Emma stood motionless, her stomach unraveling, aware of every inch of her skin.
Before Izzy friend-dumped her, Emma’s outsider status hadn’t mattered. She didn’t need the affection or the admiration of five or ten or five hundred girls. She and Izzy spoke their own language of ridiculously important and importantly ridiculous things, absurd-genius nothings irrelevant outside their circle of two. No one else needed to know why the bright orange scarf was so hilarious or why listening to a song like “How Soon is Now” a hundred times was still not enough. When she and Izzy read The Perks of Being a Wallflower in ninth grade, they wrote their own “Dear friend” letters and embroidered the lyrics to “Asleep” by The Smiths on matching jean jackets. Now, somehow, Izzy was finding new orange scarves and new sad songs with Stacy. Stacy Keeler had replaced Emma.
Replaced. The verb was benign but the reality of the situation struck Emma’s heart like a flaming torch. And if that sounded dramatic, fuck it. It was the tiny things that killed people.
The urge to run, which had fallen away while Emma was making face-contact with perfect Stacy’s perfect breasts, roared back ten times worse than before. Her hands itched. Her legs shook. Her mouth was dry. Did she have a rare disease? Was she allergic to something in Mr. Kochenderfer’s classroom? Was she crazy? Would she have to take medication? Go to a hospital? Leave school?
“Emma?” Mr. Norway came out of his office. “Are you all right?”
No, Emma wanted to say to the guidance counselor. I’m not. I think something’s wrong with me. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just…” She looked at her white-toed bright green sneakers. “Never mind.” She sighed then raised her head. “I ran into Izzy and Stacy.” Shrugging, she added, “Literally.”
He nodded sympathetically. “Oh.”
“I have to get back to class,” Emma said, leaning toward the bathroom. Her heart still pounded and her scalp still crawled but the urge to run diminished in Mr. Norway’s calming presence. He was the nicest teacher in the school. He knew every student, noticed everything and judged nothing.
“If you have a minute,” Mr. Norway said, “I’d like you to do something for me. I’ll give you a pass.”
The sweat pooling between Emma’s shoulder blades and around her ribcage was making her shirt stick to her skin. “Sure,” she said, tugging gently at the light fabric. “What do you need?”
“This is Joe Castlellaw,” Mr. Norway said. He pulled a kid from the open office door behind him like a reluctant rabbit out of a magician’s hat.
“Joe,” Mr. Norway said. “This is Emma Mathews.”
A tall boy, around her age, with long eyelashes and smooth, brown skin glanced at her then looked away. The sun coming through the Diversity Club’s rainbow mobile made his dark hair look indigo blue.
“Joe moved here from Wolfeboro two weeks ago,” Mr. Norway said. “Today is his first day at Henry Dearborn High School.”
“Oh,” Emma said.
Joe Eyelashes glared over her head. Curious, Emma turned but there was nothing there except for a few Spring Fling! posters on the wall about the upcoming freshman dance. Emma reached into her pocket for her lip balm then remembered she’d lost it. Her mouth was still dry and her lips, which weren’t her best feature to begin with, were probably peeling like a zombie’s. Subtly she scraped any dead skin back into her mouth with her teeth.
Maybe hot boys from Wolfeboro were into girls with zombie lips.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he grunted, barely audible, before looking away again.
Awesome. Another arrogant asshole to grace the school with his exalted presence. Well, at least she didn’t have to worry what he thought about her sweaty tank top. Or her zombie lips.
“Joe couldn’t get here earlier,” Mr. Norway continued, smiling kindly at Mr. I’m-So-Amazing-Don’t-Look-at-Me. “So if you don’t mind…”
Joe shifted his weight and exhaled. He was still glaring at the freshman dance posters as if their very existence offended him. Emma grabbed the chance to look at him again.
Even if he was a jerk, Joe Castlellaw was wicked cute. Wiry and strong, his chest and shoulders filled out his black tee shirt just right and his dark hair curled above his collar. Maybe she’d judged him too quickly. Maybe he was nice. Maybe it didn’t matter. She wasn’t always nice herself. Emma tried to catch his eye but Joe dropped his gaze to the floor and glued it there, probably wishing he could dive in and swim away.
“Would you mind?” Mr. Norway asked.
“What?” Emma said, turning. Apparently the counselor had been talking while she was mentally swooning.
“Would you mind showing Joe to Mrs. Eyre’s class?” Mr. Norway said.
“Uh, sure. Come on,” Emma said.
Joe Castlellaw was staring hard at her chest, like he couldn’t look away, then he raised his head and gazed directly into her eyes. Emma felt calmer. Her skin and her scalp and her legs—everything—felt normal. And the urge to run that had faded when Mr. Norway asked her if she was all right disappeared completely.
Joe resumed his intense examination of the opposite wall. In a spectacularly epic fail, Emma tried to bite back a grin at the sight of the sweet place between Joe’s jaw and his ear. What would it be like to kiss him there? Would he like it? Would he kiss her back in the same way? Would he kiss her mouth? The inside of her wrist? The palm of her hand?
Oh, no. Was she that girl? Was she really that girl, thoughtfully unhappy about something real and true until a hot boy looked at her and then it was all sappy songs and unicorns, and all the dragons in the world were pink and breathed cotton candy instead of fire?
Joe gazed at Emma again, slightly longer this time, right out from under those gorgeous black eyelashes.
Oh my God, she was that girl. If Emma hadn’t felt like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain right then, she would have been vomiting in self-disgust. And, awesome, she’d gone from age-appropriate, real-life–appropriate depressing songs to movie musicals old enough to be shown in a museum.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” Emma whispered.
Mr. Norway winked.
Oh, no. No. No. No. No. No.
Face-flaming a thousand shades of red, Emma muttered something about Mr. Norway not understanding. She backed away and smashed her hip on the guidance office doorknob.
Joe’s cheeks darkened. He might have grinned slightly.
“Come on,” Emma said, none too nicely, leading him down the hall. She paused and touched her face to see if it was warm. It was, which meant she was still pink, and maybe even splotchy. Perfect. She didn’t want to look at her chest, which also reddened when she was really embarrassed, or at her beloved Smiths The World Won’t Listen tank top that suddenly seemed much too small.
“Where are we going?” Joe asked.
Was that concern in his quiet voice? Was he worried she was going to lead him astray or forget her task? “This way.” She pointed. They started walking again toward Mrs. Eyre’s AP history class.
Joe passed her. He stopped at the corner where the old building connected with the new one. Emma pointed again.
“Did you like Wolfeboro?” she asked. She couldn’t stand the silence any longer, and she wanted to hear more of his lush, low voice.
“I guess,” Joe said, still staring straight ahead and walking fast.
“We don’t have a lake like you do,” Emma said. “But we do have awesome hiking and bike trails. Do you like to hike or mountain bike? I have a bike.” I have a bike? The skin on her face tightened. Why didn’t she just invite him over for animal crackers?
Joe stopped. Emma looked at her shoes.
“Sometimes,” he said, a terrible hint of a smile in his voice.
Anxious to obliterate her I-have-a-bike announcement, Emma gestured to the book in Joe’s hand. “What are you reading?”
“Samuel Beckett plays.”
“Are you an actor?” Emma asked.
“No. I like reading.”
That soft, low voice was mesmerizing. He gazed unsmilingly at her again with those serious eyes, and something slowly opened in Emma’s chest. Like a small door, or a casement window “opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands, forlorn.” She wanted to hum but smiled back at him instead. “I like to read,” she said.
Joe eyed her, flipping through the pages of his book with his thumb, making a noise like mechanical insect wings.
“But I really love music,” Emma continued. “My sister Maude loves to read. She’s obsessed with poetry and flowers. I have four brothers and sisters, which is, obviously, a lot. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
Joe shook his head. The movement visibly shifted the air as if they were under breathable water. Emma’s chest contracted, and then the school, the hall, the lockers, and Joe vanished.