Finishing his homework at the small kitchen table, Joe had paid attention to his mother at first. Now her singsong monologue hung in the air like inane pop music in a supermarket. She was afraid. Like always. Afraid his real parents would find him and want him back. Afraid he might get in more trouble for what he’d done when Sean Bolton locked that freshman in a locker at his old school. Afraid he’d get sick and have to go to the hospital. But mostly his mother was afraid someone would discover his freak-secret and take him away from her and she’d never see him again.
Her goldfinch voice pierced the rushing water and fell between the cracks of Joe’s brooding thoughts. The events of his first day at Henry Dearborn High School ran through his head like a nightmare gone viral. And Emma Mathews. She was a nightmare, too. Though it hadn’t started out that way.
At the end of their meeting that morning, Mr. Norway led him to the waiting area of the guidance suite. Joe’s first class was AP American history. He would have been happierstarting the day with his Shakespeare elective, but he’d already missed it and anything was better than staying in the apartment for one more day. He and his mom had lived in shitty apartments before. Hell, they’d hardly lived in any other kind, but Joe felt more trapped in this one than he had anywhere else. He’d ridden his bike past the school every afternoon and all through town over the weekend. It didn’t help, but he had to do something.
Mr. Norway opened the suite door and stuck his head into the hall. Joe waited. Like always. He was always waiting for someone else to make decisions for him, to tell him what to do, where to go, what to think. He opened the book he’d brought to school and read the introduction.
“Emma?” Mr. Norway said. He stepped into the hall, leaving Joe in the waiting area.
The counselor sounded genuinely interested in whomever he was talking to. There had been good teachers in every school Joe attended but none were as smart and compassionate as Mr. Norway seemed. When they’d met that morning Joe had almost confided in him. But maybe his mom was right to be afraid about his secret being revealed.
“Are you all right?” Mr. Norway asked the unseen student.
A girl’s defiant, embarrassed voice answered, “Yeah!” And the feeling Joe had been trying to crush every day since they moved here two weeks ago roared up like a fucking kraken. Hope. Fucking hope. The irrational, sweet, determined-to-exist feeling that this time, in this new place, something would work out. It was an emotional morass that always got him into trouble. A belief in possibility when there was no such fucking thing.
“I’m fine,” the girl said. Clearly not fine, and a terrible liar. “I just…”
What? Joe thought, as if whatever she said might hold a lifeline for him. Want to go somewhere? Be something? Understand fucking anything? Keep talking, he thought, please keep talking. The girl’s bright voice reached inside him. It stroked and fed the kraken. Made Joe long for something better.
“Never mind,” she said, the brightness falling from her voice.
Right, Joe thought. Right. Never mind. Never mind.
“I ran into Izzy and Stacy,” she said. “Literally.”
Joe killed the kraken.
“Oh,” Mr. Norway said in his painfully empathetic way. It made Joe murderously angry. What was the fucking point of anyone being nice or reaching out?
“I have to get back to class,” the girl said.
“If you have a minute,” Mr. Norway said, “I’d like you to do something for me. I’ll give you a pass.”
Thudding apprehension drilled Joe’s feet to the floor.
“Sure,” the girl said. Her airy voice swung in and out of his ears like music, like kisses, like the sound of the ocean. “What do you need?”
Joe felt dizzy.
“This is Joe Castlellaw,” Mr. Norway said. And before he could stop it, the guidance counselor’s hand was grabbing his—when had he moved so close to the freaking door?—and Joe was dragged into the hall.
“Joe,” Mr. Norway said, smiling. “This is Emma Mathews.”
And there she was, the girl with the voice.
Defiance, hope, embarrassment, curiosity, sweetness, sorrow, and anger were all there in bright colors and beautiful contrast on her face. She was wearing a black tank top even though it was snowing, and her silvery-blonde hair fell like swan feathers over her bare shoulders. She smelled like flowers and like sweat, which, horrifyingly, gave him the beginnings of an erection. He stared immediately over her head and thought of nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
“Joe moved here from Wolfeboro two weeks ago,” Mr. Norway said. “Today is his first day at Henry Dearborn High School.”
“Oh,” she said.
Don’t come closer, Joe begged silently. He started making new words from the letters in the existing words on the Spring Fling! poster behind her. She turned around to see what he was staring at. He glanced at her. Mistake. She was slowly sucking her lower lip into her mouth. Fuck. Freshman, Spring, Fling, March, Thursday. Hm… Martyr, Giant, Fruit.
“Hey,” she said. Her voice reached into his skin. It felt like she kissed him.
“Hey.” He could hardly grind out the one syllable, but he couldn’t help stealing another glance. Then more words. Thrum, Death, Data.
“Joe couldn’t get here earlier,” Mr. Norway said, smiling kindly at him. Why was he so fucking nice?
“So if you don’t mind, Emma,” Mr. Norway said, “would you show Joe to Mrs. Eyre’s classroom?”
Emma, Joe thought, repeating the name to himself. Her name was Emma. He shifted his weight and exhaled. Sprite, Uncle, Rare.
She was watching him. He could feel it. He couldn’t look at her. Not now. Not in front of Mr. Norway. Not at all if he wanted to get through this day in one piece.
“Would you mind?” Mr. Norway asked.
“What?” Emma said. At last she turned and faced the guidance counselor.
Gratefully, like a drowning man pulled from the waves, Joe gazed hard at Emma Mathews. Like he had to take something from her in order to keep breathing.
She was sweaty. It was fucking March in fucking New Hampshire and she was sweaty. Her Smiths shirt clung to her breasts and sweat gleamed on her pale pinkish skin. Like candy, that’s what her skin made him think of. He wanted to lick down her throat and between those breasts and taste her salty skin. He definitely had an erection now.
“Would you mind showing Joe to Mrs. Eyre’s classroom?” Mr. Norway repeated.
“Uh, sure. Come on,” Emma said.
She was talking to him. She was probably looking at him. Joe ripped his eyes away from her breasts and looked into her eyes, dark, dark blue, like the place where the ocean meets the sky at night. Emma gazed back at him, chill and serene. And happy; something about looking at him made her happy. He was sure of it.
A warning voice flared but Joe flicked it away, sending it scurrying to the floor of his soul. He looked at the poster. Maybe she liked him. Maybe she’d be interested in him. Maybe they could talk. Maybe they could kiss. Maybe she’d let him see those breasts.
He couldn’t resist. He peeked at her again. Happy, yes. Something about looking at him made her happy. Which seemed to confuse her slightly. Good, he thought. She was smart and cautious and didn’t expect everything to be easy.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” Emma whispered.
Joe turned away, grinning slightly. Mr. Norway winked at her.
She blushed and said something, backing away from Mr. Norway and knocking into the office door. Joe should have felt bad but instead he felt a rush of exhilaration. She liked him enough to be embarrassed about it. He grinned to himself.
“Come on,” Emma ordered. She walked down the hall.
He followed her, watching as she touched her cheek and threw her hand down as if it were on fire.
“Where are we going?” he asked when she paused.
“This way,” Emma said. She pointed.
He walked past her, hoping she’d catch up. He wanted a chance to see her face without seeming like he was looking directly at her on purpose. He stopped at the corner. She pointed again, but she still didn’t say anything. Maybe he was wrong, maybe this was all in his head. He walked faster.
At last, when he had almost given up, Emma asked, “Did you like Wolfeboro?”
Like Wolfeboro? He didn’t like anything. Except for her, apparently. Which probably wasn’t going to end well for either of them.
“I guess,” Joe said. He stared straight ahead and kept walking.
“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.”
He smiled to himself and stopped walking. I have a bike. How cute was that? He looked at her. She looked at her shoes.
“Sometimes,” he said, imagining mountain biking with her. He’d have to be able to keep his secret though. That might prove almost impossible if she really did like him back.
Apparently anxious to erase her adorable I-have-a-bike announcement, Emma gestured to the book in his hand. “What are you reading?”
Joe turned the book over so she could see the cover. “Samuel Beckett plays.”
“Are you an actor?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I like reading.” He almost never told anyone, especially a girl, anything he genuinely liked or was important to him. He looked at her again, trying to say with his eyes what he couldn’t with words.
She smiled back, and Joe felt his heels lift slightly from the floor. She smiled at him and he was able to control it. Which was in itself a tiny miracle.
“I like to read,” she said.
He watched her, flipping through the pages of the book with his thumb, concentrating on staying fixed to the floor.
“But I really love music,” she added. “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?”
He shook his head. And just like that, everything turned to shit.
Emma opened her mouth and gazed unsteadily around the hall like she was drunk. Was that why she was so sweaty? Was she wasted or something and he just hadn’t noticed?
“Are you all right?” Joe asked.
Above text from everything you know published by Boroughs Publishing Group 2013
KISS OFF by The Violent Femmes