all, do you?” Hailey seemed pretty clueless as a sister.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It just means he’s pretty awesome.” Soon they would see a part of that awesomeness.

“Let’s just hurry this up,” Hailey said. As we got closer, the crowd on the sidewalk grew. The marquee lit up with bands’ names and teens milled about everywhere. “Lexie,” somebody called. I held up a hand and gave a wave in the general direction of the voice. Music blared from inside. A train from the “L” tracks rattled by; cars passed on the street; buses honked; people who lived in the neighborhood walked around, enjoying the cold air, maybe going across the street to the taco place or the noodle joint next to that.

Once inside, we were blasted with music and a voice that made my heart race.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I shouted as everybody tried to make their way through the crowd. “Stay back here for now. I want all of you to look at the stage.” It was so loud in there, I wasn’t even sure if they could hear me, but then I saw them all look toward the front.

I looked up at the stage and smiled. Dalton was totally in his element. The place was packed – mainly teens, but some in their twenties too, and a sprinkling of parents. It was an all-ages local band showcase. I could tell everybody loved Macaulay, and I was quite certain they loved Dalton. It was almost impossible to take your eyes off of him. He was totally sweaty – his forehead glistening, his t-shirt clinging to him, and it only increased his hotness. But it wasn’t just his looks—he had stage presence. The way he sang into the microphone and played his guitar, made everything seem right in the world. He stopped playing his guitar, grabbed the microphone with both hands, and sang so close into it – closing his eyes then slowly opening them and looking out onto the crowd to sing one more line before crashing into a guitar solo. I was mesmerized, as was his whole family.

My grandma grabbed my elbow. “Wow, kiddo.”

Rick nodded, looking impressed.

“Can you just let him finish, or at least get in another song or two?” I shouted.

“Okay,” Rick said.

Kristin looked at me. “I had no idea. It’s just…amazing.”

“It’s his way of taking a breather.”

They let Macaulay play a couple more songs, but I started making my way up front before then. He hadn’t the slightest idea we were there. I watched from the sides, so close. I wanted to go up there and grab him, keep all his wonderfulness to myself. Just as they finished a song – I think they almost completed their set – Dalton’s face fell and he looked absolutely mortified. I probably would have been, too. Coming straight at him through the crowd was pretty much his whole family, including his mom who was supposed to be overseas, led by his probation officer. Dalton’s mouth dropped open and he slowly took off his guitar. It looked like he wasn’t even aware of his actions. He then dropped it and ran. Shit. He darted off stage and into the crowd—his bandmates calling out to him.

“Dalton,” I shouted, but it was too loud – he’d never be able to hear me. I pushed and shoved my way through, being shoved back and squashed between people, almost tripping over something. Music played from some speakers – the filler music for the set change. I wanted out of there as bad as Dalton did. After what seemed like forever, I finally made my way through the crowd and saw a sliver of light from a door that was ajar and followed it.

I pushed open the door, the cool night air entering my lungs as I took in a breath. I walked all the way into the alley and just about fainted. Dalton was curled up on the ground clutching his thigh, only wearing his jeans and t-shirt. Some guy crouched next to him, talking on the phone.

“Dalton!” I ran to his side and collapsed to my knees. It was suddenly so hard to breathe. The dark, narrow alley seemed to close in.

Dalton winced, lost in his own world of pain.

“What happened?” I screamed at the guy on the phone. I immediately thought of Dalton’s heart.

He got off the phone and slid it into his pocket. He looked pretty frantic with his bulging eyeballs, bouncing in his crouched down position. He answered me by pointing at his car.

“Jesus Christ.” I had never felt so relieved to have somebody get hit by a car before. “Dalton, baby.”

“Oh my god, it hurts. I’m trying my best not to scream and cry,” he whispered.

“It’s okay to scream and cry, no matter what,” I said, sniffling back tears.

“Lexie,” Dalton said softly.

“Yes, Dalton.”

“I love you,” he said, closing his yes.

“Dalton, Dalton!” I put my hand on his cheek. “I love you, too.”

Everybody came bursting into the alley through the side door – a sudden barrage of family members, questions, and screams.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” his mom yelled.

“What did you do?” Hailey said. Man, I didn’t like that girl.

Rick ran over, and the frantic guy twitched with tears running down his face. “I called 911,” the frantic guy said. “It happened too quickly. I – I couldn’t stop in time.”

“Dalton,” Gloria called.

“I think he passed out. He seems to be breathing okay,” I said, noticing the rise and fall of his chest.

“Dalton, baby,” Kristin cried, squatting down next to me.

Frantic Guy mumbled to himself, and a few other people came out the side entrance. “Everybody, we need some space,” Rick said. He then looked up at me. “What happened?”

“Uh,” I said, swallowing some of my tears. “I think,” I took a deep breath, “he got hit by a car.”

Kristin swallowed. “We’re here, Dalton. Help is coming.”

Still holding his hand, I bent over and gently rested my forehead on his shoulder. “Remember – I love you, Dalton,” I said softly. “You can’t leave me now.” I felt a hand on my back. I sat up and sniffled, looking at Kristin.

“Thank you for being here for him, Lexie – and I don’t just mean now.” She wrapped her arms around me in a hug. I looked up and saw my grandma hugging Gloria. I guess in times of crises it didn’t matter who was next to you – you just need their support. Rick talked to the guy who hit Dalton and Hailey had her arms wrapped around her waist crying, letting the tears roll down her face. I closed my eyes and squeezed Dalton’s hand. Seeing him like that was almost unbearable for me. I kept flashing back to the day he got shot, all the blood. I opened my eyes, trying to will myself to believe this was a different day – not anywhere near as much blood, only on his face, coming from a wound on the top of his forehead. One of his arms looked raw and bloody, but other than that, he just lay there curled up.

“Lexie,” somebody said, snapping me out of it. “Lexie, honey, the paramedics are here.” Kristin gently took my elbow and guided me to the side. I rubbed my hands over my face, and my grandma came over and embraced me a bit too tightly. “He’ll be okay,” she said.

“But how do you know?”

“I just feel it.”

Rick came by and put his large hand on my shoulder.

“What’d the guy say?” I asked.

“Said he might have been going a little too fast down the alley and the back door flung open and Dalton ran out.”

“God, Dalton and his bad timing.”

“Yeah,” Rick said.

The paramedics loaded Dalton into the ambulance, Kristin standing next to him. A large crowd gathered and watched. Some tacky people took pictures. Kristin threw them a mean glare and came over near me.

“Lexie, do you want to ride with him?”

“I think he’d like if it was you.”

She nodded and went back over to Dalton, climbing in the ambulance.

“Come on, let’s follow them,” Rick said.

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

We were all in the waiting room, biting our nails, bouncing our knees, and checking nothing important on our phones, just to keep us distracted. The doors swung open, and a doctor called Dalton’s mom. They disappeared behind the doors, which clicked shut and took some of the available air in the waiting room away with them.

“I can’t wait any longer. I want to know how he’s doing,” I said, taking in a deep breath as my lungs searched for accessible air. My chest hurt and I felt exhausted.

My grandma reached over and squeezed my knee. “We’ll know soon enough.”

I closed my eyes and unintentionally fell asleep. The only part of my dream that I remembered was that it was right before Dalton got shot, and he reached his hand out to me. I took it and told him I would never let go. I blinked my eyes open and sat up. Upholstered chairs with polka-dotted material lined the room, outdated magazines were strewn everywhere, and the fluorescent lights above seemed so bright – but the waiting room was almost empty. Everybody but Hailey was gone. “Where’d everybody go?”

“To get some coffee, food, make some phone calls,” she said from her chair across the room.

“Why didn’t anybody wake me?”

“It looked like you could use some sleep.”

“Dalton, how is he?”

Hailey smiled. I didn’t know she was capable of such a feat. “He’ll be okay, for now at least.”

“Oh thank god,” I said, placing my hand over my heart. “Wait, what do you mean for now?” I asked, sitting up straighter.

“He’ll have a bit of recovering to do, but nothing too serious.” Hailey got up and sat in the chair next to me.

“What exactly – his head?” I asked, touching my forehead in the same spot Dalton bled from.

“He has a concussion, some stiches, and a broken femur.”

“But he’ll really be okay?”

Hailey nodded. “In the scheme of things, yeah. They’re doing surgery on his leg tomorrow morning.” Hailey took in a breath and her eyes grew wet, which confused me. Then she licked her lips and went on, “They have to stick a steel rod in his leg, but they mainly worry about after.”

“After?”

“The doctors, Mom, Lolo, Lola, and I – we’re just all worried about infection. Surgery holds a pretty high risk for him.”

I let out a deep sigh. “Could they fix his leg without surgery?”

“Possibly, but he’d be in the hospital for months and no matter what, there’s always a risk of infection.”

“Um.” I couldn’t find the right words to sum up how sucky I felt that was.

“Yeah, but there was no internal bleeding, no brain swelling, so he got very lucky. He actually woke up on the way to the hospital. They said he was responsive and stuff. We’ll be able to see him soon.”

I took in a deep breath and let it out.

“Lexie?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry about thinking you had something to do with it. I just kind of freaked out, seeing him lying there like that. He looked so limp, so lifeless.” Hailey blinked and squeezed her eyes shut.

“Yeah, it’s okay.”

Then I got the surprises of all surprises—Hailey hugged me. I hugged back, and we held each other for a couple of minutes until Hailey pulled away, wiping at her eyes with the heel of her hand.

“All we ever wanted to do was keep him safe.”

“You guys might have gone a little over board.”

“You think?” Hailey said, laughing.

I smiled at her.

“He’s so stubborn sometimes.”

“Just sometimes?”

“You really do know my brother, huh?”

“I’d like to think I do.”

“I’m glad he has you.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, you two,” Kristin said, entering the waiting room. “You can go up and see him now. One at time for now. He’s a bit out of it, though.”

“All right, thanks. Go on, Hailey, I’m gonna go find some coffee.” I seriously needed a pick-me-up.

‘Okay, see you in a bit,” Hailey said, giving me a small smile as she walked away. Kristin gently placed her hand on my shoulder before she followed Hailey out of the waiting room.

***

Before I entered Dalton’s room, I had to sanitize my shaking hands. All of me shook.

“Dalton?” I said as I walked in.

His mom sat by his bedside. She smiled and stood up. “I’ll leave you two. He’s still pretty groggy and confused from his concussion.”

“Okay,” I said.

His mom didn’t say anything for a moment and just stared at me. She then took a couple of steps forward and reached to touch my shoulder, but then dropped her hand to her side and sighed. “You’re a good girl,” she said. She nodded and walked past me out of the room.

“Hey,” I said, standing at Dalton’s side.

He rolled his head in my direction and opened his eyes with a lot of effort. “Lexie.”

“Hi.”

“Hi,” he said, his lids falling to half-mast.

I tried to smile at him, but it was so hard. What his sister said really had me worried. Looking at him, I saw so many opportunities for infection. He had a row of stiches across the top right side of his forehead and a bandage on his cheek with a sprinkling of road rash creeping out of its edges. His right arm was covered in bandages that concealed another dose of road rash.

I wanted to take his hand, but I feared my touch would do some kind of harm. I looked down his body to his leg, set up in a large splint waiting for the morning. As if he read my mind, he lifted his left hand to me. I hesitated and then felt bad because I was probably further hurting his feelings.

“We don’t have to talk,” he said. “Please just hold my hand.”

I nodded and took his hand. Within seconds, Dalton fell asleep.

***

I found my grandma sitting in the cafeteria with Gloria and Dave. I turned to walk away because I didn’t want to get in the middle of whatever they talked about, but my grandma saw me and waved me over.

“Gloria and Dave want to ask you a few questions. If that’s okay.”

“Um…,” I said trying not to look at them, instead focusing on a doctor in scrubs while he ate some soup in the corner. I wasn’t in the mood to talk, and talking with Gloria and Dave just didn’t sound like fun.

“I’m sorry, Lexie,” Gloria said. “I’ve treated you so unfairly, and I’m sorry it took Dalton ending up in the hospital again for me to see that.”

She got my attention. “Thanks?”

“Have a seat, honey,” my grandma said.

I slid into a red plastic chair opposite Gloria and next to my grandma, bouncing my knee under the table. “What do you guys want to ask?”

“Dalton was in our care, so we are responsible for reporting any probation violations. The family isn’t supposed to hold anything back, so we wanted to ask you, besides that day we found you two in the basement, did Dalton sneak over on any other day?” Gloria asked in a gentle tone — a tone I had never once heard her use before.

“Uh….” My tongue glued itself to the roof of my mouth. What should I say? Would he get in more trouble if they found out? Would he get in more trouble if I lied and they found out? I didn’t know how to answer. I wanted to stop lying so much, but that was not the moment to start. The situation called for it. Was it the right thing to do? I don’t know, but I said, “Um, no. That was the only time. I saw him at school, mainly.”

Gloria smiled, reached across the table, and patted my hand. “That’s what we thought.”

Dave nodded and got up. “Thanks for being honest,” he said. He then gave me the okay sign with his fingers.

“I’ll see you two,” Gloria said.

My grandma waved, and they left.

“You’re lying aren’t you?”

“Me? Lie? Never,” I said, running my finger over an old coffee ring on the table top.

“You’re a good girl.” The evening was turning out really weird. That was the second time somebody said that to me.

“Thanks.” What else was I to say?

 

I went up to see Dalton one last time before I left. He was sleeping and looked so peaceful, Kristin asleep in the chair next to the bed. I gave him a kiss on the cheek, and Kristin stirred in her chair.

“Hey, Lexie,” she said, her voice heavy with sleep.

“Hi, Mrs. Reyes.”

“Please, call me Kristin.”

“Okay. I wanted to spend the night, but my grandma is making me go home.”

“He’ll be okay, sweetie.”

“I know. It’s just…” I sucked on my lower lip and blinked, trying to keep in my tears. “After he got shot, I never saw him again until he showed up in the hallway at school.”

“Oh, baby.” His mom got up and hugged me. “He’s not going anywhere, okay. He’ll be here tomorrow waiting for you.”

“You promise?”

“I do.” Kristin took a deep breath. “We should have let you see each other. We were just so mad and upset. You just got stuck in the middle of it all, and that was wrong. You were just a child.”

I nodded.

“I can’t even imagine the pain of seeing that – how scary it must have all been.”

I nodded again. She really had no idea, and I was quite sure it was best that way. “I think about it, about him, every day. He’s been with me every day since then.”

Kristin placed her hand on my cheek. “You two are good for each other.”

“We really are.”

She smiled at me. “I’ll text you tomorrow as soon as he’s out of surgery.”

“Thanks, I’d like that. I have to go now. Stupid school. My grandma is making me go.”

Kristin gave me one last hug and my grandma and I drove home. I crashed on the couch in the front room – didn’t even make it to my room or the basement.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

I awoke the next morning by way of my grandma shaking me. “Why do I have to go?” I whined.

“You need something to keep you busy.”

“It’s not like I’ll be able to focus.”

“He’s okay. He’ll be just fine.”

“But it’s still risky for him.”

“He’s a strong kid. Think of everything he’s pulled himself through already.”

“What if this is too much for him?” I asked, sitting up and stretching my arms over my head.

“He’s not going to give up fighting now, especially since he has you.”

“I don’t know if he feels like that anymore.”

“You’ll just have to ask him later today.”

I dragged myself upstairs and realized Caroline didn’t know what happened. I sat on my floor, leaned back on my bed, and texted her.

Guess what?

What?

Dalton got hit by a car last night.

What?!

Yeah. He’s okay. Needs surgery on his leg. Broken femur.

Shit.

Talk more at school.

You coming?

Yeah.

I pulled on some pants and slipped a random shirt over my head. It was wrinkly and might have smelled a bit because it was on my floor near some old socks, but I didn’t really care if I smelled like a sock. I didn’t even take a shower, but at least I brushed my teeth.

“Bye, Grandma,” I said, opening the front door.

“You need to eat, Lexie.”

“Not hungry.”

“Don’t care. Wait a minute.”

My grandma came out of the kitchen and handed me a small, brown, paper bag.

“Thanks, Grandma.”

“It’ll be okay, kiddo,” she said, hugging me.

I nodded and left, slowly walking down the block to the bus stop. It was a cold morning, so I wrapped my scarf around me an extra time and took in a lungful of cold air, reminding me of the breath I took when I stepped into that alley. I had too many negative images of Dalton in my head. I tried to picture him singing, holding me close, his constant boner hard against my leg – but all I saw was him in pain. It would be a long day.

I waited about five minutes for the bus, but it might as well have been five hours. Each passing minute lasted an eternity. I pulled my phone out of my backpack as I sat down on the bus, checking my messages and knowing I wouldn’t have any yet because Dalton was still in surgery. I just hoped to see something comforting, words that would make everything better.

 

“You look awful,” Caroline said as soon as she saw me at school.

“I’m exhausted and there’s this ache in my chest.”

“Oh, honey,” Caroline said, hugging me. She pulled out of the hug, holding my shoulders. “Tell me everything.”

We sat down side by side in the hall, and I told her about mine and Dalton’s evening.

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“He seems doomed like the fates are out to get him,” Caroline said, always her ever-dramatic self.

“I really hope not.”

“He’s a trooper.”

“He really is.”

“And a bit of a badass.”

I laughed. “I don’t know if I’d say that. He just does what he wants despite what he’s told.”

“I think that makes him a badass.”

“Okay.”

Caroline smiled.

“He looked so good up there on stage. It seems so natural for him,” I said, the thought of him happy and doing what he loved making me feel a bit better.

“Maybe that’s where he’s meant to be.”

“I think so. I hope his family realizes that. I’m afraid they’re never going to let him out of the house again.”

“What about his probation?”

“Rick – that’s his probation officer – said it’s up to the court. But he doesn’t think they’ll be too harsh on him.” I ran into Rick before we left the hospital, and he said that community service would be the most likely outcome for Dalton’s probation violations – at least that’s what he hoped.

“I hope not.”

“Yeah. His mom said she’s sorry for keeping us apart, so if things smooth over between Dalton and I, we might be able to spend more time together instead of always sneaking around.”

“That’d be good.”

“It would be.”

“Let’s get to class, girly.”

“Okay. Thanks, Caroline. You’ve really been here for me.”

“You’re welcome. But seriously, I have a test today in my first class.”

“Okay, let’s go.”

I got a text during English: Surgery went well. In recovery, resting.

I let out a huge sigh of relief.

***

I went straight to the hospital after school. I wanted to leave school early, but I figured I’d give Dalton some time to rest.

“You look good in a surgical mask,” Dalton said as I walked into his room. The doctors and nurses wanted to keep any risk of infection at bay, so everybody had to wear a mask and disinfect their hands – and he could only have one visitor at a time.

“I pull off most looks. How you feeling?” Which was a dumb question because just by looking at him, I could tell he felt like crap. Besides the bandage and stiches that he already had, bruises had popped up all over that same side of his face, which had swelled. He had black circles under his eyes, which greatly contrasted his unusually pale skin. IVs, tubes, and wires hung everywhere, along with some insistent beeping.

“Like a million bucks.”

I forced a smile even though he couldn’t see it. “Why do things suck?” I asked. I wanted to crawl up on the bed with him and hug him and squish him, but I was so afraid I’d hurt his leg. I was almost scared to get too close – scared he’d catch something from me and get an infection.

Dalton shrugged. “Sometimes, things just happen. I don’t have the best of luck.”

“Maybe I’m a bad luck charm. These things happen when I’m around.”

“Not true.”

I took in a breath. “I’m starting to realize that you might actually be correct. These things just happened.”

“That makes me happy,” he said, sighing. “Lexie…” He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.

“I’m right here for you,” I said, reaching out and gently grabbing his hand. Once I had it, I didn’t want to let go.

“I know, but I’ve been lying here thinking maybe I need some time to think.”

“Think?”

“Yeah, my head is kinda messed up right now, and not just because of the concussion.”

“What exactly does some time to think entail?”

“Some time apart.”

“So are we officially broken up?”

“Just some time apart.”

I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe it.

“I promise it has nothing to do with you.”

“It feels like it has everything to do with me.”

“Come here,” Dalton said, waving me toward him.

I leaned in, and he wrapped his hand around the back of my neck. “I love you.”

“Then this makes no sense.”

“I know.”

“Then let’s not take a break.”

“Lexie…”

“Is it about what I said at school? I know it sounded bad, but I didn’t mean it.”

“I know, I know. You might have doubted us, but I never did.”

“Then why, Dalton?” I sounded so needy and whiney, but I wanted him, not some so-called break.

“I just need some time for myself. All right?” Dalton said, his eyes starting to droop.

I nodded. “Get some rest.”

“Okay.”

“Do you want me to visit?”

“Only if you want to.”

I nodded again and hugged him, my head on his chest. “Bye, Dalton.”

“Bye,” he said, his eyes already closed.

The good-bye felt too final. I didn’t like the situation one bit, and as I walked out of his room, I bumped into Kristin. She might have been trying to help, but she only made the situation worse.

“Hey, Lexie,” she said, giving me a frown.

“Hi,” I said, already not liking Kristin’s tone.

“I heard some of what he said.”

“You were listening?”

“A bit, yeah,” she said, averting her eyes from mine for a quick moment.

“Oh.”

“He really might need some time to think. I’m not sure how much he’s told you about his heart situation.”

“Enough, I guess,” I said with a shrug.

“Well, we got some pretty bad news.”

“Did he get an infection?” I asked as a nurse was being paged over the intercom.

“No, but they did an ultrasound of his heart. He was scheduled for it before he even got hit, so they decided to do it now.” She pulled on the collar of her cable knit sweater.

“Okay,” I said pensively.

“It confirmed our suspicions. He’s been having some issues with rejection. A percentage of heart recipients develop a disease after some years, and well…he has it.”

“What does that mean?” My heart was in my throat.

“His blood vessels are starting to thicken.”

“Okay.”

“Well, it will ultimately lead to his death.”

“What!?” I swore I momentarily saw stars. It was like everything in my brain had gone haywire, unable to process what Kristin said. I felt like I needed to barf.

“He could still have years. We’re going try some new therapies to hopefully give him a longer life expectancy, but…” Her eyes blinked again and again.

“He’s not going to make it to thirty-seven.”

“Probably not even twenty-seven.”

“Twenty?” I squeaked out, grabbing hold of the guardrail that ran along the wall.

“It’s so hard to tell. I don’t want to scare you, but you should know the reality of the situation. What he has can slowly build, or it can develop quickly. The doctors are going to try to stop the progression of it.” I really wished she would stop talking.

“And if they don’t?”

“Heart failure, or sudden cardiac death.”

“Sudden cardiac death,” I said. I didn’t want to admit what it meant. Something that awful couldn’t be a possibility for him. It just couldn’t.

“Yeah, his heart can just stop.”

“And that would be it.”

“Yeah.” Kristin looked so drained. Judging by the bags under her eyes, I doubted she had any sleep.

“Oh my god,” I said just over a whisper.

“But we’re going to try to prevent that, or prolong it as long as possible.”

I started bawling. I stood there hugging myself, shaking with tears pouring down my face.

“Try not to be sad. We still have him here with us,” Kristin said, holding my shoulders.

“But he doesn’t want me around.”

“Just give him some time to clear his head. I think he knew, but the news still upset him. He knew he wouldn’t live forever, but he hoped he’d have a bit more time. But the doctors said you never know. New research and treatments are being discovered all the time, so we just have to stay positive.” I think Kristin held me out so she could look me in the eye, trying to reassure me, but I stared at the floor.

“Figures he didn’t say anything. He probably doesn’t want to worry me.”

“He doesn’t want anyone to worry.” Kristin pulled me into a hug.

“How can I not?”

“You always will. It’s inevitable.”

I pulled out of Kristin’s hug and wiped at my eyes with the inside of my forearm. “I’m not going away.”

“We don’t want you to, nor does Dalton.”

“Just some time?”

“Yes, please.”

I nodded. “Okay.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

As soon as I got home, instead of going to my room – my usual brooding place – I went to the basement. Maybe I hoped Dalton would show up. I knew he wouldn’t, but even if he wasn’t there, a part of him was still in my basement with me. Even though he wanted some time apart, I wasn’t fully ready to let go yet. I climbed onto the couch, grabbed one of the decorative pillows that smelled faintly of him, and cried into it. Since Dalton came back, I had never cried so much in my life. But it felt good to cry and get it out. I had just left him at the hospital and missed him already. Giving him time would be hard. After I drained myself of tears, I called Caroline and told her what Dalton said.

“So, what do you think?” I asked.

“Maybe he actually wants time to himself.”

“It feels weird. Supposedly, he’s my boyfriend, but the way he said I should only visit if I wanted to…it sounded like he doubts that I actually like him. What if he thinks he loves me more than I love him?”

“Slow down there, lady. You’re jumping to conclusions.”

“I can’t help it. All I want to do is kiss and hug and hold him, and he doesn’t want me around.”

“Lexie, the guy just got hit by a car. Maybe he had one of those moments where his life flashed before his eyes and it freaked him out.”

“So I freak him out?”

“Lexie…,” Caroline said. I knew I was being irrational, but I was upset.

“I know, I know. This is all so new, taking a break. He didn’t even say how long,” I said.

“I’m sure he’ll let you know.”

“I don’t know if I should go back and visit him or not. I’m kinda mad, but then his mom told me something, so it’s all kind of understandable – but I’m still mad. He should want me with him.”

“What did his mom say?”

I sighed and my heart started thumping harder in my chest. Thinking about what his mom said upset me, but saying it out loud seemed like it would physically hurt. “Uh…”

“What did she say?” Caroline asked. I could hear the concern in her voice.

“It’s about his heart.” I swore, it really did hurt to say.

“Oh, that doesn’t sound good.”

I summarized what Dalton’s mom told me.

“He just can’t catch a break, can he?”

“No, and I just feel…”

“You need to try to feel some happy.”

“Yeah, because right now I feel like I’m ready to explode.” My heart thudded even louder, as if to confirm that I wasn’t exaggerating.

“So you think you’ll visit him?”

“I might wait a few days. His mom seemed to want some time as much as he did.”

“Can I go visit him?” Caroline asked.

“Of course.”

“I don’t want him to die,” Caroline said softly.

“He still has plenty of living to do.”

“It’s just so sad.”

“I know.”

“Call me if you need anything.”

“Okay.”

I hung up, curled into a ball, and cried myself to sleep. I guess my tear ducts hadn’t drained themselves, after all.

***

I waited more than a few days. I waited too long, hoping he’d call or text or something – but I didn’t hear anything from him. He didn’t come back to his lola’s. I thought he was gone forever. How many times could I lose one boy?

I tried not to be sad. I lived how many years without him, and it wasn’t that bad. Yeah, sure, I lied a lot, but this time would be different. I was just living my real life, which I finally realized I needed people in. Caroline came over again. She sat at the kitchen table eating polish sausage that my grandma had made.

“I invited you over even though I have plans tonight,” I said, pushing my plate toward her. I didn’t feel much like eating. “I hoped you could join me.”

“Okay…,” Caroline said with her mouth full. “This is so good.”

“I’m going to play bingo with my grandma at her church.”

“Bingo?” Caroline asked. I always made going sound like a chore.

“Yes, I actually like to play bingo.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“So we’re playing bingo tonight.” Caroline stuck her fork in several pieces of my sausage, moving them to her plate.

“You’re the best, but I’m probably going to mope the whole time. If that’s okay?”

“It’s okay. I’d mope too, if I was coming off a Dalton Reyes high. Is he out of the hospital yet?”

“Not yet. Anybody else would be, but because he is him, he has to stay longer.”

“Did you talk to him?”

“No, but my grandma actually talked to Gloria.”

“That seems pretty big.”

“I was quite amazed. I think they finally realized we’re not awful people.”

“You’re great people.”

“Thanks.”

“You have to try to talk to Dalton.”

“I know.”

***

School felt weird without Dalton. Actually, everything felt weird without him. A good couple of weeks passed since he told me he wanted some time apart. People still stopped me in the hall to ask how he was doing. The day after the accident, a story in the newspaper and everywhere online went something like: The sixteen-year-old lead singer and guitarist of local rock group, Macaulay, was struck by a motor vehicle last night as he exited The Empty Door. It unfortunately was not a story I made up. The story about Dalton piqued more interest, so there was no huge drama regarding me and all my lies at school. I don’t think anybody cared, really. My decision to not lie as much – or well, just not to lie – was official, but there were a few things I had to straighten out.

It would probably be embarrassing, but I needed to start on a new path in life. I needed to own my life and love what I had. I spent most my time ashamed of who I was. I didn’t want people to find out that everyone I loved was taken away from me. I always thought that I was just that unlovable. But it wasn’t me – it was them. My mom was the one with the problems. My dad created his own problems. And Dalton didn’t leave me – for five years he was just temporarily detained from my life due to his overprotective family, but I didn’t really blame them, especially after knowing the whole story. If Dalton never talked to me again, at least we had some time together. I had those memories to hold onto. It hurt so much, but I had to go on with my life. Dalton was always trying to go on with his life, just live it. I had to do the same.

I walked down the school hallway and found the locker I was looking for. It belonged to Caroline’s friend, Jess.

“Hey,” I said as she put her books up on a shelf.

“Oh, hi Lexie. How are things going? How’s Dalton?”

“He should be out of the hospital soon,” I said. He might have been out already, but I wasn’t too positive. I was going on what my grandma said some days before.

“I heard there was something with his heart,” Jess said.

“Yeah.”

“That sucks,” she said, frowning.

“It does, but I wanted to tell you something.” I really didn’t want to talk about Dalton and his heart. I was afraid I’d start crying.

“Um, okay,” Jess said, closing her locker.

“It’s about that Enzo shirt. I don’t know if you’ve heard.” I knew some people were now aware of my lying ways, but I think Caroline and Luiz were still the only ones that knew about the Enzo thing, and I wasn’t sure if either of them spilled the beans. Even if not, people could probably figure it out if they tried to untangle my web of lies.

“Oh no, do you want it back? I paid for it fair and square.”

“I wanted to let you know that there is no Enzo. I lied. I made the shirt.”

“Yeah right,” she said, slinging her backpack over her shoulder and scrunching her freckle-covered nose at me.

“No, I did.”

“You just want it back because you saw that pic of me wearing it online.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It got bunches of likes, and people want to know where I got it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, and you’re not getting it back.”

“Okay.” Hey, I tried.

***

I felt so lost and hurt still, and somehow I missed my dad, so I also felt a bit confused. My dad was the start of so many things gone wrong. How could I possibly miss him? But I did. I denied it for some time, but my feelings started to bubble to the surface. I don’t know if it had to do with being around Dalton, or having a fight with him, or maybe realizing that the day Dalton got shot was out of my control, but whatever it was, I lay there on my bed thinking about how, when my dad used to hug me, he always squished too hard and said it was because he just had so much love for me. I thought about how, when we spent time together, it was always just about us – how he always used to say, “I love you, kiddo.” But then I always thought I didn’t want to be his kiddo anymore, didn’t want to have anything to do with him. I still had so much anger toward him, but yet I wanted to hear his voice. I couldn’t bring myself to visit him yet, but perhaps I could bring myself to talk to him on the phone.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

I decided to send Dalton a text. I had tried several times before, calling too, but got no response. I even went as far as calling his lola, but all she said was that Dalton wasn’t there.

Home yet? I texted.

At my regular house.

His text made me a little sad. I just assumed he’d go back to his lola’s, next to me again, where he belonged. Maybe he never belonged there in the first place. If his mom was staying in town, there was no reason for him to be at his lola’s, really.

How are you doing?

All right. Back to school soon.

That’s good. Which school?

My old one.

Oh.

I miss you.

I miss you, too.

Talk later?

Okay.

Then the texts stopped. I guess it was a start. At night, I sat at my sewing machine, finishing a shirt I was making out of an old pillow case. I’d made lots of clothes over the past couple of weeks. After a week of being under my covers and sad – don’t get me wrong, I was still sad, but now sad and functioning – I had to do something to keep myself busy, keep my mind from wandering to Dalton because if I let it, that’s all my mind would think about. I would have to start selling some of the clothes because there was no way I’d wear it all. I thought about asking Jess if she wanted to buy another shirt. As I sewed, I kept wondering if Dalton would text or maybe even call. He did say talk to you later, but as I went to bed that night, I had heard nothing back.

***

I sat down at the lunch table and as I started to eat my burger, Caroline sat down across from me.

“Once again, I will say you don’t have lunch this period.”

“We need to delve further into this Dalton thing,” Caroline said, pulling a rubber band off her wrist.

“He said we would talk later, but we didn’t. End of story.” I put my burger down on my tray and stared at my fries.

“How much later did he mean? Maybe he meant later in the week. The next day maybe,” Caroline said, putting her hair in a ponytail and helping herself to the fries that I couldn’t bring myself to eat. I couldn’t eat much when I felt sad, and having that conversation with Caroline was, well, making me sad.

“He didn’t specify. It was safe to assume later that evening or the next day.”

“Hmmm.”

“I was so excited, but maybe I just need to tell myself it’s over. If he was actually my boyfriend, he’d…”

“He’d what?”

“He’d frickin talk to me! Ask for my help. Ask me just to be there for him. Something. So even if he decided to start talking to me again, I don’t think it would be as boyfriend and girlfriend. I think I’d tell him we are officially just friends.” I knew I said I would try to stop lying, but I stressed the word try.

Caroline sucked on her bottom lip and smiled.

“What?”

“Would you tell him that to his face?”

“Huh?”

Caroline’s smile grew.

“What is your problem?”

Caroline put her hands up in an I-don’t-know manner, and shrugged her shoulders. At that exact moment, I realized many people sitting around us in the cafeteria were staring at me. They’d look at me and then glance at the back of the cafeteria. That was when I saw Dalton, wobbling down the middle aisle of tables on crutches with his electric guitar slung across his back. His bandmate, Matt, carried in an amp behind him. I was shocked, but so happy to see Dalton, and so happy to see him up and around. I wanted to run up and hug him, but was reluctant. He wanted his space and time, so why would I throw myself at him? Besides, it seemed he wasn’t coming for me. He stopped walking down the aisle, took his crutches out from under his arms, and leaned them against a table. He then limped the couple of feet back to the middle of the aisle, found where I sat, and locked eyes with me.

“Um, hey,” he started. He wasn’t talking very loud, but everybody in the cafeteria was curious, so a quiet fell over the lunchroom with only Dalton’s deep voice resonating. Two school security guards made their way across the cafeteria toward him. “A lot of you might not know me. I was at this school for only about a month when I got hit by a car. Haven’t been back since, and I won’t be back again. I’m going back to my old school. But that’s not why I’m here, and you guys don’t have to listen to me. I only want one person to hear what I have to say, and if she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t have to listen, either.” Dalton took in a breath and licked his lips while Matt walked over and plugged in Dalton’s guitar. Matt had set up the amp to Dalton’s side and a bit behind him, with an extension cord. One of the security guards made his way over to Matt and bent over. It looked like he was going to grab the amp. The other guard stood in front of Dalton with his arms crossed. I couldn’t hear what the security guard said, but I could hear Dalton say, “Please, just give me a minute.” The two security guards looked at each other and the one near Matt nodded. “One minute,” the one security guard said to Dalton.

“Thank you,” Dalton said, finding my eyes again. “Okay, I’m sorry, Lexie. I pushed you away, and I shouldn’t have. I know that. I let myself get sucked into self-pity, and it took me a bit to crawl out of that dark hole. I was scared. I love you, Lexie. I wrote this for you.”

Tears rolled down my face and I didn’t attempt to wipe them away. Dalton was there for me, and I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t care that he didn’t talk to me for weeks, or that he had a short life sentence – that he was officially sick now, or any of those things he said. All I cared about was our love. I tried to suppress it, prepare myself for life without him, but the second I saw him standing there, all that love boiled over and it didn’t want to be ignored anymore.

Dalton sang with such conviction, I knew every word that came out of his mouth was true. It came from his heart. His physical heart might have been broken, but his emotional heart loved more than anyone I had ever known. All eyes were on him as he sang and played his guitar. Nobody looked at me. Dalton was too mesmerizing. The security guards even seemed to relax some. The song started out slow, a ballad of sorts. As it went on, it picked up like it gained hope, growing into something wonderful. It exuded love – his voice and the electric guitar reverberating off the walls as the tempo picked up even more. Security didn’t even escort him out after a minute – they let him play his whole song. They seemed just as entranced as everybody else. When he finished, tears glistened in his eyes, and my breath stuck in my chest. Everybody was still quiet because it seemed the moment called for it, to take in what they just saw and heard. Then the moment passed. Everybody started cheering and clapping.

Dalton slowly wobbled toward me, but security grabbed his elbow – it was time for him to go.

“Crutches,” Dalton said as the security guards tried to lead him away. Matt grabbed them for him along with the guitar and amp, and security escorted them both toward the exit of the cafeteria. Dalton looked over his shoulder at me and jerked his head to the side. I knew what he was getting at. Boos rang out as they dragged Dalton away.

I looked over at Caroline, who had this huge smile on her face. She gave me two thumbs up. “Go,” she whispered.

I listened, and while everybody was busy watching Dalton, I slunk along the back wall of the cafeteria to the set of doors that led out to the back of the school. I slipped out the doors, ran alongside the baseball fields, and turned a corner, running up the other side of the school and around to the front. My heart pounded in my chest, partially from the exertion of running, but more from knowing that Dalton would be out front waiting for me. I got to the main doors of the building and looked around for Dalton, not seeing him anywhere. Then my eye caught movement on the sidewalk in front of the school.

I should have run down the sidewalk into his arms, kissing him all over, but I was still a little overcome by it all. He started walking toward me and I stood there watching him make his way to me on his crutches. He stopped part-way up the front of the school’s walkway.

I nodded and slowly started making my way to him, picking up my pace until I stood a couple of feet in front of him. “Dalton,” I said.

“I’m going to explain myself. Okay?” he asked, his eyes brimming with tears.

I nodded. Dalton stood taller and threw his crutches to the side. He took a step closer to me and let out a deep breath. “So, I know I didn’t fully explain how much my body and heart dislike each other, especially lately. After I got hit, when I was in the hospital, they did a biopsy and then an ultrasound on my heart and saw the extent of that war. Even though they upped my meds not too long ago, the docs pretty much said they aren’t doing their job, so I have to start a new treatment. They take my blood and expose it to ultraviolet light, and it somehow tricks my body. Not going to go into specifics now, but it should keep me going. But this scared me.

Not that I get to keep living, but that my meds aren’t working. After this, there’s only one other real treatment, and I’m on the bottom of a waiting list again for a new heart. Since I already had a transplant, my chance of rejection goes up another twenty percent or something. Anyway, I haven’t gotten there yet. Hopefully this treatment will help delay that, but I was scared. Who wants to be in love with a guy who might not be here in a few years? Then I realized, that’s not my decision to make. I needed to stop wallowing in my sorrows and be happy that I’m even here, and that I’m more than what I think of myself or what people perceive of me.

I’m more than the kid who got shot during a botched drug raid. I’m more than the kid who got a heart transplant. And recently, more than that guy who got hit by a car. I’m also a voracious reader of corny novels. I’m a musician. I’m loved deeply by family and friends, and I love deeply, too. Especially one certain someone. Lexie, I’m so sorry.” The tears that brimmed his eyes before now ran down his cheeks.

I sucked on my bottom lip and nodded.

“Lexie?”

I closed the space between us, wrapping my arms around him, lying my head on his chest. I just held him – I didn’t say anything. I just needed to feel him, touch and hold him and make sure he was there. He kissed the top of my head.

“You can’t ever do that again, just ignore me for all that time.”

“I promise I never will.”

“Time with you is precious, Dalton,” I said, taking a breath, his scent so familiar and comforting.

“I know, and that’s why I’m so sorry, and I’m sorry if I made you feel like…,” he trailed off, running his hand down my hair.

“Ignored, like I didn’t matter to you anymore, like you didn’t love me.”

“God, I do, and so much, Lexie. That’s why I tried to push you away. I have a disease called CAV, cardiac allograft vasculopathy. It’s ruining my heart. I’m not going to have a long, happy life, but I want you to have one. Be happy and not sad that you had some boyfriend—”

“Dalton, stop. I know your reasons, and I actually understand, but it still hurt me.”

“And now you don’t want to be with me.”

“No, no, I never want to be without you.”

“But—”

“I know, one day I will be. But that’s when that day comes. Dalton, you’re going to have a wonderful, happy life. However long or short it may be.”

Dalton nodded.

“I love you,” I said.

Dalton swallowed and wiped tears away from his eyes with the heel of his hand. “I love you, too.”

***

I used to tell this story about a prince and a princess, but that story wasn’t true. But my new story — the only one I like to tell now — is true. It’s about a sixteen-year-old boy who loves a sixteen-year-old girl. A love so grand it would be around for years upon years after they were gone, when they were just mere specks in the wind. After everybody had said good-bye, the woodland creatures left, the flowers and trees continued being flowers and trees, and the unicorns went back to frolicking. The love this boy and girl had would still be there, filling people’s hearts. Even if these people didn’t know them or weren’t aware that this boy and girl had a love, some speck of it would remain in everyone because everyone had a possibility of that love in them. They just had to find it and set it free.

###

 

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my writing squad for all of the support and encouragement they have given me. Major thanks to Vera, Christy, Grace, and Annie. You ladies are always there when I have a question or need an opinion or need someone to gripe to. You all are great. And thanks to my husband, who goes along with all of the schemes I dream up.

About the Author

Katie Kaleski writes books for young adults. A Fabrication of the Truth is her debut novel.

When she isn’t writing, she enjoys designing book covers, drawing, and reading.

Breakfast cereal with milk is her ultimate meal, and she loves all things cute and fuzzy.

Stay in Touch:

http://www.katiekaleski.com

https://www.facebook.com/KatieKaleski

http://twitter.com/KatieKaleski

 

And

Coming Winter 2017

The Now or Never Moment

Shelby and Tanner have been inseparable ever since freshman year after she intervened with his face getting pummeled in. Fast forward four intense years—Shelby is leaving for college. Without Tanner. Three days before she’s set to move, he hands her an envelope with explicit instructions:

In no way shape or form is she to open the envelope until she is perfectly settled in at school. She is not to even think of it until then.

No one has seen Tanner since that moment.

When Shelby opens her envelope, her entire dorm witnesses the impact of what Tanner left behind. Sometimes, all it takes is walking in someone else’s shoes to realize what you’ve known all along. Sometimes, that realization comes too late. And sometimes, now or never is all you’ll have left.

 

 


A Fabrication of the Truth

The last time Lexie Stein saw Dalton Reyes he lay in a pool of blood, hovering somewhere between life and death. Now, five years later, he’s the new guy in her high school. What happened between then and now is a mystery Lexie is afraid to explore. Just one lie uncovered from her past can cause the house of cards she’s so carefully constructed to come crashing down around her. And Dalton is the key to that past. She doesn’t need her grandmother’s warnings to convince her that Dalton means trouble. But the bond they shared as kids seems to have only gotten stronger, transforming into something wonderful and powerful. When Dalton opens up about the intervening years and what they mean for his future, Lexie is determined not to let him get away a second time.

  • ISBN: 9781370857524
  • Author: Katie Kaleski
  • Published: 2016-12-21 19:50:33
  • Words: 55900
A Fabrication of the Truth A Fabrication of the Truth