Enjoy the first six chapters of The Last Boy and Girl in the World!
It’s impossible to tell what’s underneath me, exactly which part of Aberdeen I’m floating over right now, but I still lean over the side of the boat and try to see something down there. Maybe the white gazebo across from City Hall where my parents were married. Or the seesaw Morgan and I sat on for hours at a time during the summer after eighth grade, dreaming about what high school would be like, the board steady as a park bench because we both weighed exactly one hundred and two pounds. One of the mangy tinsel snowflakes that hung on the Main Street light posts year-round but somehow still managed to sparkle when lit up for the holidays. I’d even be happy with a freaking parking meter. I’m that desperate for something real, one last concrete thing from my hometown where I can project the good-bye-forever feelings clogging up my arteries. But I have no idea where I’m at exactly. I can’t see deeper than my own reflection in the murky water.
The man driving the rescue boat, Sheriff Hamrick—I forgot he was here.
He has one hand on the tiller of the trolling motor and tosses me a windbreaker with the other. I’m shivering pretty bad, so I put it on. There’s a big National Guard emblem stitched on the chest, because, right, he’s not sheriff anymore.
I guess because I don’t say anything back, he snaps, “You’re officially the last girl in Aberdeen.”
I twist around and look for the rescue boat that was ahead of ours, the one carrying the last boy, but it’s disappeared into the fog.
When I turn back, Sheriff Hamrick is staring at me. “Was it worth it?” It’s clear, by the earnest way he asks, that he truly wants to know. He doesn’t understand.
Before I can answer, his CB radio crackles with stern conversation. Officers talking to each other in police code. I can’t make out much beyond that there are two cruisers waiting to take us away. Sheriff Hamrick turns down the volume. I watch him try to release some of what has him so tight. He rolls his neck, cracks his knuckles. “It doesn’t matter. Aberdeen’s officially gone now. Everyone can move on with their lives.”
My shivers change into something different, something harder than when I was just cold. “Some of us don’t want to move on.”
Earlier this week, I typed in my address and nothing came up. Nothing for the zip code, either. I had to go to the next town over, Hillsdale, and drag my cursor to where our town should have been. The roads where my friends lived, the baseball field, the movie theater. Even the stuff that wasn’t underwater yet was colored blue.
“You’ll think differently when you’re older,” he says, defensive and so sure of himself. Then a grinding noise steals his attention. He cuts the power to the motor and lifts the propeller out of the water. Someone’s discarded T-shirt has gotten twisted up in the blades, a cotton jellyfish.
While he untangles it, I stare into the distance, hoping he’ll take the hint and stop talking already. A breeze blows away some of the mist and I’m able to see a few triangles spiking out of the water, the roofs of the tallest houses in the valley. They won’t be there for much longer now that the dam is finished. I focus on the house that’s closest to us. Scalloped white shingles, shimmery slate roof. Something about it is familiar. And then, as we putter past, the puzzle piece suddenly clicks into place with the part I can’t see, what is sunken.
I’m not too late.
I stand up quickly. The boat rocks and the sheriff nearly tumbles out the back. “I need to go over there! To that house!”
“Sit down!” He barks it so sternly that I immediately obey. “You’re in enough trouble, don’t you think?” He takes off his cap and, exhaling, wipes his sleeve across his brow. “Look, I don’t have the pull I once did, Keeley. I’m in a new position now. If anyone asks me, and they very well might, I’ll tell them that you’re a nice girl, that you just got caught up—”
My heart speeds up so fast that the individual beats blur into a hum. “Sheriff, please. Please. They’ll never let me back here. And even if they did, it’d be gone.” I plaster on a jokey grin, hoping to charm him. “Doesn’t the last girl in Aberdeen deserve one last favor?” I used to be good at this. But it doesn’t take long for my smile to slip. One crack and the whole thing gives way. My bottom lip trembles. My eyes fill with tears. “Someone very important to me lived in that house, and this the last time I’m ever going to see it.” I force a swallow. “I know I have to let go. I know it’s over. It’s just so impossibly hard.” I wipe my eyes. “You, more than anyone, have to understand that.”
The sheriff suddenly can’t look at me. He lets out a deep sigh. After glancing over both of his shoulders to make sure we’re alone, he turns his CB radio completely off. “Not a word to anyone about this, you hear? I mean it.”
I rub my eyes with the back of my hand and nod hard and fast.
He changes our course, angling the boat toward where I’m pointing, carefully steering us around random floating crap. Couch cushions, sealed Tupperware bubbles, dining room chairs, mailboxes. The flotsam and jetsam of abandoned lives.
When we get close enough to the house, I press my hand to the round window and look into Morgan’s attic bedroom for the very last time. Where we used to sleep in every Saturday morning is a glass half full of dark water.
Sheriff Hamrick clicks on a flashlight and hands it to me. “You after something in particular?”
I’m shaking so hard now that the flashlight beam touches everywhere in the room except the one spot I want it to land. I don’t answer him, but I am. I’m looking for a letter that was left for me, sealed carefully inside a Ziploc bag and duct-taped to a blade of my best friend’s ceiling fan.
Senior year was supposed to be when I said good-bye to Aberdeen, but it wouldn’t have been forever. I had my heart set on Baird, the least expensive in-state college option, barely thirty miles away. I’d come home for holidays and semester breaks, and probably a random weekend here and there to do laundry and see Morgan and whoever else was around. Of course, that was only if I got a scholarship to cover my dorm expenses. If not, I’d be commuting there, sleeping in my old bedroom every night.
So maybe I shouldn’t be surprised how bad I miss it. Even the things that drove me crazy. Like the flashing red light that went up on Main Street, our first and only traffic signal. It seemed so completely unnecessary. Most people in town ran it. But I bet if I end up living on the other side of the earth one day, that traffic light will blink red behind my eyes when I close them and make me warm.
Although that spring was the end of Aberdeen, I’ll always remember it as full of beginnings. And not just for me. For all of us. Things around us were changing, sure, but we were changing too, and we couldn’t pretend we weren’t any longer. Maybe that’s what happens when you’re suddenly living your life on a warp speed setting, trying to make the most of it before everything you know slides underneath the water.
But when the rain first began to fall, we didn’t see the bigger picture. We didn’t even want to. The bigger picture was for our parents to worry about. We were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, and focused on more exciting things, like how many days were left before school let out. And Spring Formal and our dresses.
When it started, the only thing I cared about was kissing Jesse Ford.
Sunday, May 8
Mostly cloudy, with steady afternoon showers, 49°F
I used to love rainy days. The coziness of hiding inside a baggy sweater. Of thick socks and galoshes. Curling up against your best friend to share her too-small umbrella. The drowsy, dreamy way a day can pass when there’s not a single ray of sunshine.
That was before Aberdeen had its wettest spring ever recorded. After three weeks straight of precipitation, I was ready to blow off finals and move to the Sahara. The weather hadn’t reached biblical levels. We’d had a couple of big storms, not one long and endless monsoon. Some days it just sprinkled, some days it only misted. But the air always felt damp and unseasonably chilly. I was sick of layering. Thermals under jeans, T-shirts under button-ups under hoodies, tights or leggings under dresses under cardigans. All of it thickening me like a full-body callus, while my dresser drawers were full of neatly folded spring clothes that I was dying to wear. In fact, most kids still wore winter coats to school even though it was the beginning of May. In those early days, I remember that, more than anything else, feeling wrong.
So it was really nice to wake up to the sun the morning our high school’s Key Club went to help shore up the riverbank with sandbags. Especially since the forecasters were already predicting a band of severe storms later in the week, supposedly the worst to hit us yet.
Actually, the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was a rainbow. Not a real one, but a rainbow sticker I had put on the underside of Morgan’s bedside lampshade a million years ago. Everything in Morgan’s room used to be covered in stickers—her walls, her mirror, her closet door. Over time, she’d peeled them away, though their sticky gum outlines were left behind, like permanent shadows. But she never found this one, and I liked that it was still there.
I lifted my head off the pillow. Morgan was already in the shower. I waited until I heard the water shut off before climbing out of her bed. It was too cold and too early to bother changing clothes, so I threaded my bra back through the armholes of the T-shirt I’d slept in and checked to make sure my leggings weren’t too baggy in the butt to wear in public. Then I reached across Morgan’s side of the bed, picked one of my socks off her radiator, and squeezed it. It still wasn’t completely dry, not even after a night spent baking on the coils.
Morgan hurried into her bedroom in her bra and underwear, a towel twisted around her hair. Ever since her parents divorced and her dad moved out, she’d quit wearing her bathrobe. Or maybe it was ever since she’d started hooking up with guys. I wasn’t sure.
“I’m borrowing dry socks, okay?” I knelt in front of her laundry basket.
She shivered as she pulled on her jeans. “You want an extra shirt, too?” she asked, pulling a white thermal with a tiny yellow rosebud print out of her dresser and offering it to me.
I shook my head. “I have my hoodie. And once we start working, I bet we get sweaty.” I looked forward to that, to being outside and not feeling cold.
Morgan put on the thermal and plopped down at her desk, a place more for makeup and hair stuff than for studying or homework. She unwrapped the towel. Her hair was such a dark shade of brown, it looked black when it was wet, and she barely ran her comb through it before twisting it up in a topknot. It was so thick that she used three hairbands to hold it, and I knew the center of that knot wouldn’t ever dry, not even by the next morning. Then Morgan sat back in her chair and stared at her reflection for a few quiet seconds. When she noticed me noticing, she said with a chuckle, “I guess one good thing about having a long-distance ex is that I don’t have to worry about randomly running into him in Aberdeen.”
I crawled over to her on my knees and put my head in her lap. Sweetly, I said, “Hopefully he’ll die soon, and then you’ll never have to worry about seeing him at all! You should try praying for that the next time you go to church.”
Morgan gasped and pushed me on the shoulders, sending me backward onto the carpet. “Oh my God, Keeley! That’s so wrong! How could you even say that?” But she was laughing, because she knew I was joking. I was always saying crazy stuff like that, taking it too far. Too far was my default setting.
I flailed my arms and legs like a turtle stuck on her back. “Because that’s what best friends are for!”
Morgan wore the tiniest hint of a smile as she reached to pull me up. “I’ll text Elise and tell her we’ll be over soon.”
While she did, I pulled a peach sock with lavender stripes from her laundry basket but couldn’t find its match. I went over to her dresser and opened the top drawer.
I had to dig a little to find it. It was underneath a plush stuffed chick with his wings glued around a plastic egg. There’d been a chocolate heart inside that egg. Morgan had given me half on our drive home from hanging out with Wes during Easter weekend. It was milk chocolate with Rice Krispies, my favorite. We ate the chocolate and drove home with the chick propped up on her dashboard, its googly eyes googling with every bump in the road.
Wes gave Morgan tons of little presents like that all the time—cheesy greeting cards, silk roses, key chains, perfume, candy. Elise said that showed what good boyfriend material he was, though I doubt he paid for any of it since his parents owned a drugstore. Before their breakup, Morgan prominently displayed the gifts around her room. When they disappeared, I assumed she’d thrown them away. But they were all there, crammed in the drawer. I lingered over them until Morgan chucked her phone aside. Then I quickly pushed the drawer shut.
“Don’t you think this is a huge overreaction?” Morgan said, half underneath her bed, reaching for her galoshes. I wasn’t sure if she knew what I’d seen or not. I certainly wasn’t going to say anything about it. “I mean . . . I get that it’s supposed to be a crazy storm, but Levi asking Key Club to come out on a Sunday morning to stack sandbags seems crazy.”
I’d had the same thought myself. The river flooded at least a few times each spring, and even with the rain that had already fallen, it hadn’t added up to anything disastrous. The people in town who lived closest to it knew to take certain precautions when it was supposed to storm, like parking their cars on higher ground and moving their patio furniture indoors. It was more annoying than dangerous.
“Yup,” I said. “And also, Levi didn’t ask. He basically demanded. I would have told him to screw off if I wasn’t sure he’d kick me out for insubordination or whatever.”
Our high school didn’t have a ton of clubs, and so I needed to list Key Club on my college apps. I was even considering running for president next year, because my guidance counselor said admissions tended to favor candidates who held leadership positions over kids who just listed a bunch of activities.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Morgan said, her lip curling. “He’s the total worst.”
“Well, I’m choosing to think of it this way. If the river does flood, we’ll have done our part to protect our soon-to-be-inherited beachfront property.”
Morgan grinned at that, spinning around to face me. “Thirty-two more days until we’re officially seniors.”
“Thirty-two more days,” I echoed, just as excited. At that moment, Wes was the only obstacle I saw between me and Morgan having another terrific summer together. And whether or not she kept his crappy trinkets hidden away in her drawer, he was still, thankfully, her ex.
Back in the old days, Aberdeen was primarily a countryside vacation destination for the rich residents of Waterford City, thirty miles downriver. It was cabins and summer cottages and pine groves. People swam in the summer, skied and ice-skated in the winter. My dad even has a vintage postcard showing people in old-fashioned bathing suits, striped umbrellas, and canvas beach chairs, enjoying our beautiful riverfront.
A hundred years later, the seniors of Aberdeen High School still swam in the exact spot the tourists once flocked to, where the bank stretched as wide and flat as an ocean beach, complete with sand that glittered in the sunshine. This wasn’t the only swim spot in Aberdeen, but it was the best. Except it wasn’t as perfect as the old postcard because of the long-abandoned lumber mill that anchored the end of the beach.
The spot designated for juniors, where I spent nearly every day last summer, was a quarter mile upstream from the senior spot. The beach there wasn’t pure sand like the seniors had, more a mixture of sand and dirt and pine needles. You always had to have a blanket down, but it was still nice. A rope swing looped around a fat branch of a tree that grew sideways out over the water. I’m not sure who put it up. It had been around forever.
Last summer, hardly any of the other girls tried it. They were scared the rope would break or their bikini tops would fly off when they hit the water. But after a couple of swings on the first sunny day, I had it down. Which knot to anchor my hands on, exactly when to let go so I’d hit the deepest part of the river, where the water was the coolest. I even took to screaming out something dumb to make everyone laugh whenever I’d make the plunge. Like this one time, I shouted “Super-absorbency!” because Elise had just admitted that she’d once worn a tampon and a pad while swimming at a church retreat, because she feared leaking in the water. The other girls there that day had no idea what I was talking about, but they laughed just the same. The boys shook their heads or groaned. They never knew what to make of me.
The sophomores and freshmen were relegated to a swim spot even farther upstream, near the highway overpass. They had to pull weeds to clear a place for their towels and pick up the trash tossed out of passing cars. The location sucked for those reasons, plus there were tons of plants, slimy reeds, and other crap you didn’t want touching you when you swam.
Anyway, that’s where we were told to show up for sandbagging duty.
Morgan parked her car near the overpass and we followed the flow of students toward two dump trucks full of sandbags and a rapidly growing group of volunteers. Obviously, other school groups besides Key Club had been summoned to help. Adults came, too. People’s parents, off-duty policemen, my second-grade teacher, Mr. Gunther. Even Mayor Aversano showed up, dressed like a complete tool in a suit shirt and dress slacks, with his slicked-back hair. He did have enough sense to swap his dress shoes for a pair of work boots, but I still rolled my eyes.
At exactly seven thirty, Sheriff Hamrick climbed up on one of the dump truck beds, clicked on his bullhorn, and asked everyone to gather around. Then he extended a hand to the mayor and Aversano’s dress pants stretched dangerously tight over his butt as he lunged up. Aversano took the bullhorn and started talking but no one could hear him. Sheriff Hamrick had to lean over and show him the trigger to press to make the thing work.
I laughed. Hard. Morgan clapped her hand over my mouth.
“Thanks, everyone, for coming out today. Obviously, we’re hoping that the weather forecasters are wrong, the way they tend to be about ninety-eight percent of the time.”
A few adults chuckled at that lameness. I remember thinking, hoping, that I would never turn into the kind of person who thought weather jokes were funny.
As Mayor Aversano went on, his voice took on a totally fake somber tone. My dad had been the one to first alert me to his penchant for doing this, after the mayor announced his most recent budget for Aberdeen, where he was “forced” to cut anything considered “nonessential” (quotations used to highlight his bullcrap). Since then, I always noticed it, a performance about as believable as our high school drama productions.
“. . . but we must be ready in case they aren’t, and do our part to protect our citizens from harm. I’m going to turn things over to Sheriff Hamrick to explain how today’s going to work.”
Morgan and Elise leaned their heads together.
Elise whispered, “I seriously can’t believe he hasn’t called you yet. It’s been two weeks, right?”
“Almost,” Morgan whispered back.
“It must be a pride thing. Maybe he’s waiting to hear from you first?” Then Elise gave Morgan’s topknot an encouraging little squeeze.
I burst in between them and grabbed each by the hand. “Let’s go down to the senior spot. It’s almost ours, anyway. And this place is giving me freshman-year flashbacks of those pink bikini bottoms that always gave me a wedgie.”
“But Sheriff Hamrick hasn’t finished his instructions yet,” Elise said. “How will we know what to do?”
“What’s to know?” I said, pulling her along. “Take sandbag, pass sandbag, repeat.” It blew my mind how often Elise brought Wes up after the breakup. I knew she meant well, but why poke a bruise as it’s trying to heal?
I think Morgan probably picked up on my Wes interference, because she walked a little bit ahead of Elise and me and changed the subject. “Eww,” she said, pointing as we neared the bank of the junior swim spot. “It looks like chocolate milk.”
The river normally ran clear. Not crystal, but close. But the previous storms had churned the water up big-time and it was so high, you couldn’t see the tail end of the rope swing in the murky water. The current pulled it taut, like a fishing line had hooked a dolphin.
“Okay, so maybe sandbags are a good idea after all.” I zipped my hoodie up to my chin, lifted the hood over my head, and stuffed my hands in my pockets to keep them warm. The morning sun was gone now, and the clouds hung low and oppressive, like someone’s basement ceiling.
We walked to the senior spot. Another group of volunteers came from the opposite direction. Then everyone fanned out. I sat down on a rock in the sand and let out a big fat yawn.
“Keeley,” Morgan whispered.
I ignored what I thought was her cue for me to stand up, even though I probably should have stood up if I wanted to look like someone who should be elected Key Club president next year. But I was tired. Normally, Morgan and I slept in on Sundays until lunch. And the dreary weather wasn’t helping.
Morgan then knelt down in front of me and practically inserted her entire head inside my hood.
“Can I help you?”
The tip of her nose pressing into mine, she said, “Look left.”
I turned my head.
And there was Jesse Ford.
His back was to me, but I still recognized him because Jesse had the cutest mop of wavy blond hair that was always the perfect mess. The pieces in front were long, almost chin-length, and he used their natural curl to keep them tucked behind his ears. That’s how he usually wore it, except when he played soccer. Then he’d steal a rubber band off some teacher’s desk and pull all his hair up into a little tuft at the top of his head, a man bun I guess you could call it. I know this is truly a look that only very cute and/or confident guys can successfully get away with. Put Jesse Ford in that slim minority. In fact, I weirdly liked it up in the man bun, because it showed off the million different shades of blond over his head. My hair is also blond, but it’s all the same color—pale yellow, like a stick of butter. Jesse’s is an entire box of Crayola crayons devoted to the shade. For example, some strands are as golden as the tops of the cafeteria corn muffins, some darker like pine sap, some as bright white as the sand that poured out of the splits in our sandbags that day.
Morgan quickly pushed my hood off my head and mussed my hair, pulling out a few stray pieces from the little nubby ponytail I had at the nape of my neck so they wisped around my face. She unzipped my hoodie ever so slightly, and pushed up my sleeves so they were at my elbows. She took a step back and smiled, pleased, and then beckoned to me to stand up.
I did, but only for a second, because as soon as I got to my feet, I pretended to faint dead away from happiness, flopping trust-fall style into Morgan’s arms when I knew for sure that Jesse’s back was still turned. Morgan barely managed to keep me upright. We both busted up laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Elise called out from Morgan’s other side.
Morgan pushed me off her and her cheeks turned rose-petal pink. It didn’t matter that I was the one embarrassing myself.
Morgan always blushed by proxy. She leaned over and said quietly to Elise, “Nothing. Just Keeley being Keeley.”
I watched nonchalantly as Jesse and some of the other guys on the soccer team kicked an empty Gatorade bottle across the ground. I guess they’d been asked to volunteer too. After fifteen minutes or so, the chitchat hushed and the sandbags started to come down the human chain.
Jesse shot me a quick smile as he turned to pass me the first one. Aberdeen High was small, with only about fifty kids in each grade. I’d had a class with him last year, Spanish II, but we’d never had an actual conversation before. Not in English, anyway. Still, I couldn’t tell if he recognized me, or if he smiled because everyone knew who he was.
All the volunteers worked in painful silence for the first half hour.
“Do you think we’re almost done?” I joke-whispered to Morgan as I heaped the next sandbag into her arms. The first few hadn’t been so bad, but I swore they were getting heavier and heavier.
“Don’t make me laugh, Keeley!” Morgan panted as she twisted toward Elise and passed the sandbag on. “My abs already hurt.”
I gasped. “Oh my God, what if we’re both so out of shape that we end up getting totally ripped from doing this, like two professional—”
“Hey! Watch out!”
I whipped around to Jesse lobbing his sandbag into my not-waiting, not-ready arms. I screeched and jumped out of the way because if that thing had hit my toes, it would have killed. Everyone around us turned to look.
But his sandbag didn’t land on my feet.
It was never going to. Jesse had a hold on it the whole time, and he pulled it back at the last second, a perfect fake-out.
He doubled over laughing at how I spazzed, and I felt queasy as I stepped back into line. But then, when Jesse looked up at me, he winked. I realized he wasn’t making fun of me, he was teasing me.
There is a difference.
“Hardy har har” was the first thing I thought to say. I groaned the words like an annoyed older sister, but really, inside I was all fireworks.
I let the next few sandbags come down the line, still sort of stunned that Jesse and I’d even had that much of an interaction. At some point, Morgan gave me a raised eyebrow and mouthed, Talk to him!
I ran through a hundred flirty conversation starters I’d overheard Elise coach Morgan to say to Wes or the boys before Wes, but imagining them coming from me, out of my dumb mouth, each one sounded like a nauseatingly transparent cover for Hello, Jesse Ford, please talk to me, boy I’ve loved forever.
But a few minutes later, as Jesse turned to pass another bag into my arms, I had an idea. I pulled out my phone from my hoodie pocket and pretended to text someone. “Sorry,” I singsonged, holding up a hand to Jesse. “This’ll just take a sec.” This forced Jesse to hold on to his sandbag until I finished. He knew I was joking, of course, and he played right along without missing a beat. He grunted like it was killing him to keep holding the sandbag, but I think he liked showing off how strong he was.
The other guys on the soccer team were freakishly skinny. Like, skinnier than most girls. Not Jesse. I knew for a fact that he had actual six-pack muscles because he had this terrific habit of peeling off his sweaty soccer jersey after games and slinging it over one shoulder. For that reason, I never, ever, ever missed a home game.
Our little comedy routine got the attention of Levi Hamrick, son of Sheriff Hamrick and president of Key Club. He walked by us, glaring over the megaphone he’d taken from his dad, and said, “Pick up the pace.”
I took great offense at this, because, okay, sure I was joking and probably slowing things up a little bit, but I was also working extremely hard, and if not for the adrenaline that my proximity to Jesse Ford afforded me, my arms would have functioned about as well as cooked spaghetti.
Jesse leaned in close. Close enough that I smelled the pancakes he’d had for breakfast on his breath. Close enough that I spotted three freckles in a perfectly straight line across his earlobe. “I think Levi Hamrick has a crush on you.”
“No, seriously. This is like the third time he’s walked over here to check on you. You should go for it. He’s a catch. He’s . . .” Jesse cleared his throat and switched into a corny announcer’s voice. “A Guy Who’s Going Places! ”
A Guy Who’s Going Places! was the headline of the local newspaper article that had run the week before, along with a picture of Levi holding up two handfuls of thick envelopes spread out like an oversize deck of cards. He’d received acceptances from every single college he’d applied to, which surprised a grand total of no one. Levi ate his lunch in the library. He won the science fair four years straight. His name always topped the honor roll. He scored the highest on the SATs out of the entire senior class. He clearly did nothing but study. He didn’t seem to have any real friends, just nerdy acquaintances, because I never saw him at the movie theater on the weekend, or in the stands for home games. The one place he’d hang out was outside the police station with the officers, folding metal chairs circled up around an open garage bay while they waited for a call or a shift change. He was like a little cop-in-training.
The article was only interesting because of a dumb thing Levi said. The reporter asked him which of the schools he was leaning toward, and he answered, “Probably the one that’s farthest away.”
Obviously, that kind of snobbery rubbed a lot of kids the wrong way. Aberdeen was not a town of privilege, where people regularly got opportunities to seek bigger and better things. I heard someone giving Levi hell for it in the hall, and he looked baffled as to why. I bet he thought that because he was being honest, no one could be offended. Actually, I don’t think anyone was offended. More like they had proof of what they’d secretly suspected, Levi Hamrick was a pompous jerk. I, on the other hand, already knew that for a fact, because Levi Hamrick was the reason I’d quit Mock Congress my freshman year. The only black mark on my high school transcripts.
I leaned in to Jesse and cupped my hands around my mouth. “Levi Hamrick isn’t hot for me.” I was already second-guessing the joke that popped into my head, but it came tumbling out of my mouth anyway. “He has such a hard-on for rules, I bet he jerks off to the school handbook.”
Jesse backed away, a shocked-yet-delighted look lighting up his face. Like even though we’d been chatting for the last few minutes, he actually saw me now for the first time, like I’d materialized before his eyes.
It sent a surge through me.
A pop of thunder cracked just as the last sandbag came off the dump truck. Everyone scattered. I wondered if Jesse might say good-bye to me, but I couldn’t find him in the melee and I didn’t want to linger like a stalker. Well, I did, but Elise and Morgan were hungry, so the three of us hustled, sore and limp, back up the river toward Morgan’s car.
I had her passenger door handle half-open when a pair of hands squeezed my hips. I buckled because I’m super-ticklish and also because of the sheer surprise of Jesse Ford touching me. He snatched my phone away. I tried wrestling it back from him . . . but not with enough force to actually take it, because even though I’d only ever kissed two boys in my lifetime, I wasn’t a total dummy.
Fending me off with one hand, Jesse plugged in his phone number with the other and then sent himself a text from my phone so he’d have mine. Then he returned my phone with a wink and shuffled off to catch up with his friends.
I checked my sent messages. He’d written, Jesse, you are hands down the hottest senior guy. Also charming, funny, and kind to small animals. Can I pretty pretty please have all of your babies?
I steadied myself against Morgan’s car and tried to catch my breath.
“What was that about?” Elise asked, one eyebrow curiously raised, as she climbed in.
“Nothing,” I said, playing it cool. “Jesse just wanted to ask me something.”
Morgan flipped down her visor and adjusted it so she could see into the backseat. “Hey, Elise, did I ever tell you how”—and this was where I started trying to cover Morgan’s mouth with my hand, because I knew what she was about to say—“Keeley would make me pretend to be Jesse when we were in middle school? She had a whole scene worked out—dialogue, costumes, and everything.”
Elise leaned forward so her head was in the front seat with us. “Umm, why am I only hearing this now?”
Morgan looked at me, her lips pressed together like she was about to burst. Though she wanted to, she wouldn’t tell Elise unless I gave her permission. She was that good of a friend.
I wasn’t embarrassed for Elise to know. My crush on Jesse Ford wasn’t something burning and constant and tortured. Okay, maybe it had been when I was in middle school, but I blame that on the introduction of hormones into my bloodstream. Once I got to high school, it turned into something much quieter, something I hardly thought about beyond silently acknowledging how hot Jesse looked on whatever day, or momentarily wishing I was whichever pretty girl he’d be kissing in the hallway as I walked past them. Because by that time, I had matured enough to understand that Jesse and I would never happen.
As soon as I gave Morgan a nod, she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “Keeley would make me draw on a moustache and get down on one knee with a Ring Pop and beg her to marry me!”
I quickly clarified, “Just remember, Elise, this was middle school. Like, long before either of us had boobs.” Because Elise sometimes made little comments about how fun-loving or free-spirited I was, which were all polite versions of immature. Part of me could actually imagine her thinking I still acted this way.
Then I swatted Morgan. “You kind of sucked at it.”
“How could you say that?”
Turning to Elise, I explained, “There was no artistry to her performance. I’d have to keep reminding her to talk in a deep voice and—”
“Sorry I’m not as big of a ham as you are!”
“Whatever. I made the best of it. My love of Jesse transcended your awful acting.”
Morgan was laughing so hard she could barely get the next question out. “Wait a second! What were the names of your three kids again?”
“Jesse Jr., Jamie, and”—the last name we said together—“baby Juliette.”
Elise settled back in her seat and pinned the swoop of her hair with a bobby pin. She’d been growing out her bangs since Christmas. She laughed too, but more out of politeness, respect for a friendship that predated her.
Elise grew up in Hillsdale, where Saint Ann’s Church was. Morgan knew her from Sunday school and then teen youth group.
I remember the first time I met her at a church picnic Morgan had dragged me to when we were in seventh grade. Morgan kept telling me how alike Elise and I were, how much we had in common. I took this as a compliment about our friendship, that if Morgan had to make a new friend, she’d pick the most Keeley person she could find. I pictured Elise as a sweeter, churchier version of me.
And she was, at first glance. Elise was thin and delicate with a brown bob that fell just past her chin and a silver cross pendant that hung in the hollow of her collarbone. I’m not sure if she was surprised that I was coming with Morgan to the picnic, because she’d only saved one extra chair. She stood up and offered both chairs to Morgan and me, and sat in the grass by our feet. I appreciated the show of respect.
But it might have been because Elise was afraid of me. I remember saying all kinds of borderline inappropriate things to her to be funny, like stringing together a bunch of curse words or making dirty jokes or whatever. Morgan kept laughing nervously and telling Elise, “She’s kidding, she’s kidding,” to which Elise quickly forced a smile and replied lightly, “Oh, totally, I knew that.”
We were in line for hot dogs when Elise pointed out a boy with flippy hair and mirrored sunglasses playing his guitar to accompany a pastor singing a Jesus song. She leaned in and said to me, “I used to be so hot for that guy, but it turns out he’s the absolute worst kisser on the planet.” And she stuck out her tongue and rolled it around like someone having a seizure, and then made a gag face. “I can’t even see his cuteness anymore. He’s, like, tainted.”
Neither Morgan nor I had ever French-kissed anyone. We were still playing those pretend games at her house.
“She’s not boy crazy or anything,” Morgan whispered to me later on the ride home, as if she could read my mind. “She’s just . . . uh . . . not shy.” And then she threw in, “Like you!” to put me at ease.
Of course, after Elise’s dad lost his job and they moved to Aberdeen, I saw plenty of Elise’s sweet and churchy side, and I think that’s ultimately what I liked best about her, those two identities mashed up together. She was super-sweet with her little brothers, and if we came over when she was babysitting, she’d be playing with them just as much as hanging out with us. And she never talked shit about anyone, even people who completely deserved it, like Wes. Meanwhile, her phone was full of numbers, boys we’d meet at the mall or the movie theater or who went to her church. Elise wasn’t so much interested in having a boyfriend as she was in having someone to crush on.
I think, at first anyway, having a boy to obsess about kept Elise from feeling jealous of what Morgan and I had together. Because as close as the three of us were, every so often there were moments where our threesome was eclipsed by the previous twosome. I say this with no offense to Elise, of course. But you can only have one best friend. My friendship with Morgan went all the way to the cradle, because our moms were best friends too. She couldn’t compete with that.
Later on, though, when it was both Morgan and Elise getting that kind of attention together, I became the odd girl out.
“Anyway, Jesse and I weren’t flirting,” I corrected her. “We were joking around.”
Again, there is a difference. One I knew all too well.
Morgan cleared her throat. “Keeley, he checked out your butt as you grabbed us bottles of water from the cooler.”
I couldn’t play off my shock. I spun toward her. “He did not. Shut up.”
“He totally did! He watched you walk the entire way!”
I wanted so badly to believe her. And maybe it was the truth. But we’d both heard what her ex-boyfriend Wes had said about me, the kind of girl I was, and I knew Morgan wanted to undo that damage. It was why she broke up with him in the first place.
So there was that possibility too. And for me, it was the possibility that seemed more likely.
Because like I said before, I had only kissed two boys in my lifetime. Neither one was from Aberdeen. They were both friends of boys that Elise and Morgan were interested in.
We’d get dressed up cute and make the drive to Hillsdale, or some other town, to meet them. At first, it was more Elise’s thing, but then boys started asking Morgan for her number.
Over the past year, I lost count of how many times Morgan or Elise would stand off a little ways with the boys they liked, whispering to them or showing them something on their phones, leaving me with whoever else had tagged along. Unlike my friends, I never knew how to act. I’d either completely clam up, afraid I’d say something dumb, or I’d swing too far the other way and say, like, many many many dumb things.
In the last three years, I’d met lots of boys, obviously. But I’d only ever kissed two.
* * *
By the time Morgan dropped me off, it had started to rain yet again. Lightly, but the way the wind whipped through the trees, it was clearly the beginning of another big storm. The weathermen were right after all.
Mom’s car was long gone. I knew she’d be working. The only patch of driveway that wasn’t getting slick was underneath Dad’s old work truck. It sat in our driveway like a clunker because Dad didn’t drive anymore, but it still ran fine. We’d been trying to sell it forever but there were no takers. Mom said Dad was asking too much. Dad defended his price by listing off the truck’s attributes—how dependable it was, the low mileage, how he’d splurged on new brakes right before his accident.
Before I went in the house, I climbed inside it and started it up, letting the engine run for a few minutes as I looked at Jesse’s text again. I did it to make sure that the battery wouldn’t die. I was hoping it wouldn’t sell and then I’d get to drive it when I turned seventeen next March.
I jogged the path to our house, a clapboard cottage with shingles the color of buttercream and the front door painted robin’s-egg blue. There were three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the first floor, plus a small attic with a pull-down ladder and a musty root cellar, which had always scared the crap out of me. We had a front porch just big enough for a swing, and the moss-covered roof came out from directly under my bedroom window.
I crept inside, knowing Dad would be sleeping.
Dad had become nocturnal ever since his accident. He’d spend every night on his computer, and then sleep pretty much the whole day away. It was easier for him, I think, to be asleep while everyone else in town was out doing the things he couldn’t anymore. So I wasn’t surprised to find his computer on. He used two chairs, one to sit in and one with a couch pillow on it where he could prop up his leg. I cleared away a coffee cup and a dirty plate, turned off the monitor, pushed the chairs back in, picked up his cane, and set it next to the stairs so it would be waiting for him when he woke up and came down again.
I went into the kitchen and made myself a grilled cheese. My sandwich in one hand and my phone in the other, I reread Jesse’s text a few more times before I forced myself to delete it.
It wasn’t even hard, because I was 99 percent sure I’d never hear from Jesse again. I didn’t even blame Wes for making me think so pessimistically. It was just my reality, to never have a boy be interested in me romantically for more than one random moment. Like a TV show you don’t like but you end up watching anyway, because there’s nothing else on.
And remember, this was Jesse Ford. Not some less-cute friend of the boys Elise and Morgan were interested in. Jesse could get any girl in school he wanted. He was so charming and funny and disarming that it didn’t matter if he wasn’t the most traditionally handsome guy. It didn’t even matter if the girl he was after had a boyfriend. The year before, some meathead football player found out that his cheerleader girlfriend had secretly kissed Jesse, and he punched Jesse square in the jaw in the middle of the cafeteria. The picture of the aftermath, Jesse proudly grinning with a bloody lip and a purple cheek, was still his profile picture.
I couldn’t imagine a single scenario where he’d want to be with me.
Monday, May 9
Cloudy, scattered thunderstorms throughout the day, high of 42°F
Jesse texted me on my way to first period the next day.
Not a message, but a video he’d taken of the jacked-up speaker in his homeroom during morning announcements. That thing was so crackly, you couldn’t make out one single word. Jesse spun the camera from the speaker to his confused face, back to the speaker, back to his confused face, and then cupped a hand to his ear like an old man hard of hearing, saying, “What? I’m sorry, what? Could you say that one more time?”
Jesse regularly posted videos of himself online. They were mostly funny, sometimes stupid, usually ridiculous. Our entire school watched them. But this video was only for me, one he made just to make me laugh. He never put it up.
It sounds weird, but I consider that my very first love letter.
I agonized over how to respond for the next two periods, but then, a gift from heaven, I spotted a mistake on the bulletin board outside the cafeteria.
place an order for you’re yearbooks today!
The Guy Who’s Going Places! aside, our school didn’t have the best reputation. Kids from nearby towns made fun of our tattered jerseys, our saggy, shedding pom-poms, our basketball hoops without nets. Only a handful of Aberdeen seniors went on to college each year. The others took jobs at the Walmart, joined the army, worked for their parents. Morgan’s plan was to go to beauty school, though I guess that’s a kind of college.
I get that college isn’t for everyone, but the bulletin board was an embarrassment, so I stopped to snap a picture with one hand, framing the shot so you could see me giving a thumbs-down with the other. The letters had been individually hung, so I used my fingernail to ease out the staples and let both the apostrophe and the unnecessary E fall on the floor, and took another picture, this time with a thumbs-up.
When I turned around, Levi Hamrick was glaring at me with his arms folded. I think he was trying to guilt me into picking up the papers from the floor. Or maybe he was pissed because I was blatantly using my phone. He probably considered himself an unofficial hall monitor; he was that big of a geek. I pretended I didn’t see him and disappeared into the crush of students heading to fourth period.
After that, it was on. Jesse and I texted each other on the regular, different funny observations and pictures all day long. Once, he sent me a picture of the janitor’s ass crack. I replied with a covert video of Mr. Kirk digging in his ear with his pinky and then smelling it. That sort of thing. A couple of times I’d send Jesse a joke between periods and hear him laugh at whatever I’d written from somewhere down the hall, and I’d be soaring on cloud nine.
Entertaining Jesse became my one and only focus. I totally slacked on my history quiz, I blew off grabbing pizza at Mineo’s with Morgan and Elise when they scored an off-campus pass for lunch. The only thing I cared about was making sure I sent him something funny or clever enough to make him want to write me back one more time. I probably took a hundred selfies before I got one pretty enough to send, and forced myself to wait at least one class period before responding to whatever text he’d sent me, so he wouldn’t think I was too eager. But whenever my phone buzzed with a new message from him, I’d feel absolutely euphoric.
When they’d returned from church camp the summer before our sophomore year, I’d immediately suspected Elise was no longer a virgin. Morgan would neither confirm nor deny it for me when I straight-up asked her, which I took as confirmation that Elise had, indeed, lost it. Elise would never tell me herself.
Morgan promised me she was definitely still a virgin, but admitted doing “stuff ” with a boy named Douglas Bardugo she had also met at camp. Thankfully, she was much more forthcoming with info, and she stayed up an entire night answering even my most insanely personal questions—“Okay, but what if a guy tries to go to third base with you after you just peed?”—shyly but also with a level of clinical maturity reserved for teaching toddlers the actual names of their private parts. I remember leaving her house the next morning feeling exactly that way, like an inexperienced kid. And nearly two years later, I still basically was.
That’s why, I initially kept Jesse’s texts a secret from my friends. I was ashamed of how much each one meant to me.
Also, as amazing as it felt to have Jesse’s attention, I knew every text could be the last.
He’d been driving a sophomore girl with insanely large boobs to and from school up until a few weeks ago, but I’d noticed that she was back to riding the bus. I still couldn’t assume he was single, because Jesse also had a long-standing thing with another senior named Victoria Dunkle. They were on and off, on and off, but it wasn’t drama. It was easy between them. When she wasn’t with anyone, and he wasn’t either, they’d find their way back together.
I tried forcing myself to face the reality of my situation. Maybe I’d caught Jesse in a sweet spot, but half a week of texting was barely anything. If I added up the actual number of texts sent and received, it felt a lot longer, but that kind of crazy girl math just made me seem, well, crazy. And it wasn’t like Jesse was actually pursuing me in public. We were secret pen pals, that was it.
I even made myself remember the crappy things Wes had said about me to Morgan to kill any last bit of lingering hope left in my heart. Although that backfired big-time, because I ended up fantasizing that Jesse and I would run into Wes one day, our hands in each other’s back pockets. I’d point him out, whisper to Jesse the awful things Wes had said about me, and Jesse—in all his hotness—would stare Wes down and laugh at what a spineless little turd he was.
I didn’t beat myself up too badly for that daydream. Even if it was the longest of long shots, it still felt therapeutic.
Wednesday, May 11
Scattered showers in the morning, growing steadier throughout the afternoon, high of 40°F
Morgan and Elise were planning what outfits to wear to some youth group thing during lunch when they saw Jesse’s picture pop up on my phone.
“Wait up. You once filled an entire notebook practicing your hyphenated signature if you married Jesse Ford, and now you two have been texting it up and you never bothered to tell us?” Morgan said us, and she even glanced incredulously over at Elise, but I knew she was really only talking about herself.
“There’s nothing to tell! We’re just joking around with each other!” I wished it were more than that, obviously, but it wasn’t.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Morgan said, grabbing my phone. She and Elise leaned in to each other to look at the picture.
Jesse had gone into town for lunch. Or maybe he’d taken the picture on his way to school; I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was a shot of him making a very sweet and angelic face, eyes looking up and to the right, a hint of a smile, in front of some caution tape and a service truck from the power company.
“I don’t get it,” Elise said. “What’s the joke?”
“Look closer,” I said.
There’d been lots of electrical glitches with the recent rainfall, little sizzling power outages here and there, and there was always a van from the electric company around to patch something up or pump water out of a manhole. Anyway, the men had cordoned off the middle of the street with bright orange cones and posted a sign that Jesse made sure was in focus just over his shoulder. It read danger: electric manhole.
I expected the girls to both make gross-out faces, because I was acutely aware that the way Jesse and I were talking was nothing like the way they talked to boys. But Morgan put a hand on my back and said, “Yup. This is flirty. No doubt about it.”
Elise looked less convinced. “I mean, maybe? I’m not sure. It’s kind of too weird to say.” She tapped her finger to her lips. “Though I guess any reference a boy makes to his hole could be considered flirty.”
I got a rush of good feelings from Elise saying that. She was the boy expert.
I’d only wanted them to look at the one picture, but they insisted on scrolling through all our correspondence. They examined every one of Jesse’s messages to decipher hidden clues or hookup potential. They also critiqued every one of my responses.
Elise tapped the screen. “Now wait. Okay, see? What he sent you here is definitely flirty.” She looked up at me with genuine surprise. I would have been insulted, if it hadn’t been Jesse Ford we were talking about. Because of all the Saint Ann’s boys Elise had in her orbit, there wasn’t one of Jesse’s caliber among them.
Morgan and Elise shared a look. “Because he used the doggy smiley, not just a smiley smiley,” Elise said. “And you kind of blew it by just writing LOL. I mean, Keeley, come on. You’re not that basic.”
“Yes, I am. I am that basic and you both know it!” I tried to wrestle my phone away.
Elise held it out of my reach. “What are you going to write back to that manhole picture? You need to have a flirty response. Otherwise he’s going to think you’re not interested!”
That seemed completely impossible. But suddenly our entire text history was recast in my mind. Was Jesse actually real-deal flirting with me this whole time?
“I don’t know,” I said, suddenly panicked. “Maybe I should send him a doggy smiley back.”
“No!” they both screamed.
“Wait! Two seconds ago you both agreed doggy smiley was flirty!” I wrestled my phone back. “How about I send a banana? Banana is code for penis, right?”
Even though I was totally joking, Morgan held my arms while Elise pried my phone free again. Together they worked out a response for me. I made a big deal about it, sighing like they were cramping my style, but honestly, it was a relief. Usually when Morgan and Elise talked about boys, I had to occupy myself with finding a better song on the radio or getting us snacks. I was glad to have their help. I really didn’t know what I was doing.
They went all emoji for the first text—a lightning bolt, a scared smiley face, and then the one with the girl crossing her arms like hell no. They followed that up with a second text. You should probably see a doctor about that ASAP.
“How is that going to make him think I’m interested?”
“Trust us,” Elise said.
Jesse wrote back before the end of the period. So that wasn’t cute? #flirtingfail
And then, Don’t worry. I’ll do better next time.
I couldn’t believe it. I almost didn’t believe it.
And then Jesse made good on his promise.
Thursday, May 12
Rain showers, heavy at times, high of 40°F
Spring Formal tickets went on sale the next morning, and Morgan and Elise and I put our coats and hats and scarves into our lockers and headed to the folding table set up outside the gym. We were about to round the corner when we heard music. There was Jesse, positioned next to the ticket table, dancing to songs coming out of his phone speaker. He had on a button-up that was open like a vest to his bare chest. A stripe of his boxer shorts—polka dot—lifted slightly above the waist of his jeans. He had a white sweatband across his forehead, and matching ones on each wrist. His friend Zito was holding a key-chain-size disco ball over Jesse’s head.
A pop song, one that was always on the radio, was finishing up when we got in line. It was the kind of song a boy would pretend not to know or would say was stupid girl music. But Jesse shamelessly lip-synched along to the words, and he even knew the choreography from the video.
Morgan leaned in. “Elise, is Jesse on Dance Committee?”
“Umm, I don’t think so. If he is, he hasn’t come to a single meeting all year.”
“Then what the heck is he doing?”
Even if I’d had an answer for that, I couldn’t have said it. I was laughing too hard.
The pop song ended and a heavy metal song started up, chugging bass guitar and throaty screams. Jesse dramatically swatted the disco ball out of Zito’s hands, and it rolled down the hall. Then he alternated between moshing and thrashing and bouncing like a pogo stick. There also may have been a jump kick and an air guitar solo, but I was trying not to stare.
When we reached the front of the line, his eyes went wide and he lunged at me. “Keeley!” I barely had a chance to hand over my ten dollars before he pulled me toward him.
“Is this your jam, Keeley?” He kept the whole dancing routine up, not missing a beat.
“Oh? Okay. No worries.” He tapped his phone and skipped to a hip-hop song. “Well, how are you at break dancing?” he asked, threading his fingers through mine and snapping our arms to make a wave.
“I’m terrible. Terrible at break dancing,” I said, shaking free. Everyone was looking at us, but it wasn’t embarrassing so much as exciting. It was like our texts were becoming public.
“Okay then, how about the robot?” He switched up his movements to make them jerky and stiff. “I’ve been programmed to cut rugs,” he said, this time in a metallic computer voice.
“You’re crazy,” I told him, backing up before he could grab me again, which he tried to do. I hustled over to the table, grabbed my ticket for the dance, and pulled Morgan and Elise in front of me as human shields. I was so aware of where Jesse had touched me moments before, how that hand was ever so slightly hotter than the rest of my body.
“There’s no way I’m letting you off that easy at Spring Formal!” he called out over the crowd. “You can’t hide from me all night!”
We ran off and ducked into the nearest bathroom.
“See!” Morgan said. “He clearly likes you, Keeley!”
“Seconded,” said Elise. “You guys are totally, totally hooking up at the dance.”
I pulled my hair up into a ponytail and fanned the back of my neck. Instead of talking myself down with some Debbie Downer version of Keeley, this isn’t happening, stop being crazy, the words “Maybe I should buy a new dress” blurted out. My plan had been to wear something I already owned to save money, but now that seemed like a terrible idea.
Elise and Morgan shared a pleased look.
“We’ll go shopping tonight!” Elise said. “I’ll drive.”
Except it started raining hard around dinner, and Elise’s mom didn’t want her driving in the dark to the big mall over in Ridgewood—a wealthy town exactly between Aberdeen and Waterford City—especially since she only had her learner’s permit. They ended up getting into a big fight about it and then she couldn’t go at all.
Morgan’s mom needed their car, but Mrs. Dorsey called my mom and must have given her a serious guilt trip, because to my surprise, Mom put aside her paperwork for the night—something she hardly ever did—and offered to take Morgan and me shopping.
If she hadn’t been with us, I would have never gotten that beautiful, beautiful dress. Though I’m still not sure if that would have been a good thing or not.
My mom ultimately decided to splurge on my dress because Spring Formal would be my very first dance (Aberdeen High only had two—Spring Formal for juniors and seniors, and senior prom, to which, surprise, surprise, I had never been invited), and also because I was supposed to pick something special for my sixteenth birthday, like maybe a locket or whatever, but I hadn’t found anything I liked and two months had already gone by.
This was after we’d both blinked at the price tag. I didn’t think to check how much the dress was before falling in love with it. I still feel crappy about that.
But she must have known what we were in for. Mom was the one to wander into Pearson’s because she recognized the song being played on the shiny black piano by a real live pianist. I’d never been inside before. Morgan, either, even though we’d heard that the bathrooms there were so much nicer than the ones at Macy’s. But Pearson’s was the kind of department store where you felt the salespeople looking at you when you walked past them. They’d smile friendly, but you knew they were quietly judging whether you had the money to shop there. We definitely didn’t.
When the song ended, Mom nudged Morgan and me onto the escalator with a hand on each of our backs, suggesting we check out what dresses they had here, since I hadn’t had much luck in the other stores. Morgan and I gave each other a look like Umm, okay, sure.
Pearson’s carried about half the clothes of Macy’s. The racks looked almost empty. So it didn’t take me long to spot it. A short shift, practically a minidress. It had an exposed silk lining that was the same shade as how my mom took her tea—with the cup almost half full of cream—or as tan as I got after the first solid summer day of lying out by the river. Over it was a shell of ivory lace, a pattern made up of daisies with their petal edges knit together. The sleeves were also lace, but bare underneath, no lining, and three-quarter length. A thin gold zipper ran up the back.
I never imagined myself wearing something so sophisticated to Spring Formal. I was thinking maybe a dress with a fun pouffy skirt that would lift up when I twirled on the dance floor. Or maybe one with hidden pockets for my lipstick and my phone so I wouldn’t need a purse. I’d tried on a few of those dresses already, and while they looked okay, none of them made me feel particularly pretty. I didn’t wear fancy dresses often, but that seemed like an essential criterion.
“Oh yes, please!” Morgan begged when she saw me pausing over it. “Please try that one on, Keeley!”
I wanted to before she said it. Though if Elise had been with us, I’m not sure I would have. Or if I did, it would have been more for the joke, a not-fancy girl clowning her way into a fancy dress. Since it was just Morgan with me, I didn’t have to hide my wanting that dress inside a laugh. I carefully lifted the hanger from the rack and carried it in front of me like a waiter delivering a hot plate.
I came out of the dressing room and Mom’s eyes went big. She said it looked like the kind of dress girls in California wore in the 1960s. Though I don’t know how she could have known that, since my mom had lived in Aberdeen her whole life. Morgan said, “Keeley,” then covered her mouth with her hand. She did that a couple of times. “You look like . . . a woman.”
“And you sound like a tampon commercial,” I said. But as I turned and twisted in front of the three-way mirror, I understood what she meant.
There’d already been a few times that year when I was out with Morgan and Elise and the people we were with thought I was younger than them by a year, sometimes two.
I’d been wearing my hair the same way since I was twelve—all the same length, cut straight across, though thankfully I had given up on bright-colored plastic barrettes. My hair was superfine, practically baby hair, and it never seemed to grow any longer than my shoulders. Morgan was always trying to get me to cut in some layers or maybe try a bob or bangs, but I didn’t dare, sure that having a cooler, more daring haircut would make the rest of me look even more babyish.
The dress was snug in the right places and it fit me perfectly. It was the sort of dress where you didn’t want to have boobs, which was lucky for me. Boobs would’ve made it look weird. It was more about clean lines and showing off your legs. Morgan always said I was the skinniest nonathletic person she knew, and I never wore short-shorts because I worried that my legs looked too spindly and sticklike. They didn’t in that dress. Everything about it was working.
I’d been hoping to feel pretty. In that dress, I was beautiful. I didn’t know before that moment that there was such a huge difference between the two. It was so lovely that I actually felt ashamed as I changed back into my jeans and baggy cardigan and my galoshes in front of it.
When we reached the register, the three of us couldn’t stop touching the fabric. It looked delicate, but the lace had weight and stiffness and the tiniest bit of shimmer to it. Morgan pointed out how the zipper had a little gold heart charm attached to the pull.
That’s when I first noticed the price.
I glanced up at Mom, not sure what to do, but she immediately waved me off like it was no big deal. Which . . . okay. I could maybe play along with that. But instead of opening her wallet, I saw her pay the salesman at the register with wrinkled twenties and fives and ones she tried to discreetly pull from an old greeting card envelope inside her purse. A secret place where she’d been saving up. I shouldn’t have been embarrassed, because money is money, but I was. I pretended not to see the old envelope and instead chatted with the salesman and with Morgan about the rain, hoping they wouldn’t notice it either.
But as Mom handed over that thick stack of bills, I did freak for a second. There’s no way a dress can be as special and forever as a sweet-sixteen locket, but this one was just as expensive. Mom had clearly been squirreling away money for a while. Things were tight at home. Since Dad was no longer working, Mom took on the lion’s share of duties, financial and otherwise. She worked all the time. I mean that literally. If she wasn’t seeing patients, then she was cleaning the house, cooking for us, grocery shopping. I barely ever saw her sitting down.
She picked up any extra hours she could, and after bills were paid, anything left over went into my college fund. Affording college was Mom’s number one priority. She wouldn’t have taken any money from there. She would have sacrificed something herself. A lunch skipped, a coffee, maybe a new sweater. Probably all of those things, multiplied several times over.
I bet the salesman saw the second-guessing on my face, because he smiled and cooed, “Your boyfriend is going to die when he sees you in this.”
The word boyfriend echoed inside me so loud, I was afraid everyone might hear the emptiness.
Morgan gave me a hopeful squeeze, which was, thankfully, discreet. My mom knocked into me and teasingly said, “I remember when you used to be so disgusted whenever I kissed your dad, even just a quick peck on the cheek. Ahh, how times have changed.”
I made a gag face. “Hate to break it to you, Mom, but those times have not changed. They will never, ever, ever change.” Mom pulled out the elastic of my ponytail, like she was affronted, even though we both knew the truth, that my parents never kissed anymore.
I stayed quiet as the salesman zipped the dress up in a white garment bag with Pearson’s embroidered on it in gold script, instead of a normal paper shopping bag. I couldn’t remember the eye color of the first boy I ever kissed. Or if the second was an Erik or an Eric. But for the possibility that Jesse Ford might be the third, the dress was worth the money. That memory would last way longer than any locket.
When we dropped Morgan off, her mom ran out in her bathrobe and with an umbrella. It was raining hard, but she wanted me to unzip the garment bag so she could see the dress. Even though Morgan and I were the ones who’d spotted it, she said, “Oh, Jill! It’s absolutely gorgeous. It must have cost a fortune.”
Mom bit her lip. “It wasn’t that much.”
Mrs. Dorsey smirked. “Everything at Pearson’s is expensive.” And then she reached across the car and swatted my mom. “But you know what I think. Every girl should have one expensive dress.”
“When can I get one?” Morgan said.
“When you bring me home a report card without Cs on it, we can talk.” Back to my mother, she said, “Remember how I begged my mom to let me spend my confirmation money on this . . . ?”
Mrs. Dorsey opened her robe. She was in a clingy red lace dress.
“Annie! I can’t believe you can fit into that!” After her divorce, Mrs. Dorsey lost about forty pounds, and she and Morgan sometimes wore the same clothes. Mom sighed. “I wish I had the time to exercise.”
I turned to her. “Mom, what are you talking about? You look great.”
“It’s not about weight loss. It’s about health. Physical and mental,” Mrs. Dorsey said. “And you won’t find time unless you make time,” she told Mom.
Morgan groaned. “Mom, please quit quoting your self-help books.”
On our way home, Mom opened my garment bag up again, carefully removed the price tags, and threw them into a trash can, along with our receipt, when we stopped at the blinking red light along Main Street. On the rest of the drive, we came up with a hundred and one future events where I might wear the dress again to help justify the expense and also decided on a reduced price we would tell Dad if he asked.
Mom was not someone who lied, but in this case, she made an exception. First off, men don’t understand how expensive clothes can be, especially not a guy like Dad. But also, for Dad’s protection.
“He wants the best for you, Keeley,” she assured me. “He hates that he can’t contribute. You know how proud the Hewitts are. I think it’s in their DNA. I don’t want him to feel bad for something out of his control.”
It was a little more than two years ago that Dad fell through the floor of a rotten hayloft while repairing someone’s barn. Dropped twenty feet onto a cement floor, shattered his hip, and snapped his left femur in half. He had multiple surgeries and steel rods and plates screwed in. He could still walk, but not without a limp, because his leg could no longer bend. That was the last carpenter job he’d taken.
Anyway, none of our conspiring even mattered. When we walked in, Dad was on his computer, and he barely looked up from the screen as he asked, “Dress success?”
“Dress success,” I confirmed, already halfway up the stairs.
Saturday, May 14
Heavy rainfall, possible flood conditions, high of 43°F
On the morning of Spring Formal, I woke up early at Morgan’s house, as if we had school. Except I wasn’t groggy or begging for another five minutes of sleep, like on a school day. As soon as I opened my eyes, possible texts that I might send to Jesse Ford burst inside my brain like popcorn, hundreds of different funny-yet-flirty ways to say good morning.
I settled on taking a “before” picture with my hair extra mussed up and wild, my eyes half open and heavy-lidded, mouth open in a lion-size pretend yawn. Right as I took it, Morgan lifted her head off the pillow and squinted away from the glow of my phone screen. It was still dark out because of the storm. Actually, I don’t think the sun ever came out that day.
She sleepily said, “Let him text you first, Keeley.”
I laughed dryly, like Morgan had it wrong. “I’m just sending him a stupid joke. No declarations of love or anything like that.” Even though, in my own weird language, that was exactly what every text I sent to Jesse was.
Morgan tried to take my phone away, but her arms were heavy and floppy and I easily outmaneuvered her. She eventually rolled back over to the wall. “Okay, but remember,” she said through a yawn, “you don’t want to make Jesse laugh tonight. You want him to kiss you.”
She was right, of course.
I looked at the picture again. I didn’t look cute. I looked crazy.
I quickly deleted it. Then I lay in Morgan’s bed and watched the plastic blinds get sucked in and out of her half-open window, watched her ceiling fan spin from the wind outside. I listened to the rain. I went over the instructions I’d found in a beauty magazine on how I should do my eyes. I dreamed about kissing Jesse Ford on my tiptoes, hopefully with his blazer draped over my shoulders to stave off the chill from the rain they were predicting, because in my mind there was no more romantic gesture than when a boy does that for a girl. I silently willed Jesse to text me. To give me a sign that he was thinking about me, too. Or even that he was awake. I would have gladly settled for that.
My phone finally buzzed in the afternoon, while I was sitting in the Dorseys’ dining room–turned–salon, Morgan’s mom loading my hair up with bobby pins.
Mrs. Dorsey used to have her own salon on Main Street, but after Mr. Dorsey left, she broke the lease to save money and started working from home. She put a hair-washing sink next to the washer and dryer in the mudroom. And she transformed her dining room into a beauty parlor, selling her dining set at a big garage sale and replacing it with a salon chair and mirror.
Morgan pulled up a chair close to me. One hand held a sleeve of Chips Ahoy! for us to share, the other a photo I’d printed off the computer of how I wanted my hair to look so her mom could reference it. I’d figured Morgan would do my hair herself, but she didn’t want to take the chance that she’d mess up. The stakes were too high.
Morgan’s hair was already finished. Her curls had looked more pageant-y when her mom first unwrapped them from the big barrel curling iron, ribbons of dark chocolate, but they’d already begun to fall out the way Mrs. Dorsey had told us they would, turning looser and beachier by the minute.
Mrs. Dorsey sprayed me with hairspray and turned me around to face the mirror. Mrs. Dorsey mostly did old people’s hair around town, and I wasn’t sure she’d be able to pull this look off for me, but it came out perfect. She’d parted my hair off to the side, then braided a few pieces and pinned everything into a bun set low and off-center. It was pretty and special, but hopefully not so much so that Jesse would realize how less pretty and un-special my hair normally looked.
Right then, my phone buzzed in my hand. Two texts from Jesse, back to back.
The first was a picture he’d taken of an old photograph. There was a bit of glare from the plastic sleeve, so it must have been inside a photo album. The picture was of a little Jesse, maybe nine or ten, probably taken at some family wedding. Sweaty-headed, surrounded by adults, in the middle of busting a serious move on the dance floor. His arms in a V shape over his head, one foot lifted off the floor, chin jutted forward, eyes closed, mouth open wide enough to see his bottom molars. His hair was white, the center of the sun. Also, little Jesse was wearing a freaking mini-tuxedo.
My heart liquefied, hot wax dripping over my ribs.
His second text said Warning: This is my body’s automatic response to hearing Cupid Shuffle. Just so you’ll be ready for me tonight.
I was ready, Jesse Ford. Oh God, was I ready.
My mom was supposed to make it over for pictures, but she got behind seeing patients, so Mrs. Dorsey took some with her phone and texted them to Mom. Mrs. Dorsey also pulled out an old photo album of when she, my mom, and my dad were all in high school together. Spring Formal was called Spring Fling then. My mom looked beautiful. And so young, her hair the color of ginger ale. I’d never seen it that color in real life, only in pictures. This might sound gross, but my dad was a total fox, tall and lean and tan with dark hair and even darker eyebrows. He had his arms folded, his chin lifted, his legs spread apart just slightly. He oozed confidence. In a couple of the shots, I saw my grandparents, and great-grandparents too, all Hewitts, Dad’s side. Mom had lost her parents when she was young, and the Hewitts basically adopted her once she and my dad started dating.
Just for kicks, Morgan and I tried to duplicate one of the poses together, where our moms were both doing some kind of weird curtsey to each other. Then Mrs. Dorsey sprinted outside and pulled the car inside their garage so Morgan and I wouldn’t get wet climbing in.
At that point, the storm was more annoying than scary, even though it was the one we’d stacked sandbags to prepare for.
Our preparations were different. We were thinking of the dash from her car into the gym. Morgan had on her pea coat, plus a rain poncho on top of that, plus rain boots and matching umbrella. Her silver heels were tucked inside a plastic bag. She also had the genius idea of gathering up her long skirt with rubber bands so it wouldn’t drag in the puddles. I had my winter coat on, my umbrella, and my rain boots. I tucked the shoes I was borrowing from Morgan, a pair of gold sandals, into my coat pockets.
As we pulled out of the garage, I couldn’t have been more excited. I’d looked forward to Spring Formal since I started high school. But it was about going with my two closest friends, dancing all night long, having a great time, taking a million pictures.
I still wanted those things, but now there was something else. A huge thing that had seemed completely unimaginable one week ago but now appeared within reach. And even though I couldn’t see the stars through the rain clouds, I had this feeling that they’d magically aligned for me.
Spring Formal was supposed to kick off at seven o’clock, but by a quarter to eight, Morgan and I and most of the other juniors and seniors from our high school were still stuck in our cars, engines running and headlights shining through the gray, waiting for the rain to let up enough to make a run for the gym. I’d never seen it come down so hard in my life. The rain made talking difficult, the sound of it thundering on the roof of Morgan’s car. Which was fine. I was honestly too nervous to talk.
So far there’d been no sign of Jesse. When would he get here? What would happen between us tonight? His two texts from earlier were my asthma inhaler. They kept me breathing. I must have reread them a hundred times.
Morgan gently guided my hand away from my mouth. I hadn’t realized it was there. “Your nail polish is going to chip before we even get inside.”
At eight o’clock, the janitor propped the doors open, as if that were the thing keeping us out. I saw inside the gym in brief but steady flashes each time Morgan’s wipers crossed the windshield. Coach Dean spread some towels from the locker room across the wood floor. The other chaperones—Mr. Landau, Ms. Kay, Principal Bundy—stood in a circle and talked for a while, but then opened up some folding chairs and sat in bored silence. Only a handful of students were inside, the ones on Dance Committee like Elise, or kids who’d had their parents drop them off right at the doors. Someone had built a soda can pyramid on the food table. A few guys tossed a Nerf football across the empty dance floor. Two girls swayed to music we couldn’t hear.
The rest of us were trapped.
It sucked for everyone, but way worse for us girls, I think, because the guys were in khakis and button-ups, nothing special. The girls were the ones who were dressed up. And we’d dressed for how May weather was supposed to be, not what it actually was. That meant we had the heating vents pointed at our bare legs, legs that had been bronzed with either lotions or light bulbs, but not the sun. Even though our fingers and toes were painted juicy watermelon pinks and strawberry reds, they were numb from the cold. We had spritzed on too much perfume, blooming flowers and freshly baked angel food cake, because our whole school still had that dry, overcooked radiator smell left over from winter.
Worst of all, we were smothering the prettiest spring dresses with our winter coats.
My down parka definitely showed the extra two months of wear and tear. I’d lost the belt that kept it from looking like a sleeping bag with sleeves. It needed to be washed, but I was too afraid it wouldn’t survive the spin cycle. Already, every time I sat down, a few stray feathers poked free, as if I were not a sixteen-year-old girl, but a molting goose.
We would all soon learn that the cold temperatures were partly to blame for what happened later on. The ground hadn’t ever fully thawed from winter. It was still frozen five inches down, the dirt as hard as concrete. There was nowhere for the rain to go, nothing to soak it up. I didn’t know that at the time. And even if I had, I doubt I would have cared. I was just annoyed that I had to cover up my dress in the first place.
Morgan let her head tip forward until it was resting on the steering wheel. “What if it doesn’t stop? Do you think they’ll cancel it and send us home?”
I feared that too, but I shook my head like the idea was crazy. “They’d better not! Bundy can see everyone out here waiting. Plus, we don’t need the rain to stop. Just slow down a little.”
Although I’d gotten more and more excited as the night passed, Morgan drifted in the opposite direction. I was a bottle of soda shook up, while she defizzed on her way to flat.
Morgan had planned to wear her Spring Formal dress to Wes’s prom. It was strapless, mint green, with a pleated sweetheart bodice that snugly wrapped around her and a long skirt that flowed loosely to the ground. I worried it looked too much like a prom dress, but she accessorized it differently, swapping out the sparkly rhinestone jewelry for her everyday silver horseshoe pendant and a pair of tiny hoop earrings. She did her makeup dewy and fresh, just shimmery shadow, mascara, and a strawberry-colored lip. She’d been so proud of her frugality, though I bet it felt in that moment like a missed opportunity.
I hoped that was all it was.
“You look so beautiful, I’m thinking I might just ditch Jesse and try to score with you tonight.”
She smiled a thin, brokenhearted smile.
As soon as we got in the gym, I’d make sure Morgan had a good time. Maybe I’d have the DJ dedicate some terrible song to her, like the chicken dance or the hokey-pokey, just to embarrass her. I’d come up with something to lift her spirits, to help her forget about Wes. It was the least I could do, all things considered.
Her phone dinged in her lap. “It’s Elise. Someone in the gym heard that a huge tree fell across Basin Street and people had to be diverted.”
I unrolled the passenger window the littlest bit for some air, but the rain blew in sideways, so I rolled it back up. Then I texted Elise myself and asked if any cars were trapped underneath that fallen tree. I was specifically concerned about a black hatchback like the one Jesse drove, but I phrased it in more general terms.
Not that I heard, Elise texted back. But apparently it took a bunch of power lines down. The news guys were already there with their stupid cameras.
Ever since the sandbag day, the news channels had begun showing up in their trucks in anticipation of tonight’s storm. They’d park half in the ditch and film themselves on our riverbanks in the kind of gear you’d expect a fisherman to wear, watching as the river crept closer and closer to sandbags we’d stacked. It became a game for me. Whenever we’d drive past them, I’d reach over and beep Morgan’s horn or yell out her window to mess up their shots.
I imagined Jesse Ford blocks away, his car stuck in traffic on Basin Street. It was practically guaranteed that he’d dress up for Spring Formal wearing something cool, something that would set him apart from the other guys. Like flip-flops and a bow tie. Or maybe he’d go full-on tuxedo, rented, or even some weird retro number from a thrift store. That would be so Jesse.
The rain began to come down hard enough that Morgan’s wipers could barely keep up. She turned them off to save gas or her battery or whatever. After that, we could barely see anything. Morgan reclined her seat as far back as it would go. The navy fabric ceiling had begun to sag away from the roof. The airy pockets looked like an upside-down circus tent. She dragged her fingertips across them and made them flutter like sea waves. The car was old. It was her father’s. It was the one thing he’d left for them after taking off last year.
Morgan wasn’t having fun. That much was clear from the way she’d keep sighing or checking the radar app on her phone. She wasn’t the only one. My phone lit up with whiny, complain-y texts from girls in our homeroom about how bad this whole situation sucked. How over it they were. By that point, we’d been waiting for more than an hour.
So I took it upon myself to keep things fun. Keep everyone’s energy up, keep us excited and primed for a good time. I took a bunch of pictures of Morgan and me and traded them with Elise and other school friends stuck in other cars in other rows of the parking lot. You really couldn’t see anyone’s dresses, so it was mainly us showing off our hair and makeup to each other, but it was something. There weren’t many chances for people to get dressed up in Aberdeen. Basically just church, which my family didn’t go to.
Next, I got everyone to tune their car stereos to the same station so we could pretend we were in the gym together. We seat-danced as best as we could for a couple of songs, but the commercials and breaking weather reports got annoying, so we eventually turned it off.
Then I spotted a feather from my down parka stuck in the daisy lace of my dress. I got Morgan to blow it back and forth across her car with me like a game of Ping-Pong. We got to six passes, but seven seemed impossible, so we quit without trying. I pulled my hands into my coat sleeves to warm them back up and tried to think of some other way to pass the time.
A big crack of lightning lit up the parking lot. Everything glistened for a second.
“I hope we’ll be able to get home,” Morgan said nervously. “Also, touch up your lipstick. It’s fading.”
I’d never worn something so bright, but Morgan had insisted I borrow it. I loved the color. It reminded me of the pink azalea bushes that bordered my house. There should have been blooms by then, but there weren’t even any buds on the branches. The cold and rain did weird things to our spring that year. It basically never happened.
I was carefully tracing the corners of my lips when my phone dinged. Before I could check it, Morgan took it and said, “Finish what you’re doing first.”
I quickly smeared the rest on. “Is it him?”
“Mmm-hmm,” she said, but handed me a tissue instead of my phone. “Now blot.”
I snatched the tissue and the phone from her, laid the tissue across my bottom lip, where it stuck, and checked the text.
Morgan carefully peeled the tissue away while I typed back, Arrrrrgh. Where ye be? I pressed Send before Morgan could veto it, because I knew she’d forbid any sort of flirting done in pirate-speak.
Look out yerrrr window.
I used my hand to wipe away a porthole in the condensation from the glass. Jesse’s car occupied the next parking spot over, full of other senior guys on the soccer team. I think he had five crammed in the backseat. I couldn’t tell for sure because the windows were steamed up, all except for his, which looked freshly wiped. Someone made the car rock and shake like sex. Jesse rolled his eyes like they were idiots.
I smiled sympathetically and tried not to look nervous.
He wiped the glass free of encroaching steam with his sleeve and then blinked a few times, taking me in.
Would he think the makeup looked good on me? Would he see how hard I was trying for him? A different type of trying than how I’d acted down at the river, before I’d dared to have any expectations, when I would have said anything to make him laugh. This kind of trying felt way more obvious, way more embarrassing.
Jesse smiled a crooked smile. Then he pressed his pink tongue against the glass and gave a big fat sloppy lick of the window, aimed right at me, like he was a damn golden retriever.
Before I could stop myself, I pressed my tongue to the glass too, fake-licked Jesse back, but just for a second, because Morgan pulled me away from the window, shrieking, “Eww! Keeley!”
My heart was pounding.
Morgan pulled more tissues out of her pocket pack. “Please wipe your cooties off the window!”
I was about to when Jesse texted me, Hey, was that our first kiss?
And then :P
I felt prickly all over. It was the flirtiest thing he’d ever said to me. I didn’t need Morgan or Elise to spell it out for me.
BRB in big trouble, I managed to write back, because Morgan was swatting me with the tissues, telling me I owed her a car wash.
He answered back, Me too. Zito just farted.
I laughed out loud. Eww! Kick him out of your car!
“Keeley, what’s he saying?”
And let him drown in the school parking lot? What kind of crap friend do you think I am?
“Crap” is the right word, I wrote back. You guys are going to smell like Zito’s ass smog. Keep away!
So you’re not going to dance with me tonight? :(
Morgan shook me. “Don’t ignore me,” she pouted.
“Okay, I’m sorry! Just give me a second!”
I was trying to work on a cool response when he texted, Yo. I think we’re gonna head back to Zito’s. Send me a video of your best running man if you ever make it inside.
“Wait. What just happened?” Morgan asked. “Why are you making that face?”
I turned to her, tried to contort my mouth out of the frown. “Jesse’s leaving,” I said, stunned.
She shook her head back and forth, faster than her windshield wipers on high. “No! No, no, no! Keeley! Make him stay!”
Encouraged by her confidence that this was possible, I wiped my clammy hands on my bare legs and quickly typed back, Seriously? When Jesse didn’t reply right away, I added, desperate, You losers just got here.
I ain’t about to die in this gas chamber waiting to get into a school dance.
Thunder tumbled through the air. We were already almost an hour and a half into Spring Formal. Jesse was going to leave, and if he did, Morgan would definitely want to bail too, because she was here mostly for me tonight. We couldn’t wait out here forever. Eventually they would cancel the dance.
I happened then to catch my reflection in the visor mirror. I knew there wouldn’t be another chance like tonight. Jesse was a senior about to graduate and go off to who knows where. I’d heard a bunch of rumors, everything from a soccer scholarship to him moving out to California to become an actor. Our friends didn’t mix with each other, and toward the end of the school year, the seniors mainly stuck together.
But mostly I felt I wouldn’t ever look as beautiful as I did right then. This was my best night. Some people might be depressed by a revelation like that, but not me. I was glad I was self-aware enough to know it. That’s what gave me the courage to do what I did next. The storm, and everything that happened after to Aberdeen, forced us all to be brave in different ways, over and over again.
This was the first time.
“I’ve got an idea.” I pounded out a text to Jesse, a few friends, and Morgan.
Her phone dinged in her hand. She read my text aloud.
Making a run for the gym at exactly 8:26 p.m. Who’s in?!?
She turned to me, wide-eyed. “Okay, wait. That’s not what I had in mind.”
“I think the rain’s slowing up!” As I said it, another rumble of thunder cracked overhead.
“Are you crazy? If anything, it’s raining harder now than before! You heard Elise. Trees are falling! People are losing power. Plus the thunder and the lightning and the water on the ground. We could be killed!”
I squeezed Morgan’s leg. “Wouldn’t that be a cool way to go, though?”
“Electrocuted in a puddle? That would be a terrible way to go. Like, maybe the worst, Keeley.”
We both glanced at the dashboard. The clock read 8:25 p.m. before the screen went dark, because I shut off the engine and pulled Morgan’s keys out of the ignition.
She sighed. “Why are you always getting me into these situations?”
I sucked in a breath and glanced over at Morgan, wondering if that was a dig, a jab for my part in what had happened between her and Wes. But it wasn’t. She was smiling as she flipped the hood of her rain poncho up and set her hands on her umbrella.
We were all good.
I pulled my hood up too and tried to tuck up the bit of dress that hung past my parka, in the hopes of keeping it protected.
“On three,” I said, and then grinned. “Three.”
“You are the worst!”
I swung out the passenger door and opened my umbrella over the frame to make an awning. But the rain was wild. It blew sideways into the car. Morgan screamed, and so did I, but it was too late for us to do anything other than get out, shut the door, and run as fast as we could for the gym.
We took off like two deer across the parking lot. The wind made my down parka ripple tight against my chest. Morgan’s poncho lifted and snapped behind her like a plastic flag. I kept looking back, trying to see if Jesse and his friends had gotten out of his car, but I’d have had better luck trying to see through a waterfall.
Maybe he’d already left for Zito’s.
I gripped my umbrella tight, wrestling as the wind tried to rip it out of my hands, and took careful but quick steps. Even still, there was no avoiding the puddles. I sank into a few that were ankle deep. My rain boots leaked water, rain blasted my parka from every angle.
Then, finally, I heard Jesse and his friends whooping and hollering behind us, and a couple of them chanted my name. Jesse’s voice was the loudest and it sizzled inside me like a downed power line falling into one of the big fat puddles.
Teachers positioned themselves at the gym doors, flabbergasted by our stunt, shouting at us to be careful. The cars we ran past were full of people staring out of their windshields like we were crazy. It did feel crazy. We were all screaming and laughing at how absolutely crazy it was.
And then someone pulled me to a stop.
“Dance with me, Keeley!” Jesse screamed into the wind, a steady stream of water dripping off the tip of his nose. The dummy didn’t have an umbrella or a coat. His white button-up was already see-through and clinging to his chest, his gray pants darkened to black up to his knees, his brown boat shoes squishing like sponges.
There was nothing goofy or comedic about his outfit. He’d dressed up for real, just like me.
I tried to pull him forward, angling my umbrella so it would cover both of us. “Come on, you lunatic! We’re so close to the doors!”
But he grabbed me under the arms and lifted me up off the ground and began twirling me. The water splashed around us in hundreds of drops, liquid fireworks, because he stomped his feet so hard. A gust of wind caught my umbrella and blew it straight out of my hands. It tumbled across the parking lot until it hit the chain link fence of the athletic field.
“Keeley!” Morgan shouted from a few feet away. The wind flipped her umbrella inside out but she was still smiling, as happy as I was, before she turned and ran into the gym.
Everyone who’d made it inside filled up the doorway to watch me and Jesse, pointing and clapping as he twirled me. Cars in the parking lot honked their horns and flicked their high beams on and off.
Jesse dipped me backward like a rag doll and the rain pounded my face.
Needless to say, I was completely soaked. And I almost screamed at him to stop, to put me the hell down. But when he pulled me up from the dip, when we were nose to nose, his eyes bright and his smile so freaking big and his skin slippery and sparkling, I threw my arms around him and told him to spin me again, faster, faster, faster.
It was really happening, me and Jesse, no joke.
Saturday, May 14
EMERGENCY BROADCAST SYSTEM ALERT: A Severe Thunderstorm Watch is now in effect, through midnight, for the following areas: Aberdeen County and the entire Waterford City Metro Area. Heavy rainfall is expected to continue through the night, with possible wind gusts up to 20 mph.
Everyone stepped aside as Jesse and I walked into the gym, applauding us as if it were our wedding reception. He and I were holding hands and laughing our asses off. The DJ immediately cranked up the volume of the music and a few girls bounded out on the floor to dance.
We had started the party. Officially.
I turned to tell Jesse that, but I slipped. Coach Dean grabbed me and saved me from falling. “Easy there, Keeley. The whole floor is wet.”
I saw Jesse disappear into the guys’ locker room. I figured he wanted to dry off. Poor thing was soaked completely through. I reached into my pockets for the gold heels but I only found one of them. Rushing back to the open gym door, I almost slipped twice more. The other shoe had probably fallen out, I bet while Jesse was spinning me. I scanned the parking lot for it but I saw only glistening water, a shallow lake growing deeper by the second.
“Can’t let you back out there, Keeley,” Coach Dean cautioned. I tried pleading with him, but he guided me aside and called out, “Slow down!” to more kids who were now following our lead and running through the rain toward the gym. Shaking his head, he hurried over to speak with Principal Bundy, but she had her phone pressed to one ear and her hand covering the other.
And then I was surrounded by girls, chorusing how insanely romantic it was, me dancing in the rain with Jesse, like we were the stars of a movie. Emma from Algebra II, Trish from my study hall, June whose locker was next to mine. They applauded me, called me the MVP of Spring Formal.
“Hey, Keeley! Smile for yearbook!”
Even though I was soaking wet, I grinned as best I could with my teeth chattering, and gave a goofy thumbs-up to David, the boy holding the camera. Luckily, the adrenaline running through me kept me from feeling the cold.
Morgan slid through to my side. She was wet too, but not as wet as me. She had a wad of napkins in her hand. Shivering, I took half the stack and told her, “I’m sorry but I think I lost one of your shoes in the parking lot.” People laughed as if that were a joke.
The briefest flash of disappointment crossed her face before she touched my arm and said, “It’s fine. We’ll come back tomorrow morning and look for it.”
I glanced around. “Where’s Elise?”
“She went to get us some paper towels from the cafeteria.” Morgan put her hand on my back and said, “I’m going to take off my jacket. I’ll meet you in the bathroom.”
“Got it.” I hurried to the bathroom, slapping five with a few more people before I pushed open the door.
It was empty.
Maybe it was because I was suddenly quiet that I finally noticed the pitter-patter sounds of water dripping off me and onto the floor. My jacket hung heavy, the wet down feathers like lead, and I felt the rain that had collected in my crappy rain boots sloshing around my feet.
I leaned in to the mirror. My hair was a straight-up mess. The bun had uncoiled, leaving a soggy puff behind my left ear, and my braids had started to come undone. I quickly pulled out the bobby pins and ran my fingers through my hair. It was sticky from the hairspray. Then I turned to the paper towel dispenser and spun the crank fast, sending a spool of thin brown paper unfurling to the floor. I ripped it off and wiped my face clean, the paper immediately disintegrating into ropy bits. I started reapplying eyeliner, but my hands were shaking too badly, so I shoved it back into my purse and figured I’d just do a touch-up of lipstick and some blush.
Elise came in with two rolls of paper towels. Actual paper towels, the white kind that people have in their kitchens. They felt as absorbent as beach towels compared to that brown paper crap.
“Thank God for you,” I said. “I think this stuff is actually just really thin pieces of cardboard.”
“You don’t look bad. You look wet, but not bad.”
“I’ll take it,” I said, laughing.
Then a song we knew, the one we’d likely be blasting all summer long, came pulsing through the tile walls. We screamed and hurried up, desperate to dance.
“Bundy better let us stay late,” I said, pulling out my lipstick.
“Yes! Yes! Keeley, you should ask her!” Elise said, leaning against one of the sinks.
“Yeah, right. Bundy hates me almost as much as I hate her.”
“I don’t get it. You’re on honor roll every semester.”
Even now, I still find that crazy. I’d been a very good student, mostly As and Bs, always on honor roll. And I’d been a solid member of the Mock Congress team, at least before the whole thing with Levi Hamrick.
I unzipped my wet parka with the thought of laying it on a radiator to dry, but then I changed my mind and dropped it on the floor with a slap. “You,” I announced, pointing down at it, “are officially retired as of this moment. Viva la Spring Formal!”
Elise turned toward me and her face fell.
“Keeley, come here and I’ll dry . . .” Morgan bit her lip as she pushed in. She’d already peeled off her outer layers, taken the rubber bands out of her skirt, and changed into her silver sandals. She wasn’t nearly as soaked as I was. Barely damp. “Oh, shoot, Kee.”
Even though there was a mirror a few feet away mounted on the bathroom door, I didn’t turn to look. I didn’t need to. I could already tell by how wet I still felt that my dress was in bad shape. My hair was one thing. Everyone’s hair was likely a little messed up. But my dress . . . ?
“Come on,” I said, rushing for the bathroom door. “I don’t want to miss another song.” I just wanted out of there. Back to the gym, back to Jesse.
Morgan eased me to a stop. “At least sit under the dryer for a few minutes. You can’t go out there soaking wet.”
I didn’t want to, but I knew I probably should, if only to not look completely ridiculous. “Then you two go dance! I’ll be there in a sec.” Morgan and Elise looked so terribly sad for me, it was hard to stay smiling.
“Well, maybe I’ll get us a table,” Elise said. I nudged Morgan to go with her, but she ignored me and pressed the silver button on the hand dryer.
I held my dress taut like a sail in the lukewarm wind.
Trying to stay positive, I said, “That was the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me. Probably that will ever happen to me.”
Morgan nodded. She raked her fingers through my hair and it clung to her in clumps. “I should do a quick French braid. It’s not going to dry good with all the product in there.”
When the dryer stopped, Morgan hit the button again, and I turned to dry a new part of my dress. I felt my hair pulled in ropes. Even though I was trying not to look, my eyes caught my reflection in that big silver button. The silk shell was beginning to ripple, and parts of it had turned a different shade of tan than the rest. It didn’t sit underneath the lace the way it should. And the lace wasn’t creamy white anymore. It was drying a weird, tea-stained color. Jesse hadn’t even seen me in it yet.
“Don’t worry,” Morgan said. “We’ll find a dry cleaner who can fix it. Even if we have to go all the way into Waterford City.”
I bit my lip and nodded. The upset feelings crept up and squeezed me, but I shook myself out like a rag doll.
I knew that the only way to salvage the dress, the money my mom had spent, was to have the time of my life. So that was what I was going to do. For me, it’s always been as simple as that.
* * *
I hadn’t noticed when I first came in, but walking back, the gym looked pretty amazing. I mean, it still looked like a gym, obviously, but the Dance Committee had done a great job and I knew they didn’t have much of a budget. I made a mental note to compliment Elise.
White crepe paper twists were taped everywhere, wrapped around the railings of the bleachers, twirling in long strips inside a door frame to mask the ugly school hallway. The overhead cage lights were turned down, and strings of tiny globe lights were threaded around the basketball hoops and fanned out to the opposite wall. They had lots of food on the food table, two huge submarine sandwiches, chips, bowls of Hershey’s Kisses, and plenty of sodas, too. Off-brand sodas, but no one cared, especially not the guys. They’d drink anything.
I was happy to see that our running through the rain had inspired other juniors and seniors to leave their cars, because the gym was now way more crowded than it had been when we first came through the doors. Elise claimed us one of the last open café tables set up along the sidelines of the gym. I slipped off my rain boots and rubbed my bare feet back and forth against the wood floor to try and warm them up. I had a pair of sneakers in my locker that I thought about changing into, but I figured other girls would take off their shoes eventually, once people started dancing.
I looked around for Jesse, finally spotting him along the wall where the wrestling mats were folded in a tall stack. He had changed out of his button-up shirt and pants and into an Aberdeen High hunter green and gold wrestling singlet with his argyle dress socks and loafers. I guess that was his only option. I saw the lines of his tighty whities through the spandex. Any other boy would have looked gross, but Jesse, well . . . of course he looked handsome. Handsome and hilarious, which was my favorite combination. And it felt good that, just like me, Jesse was down to keep having fun tonight, wet clothes be damned. I tried to catch his eye so he’d see me laughing, appreciating his new outfit, but he was either talking with the guys or posing with random girls who came over to take pictures with him with their phones.
The DJ put on a fast song. I wanted to sit and wait for Jesse to notice that I’d come back, but that would have been lame. It would be better if he saw me having a blast out on the dance floor. So I said to my friends, “Come on. Let’s get some blisters.”
Elise stood right up with me, but Morgan scrunched up her face. “Maybe in another song or—”
I grabbed her hand and dragged her out to the center of the basketball court.
After a few songs, if it was still raining, I had no idea. I was too busy dancing. Elise mostly swayed to the beat, but Morgan and I used to dance in her basement when we were little, and we had a few routine moves down pat that I eventually forced her into doing with me. I’d always been jealous that she got to take real-deal dance lessons, but she let me wear her costumes, and she’d teach me the moves she learned and it ended up feeling like I’d taken the classes too. We’d even put on performances for her grandmother.
As much as I was there in the moment, every time a song ended, I’d wonder if Jesse would come find me. When he didn’t, I’d think about going to grab him. Could I be that brave?
But then a new song would come on and we’d scream, because it would be absolutely the one song we needed to hear right then. I guess because we’d started late, the DJ was focusing on keeping us dancing and not trying to mix in slow songs, which I was grateful for. A bunch of junior girls eventually made a circle and I kept being pushed into the center. I’d try to make Morgan dance there with me, but she always found a way to shimmy back to the edges. I hoped Jesse was watching.
A slow song finally came on. I pulled Morgan close, but she wriggled free from my arms. “Keeley!” she whispered suddenly. “Here he comes!” And this time, she hurried to the table before I could grab her again.
Jesse popped up in front of me. Still in that wrestling singlet.
“You look ridiculous,” I told him, but of course I was smiling.
“Ridiculously . . . hot?” He took my hand and led me to the center of the dance floor.
The crazy thing was, he did. Because he was handsome and confident and funny and God, could he freaking rock a singlet.
He put his hands on my waist, finding the little divots in my hips so fast and sure that it took my breath away. I lifted my arms up around his shoulders. And we began to slowly tip our weight from side to side.
We had a good bit of space between us at first, but as Jesse swayed, he inched closer to me and I to him, until we were pressed together. He’d recently gotten a haircut. The skin around his hairline was pink and the hairs there sparkled like tiny bits of gold thread.
He leaned close to my ear and said, “Kinda boring compared to our rain dance, huh?”
I shook my head. I thought it was more romantic than the dance we’d had outside. It was my first real-deal slow dance with the boy I’d adored forever. I hoped he couldn’t feel me shaking.
“You’re staring at me,” he said.
“Am not,” I said. But I was. And he stared at me, too. Intensely. I almost couldn’t take it. I wanted him to kiss me so badly, right then and there, in the middle of the dance, with everyone watching, even though Principal Bundy would probably have tossed us both back out into the storm.
“Do you know this song?”
I shook my head. I could pick up his cologne underneath the rain smell, coconut but with a little bit of spice.
“Me either. I think it’s old. Maybe even from before we were born.” Jesse cleared his throat. “All the old slow songs have a saxophone solo in them. Have you ever noticed that? Like it was a mandatory thing.” You could have knocked me over with a feather because Jesse was nervous too. I heard it in his voice, the tiniest barely perceptible quiver that I picked up only because I was that close to him. It thrilled me. He kept nervous-talking, words bumbling out of his mouth. “You know, slow dancing is an oxymoron. I mean, can this even be called dancing? Really? It’s more like walking in place. Or like we’re—”
“Please shut up,” I whispered. “You’re going to make me not like you anymore.” And then I laughed, because it was a ridiculous thing to say, because I knew right then that a part of me would love Jesse forever. This was my locket moment, a memory I’d keep until the day I died.
“Wait up. You only like me? That’s it?” Jesse asked, peeling back from me the littlest bit, mock offended.
I bit my bottom lip and rolled my eyes. “Fine. I’ll admit it.”
I turned my head slightly to the side and rested it on Jesse’s chest. “I’m in love with you, Jesse Ford.”
I’d meant it to come out 100 percent sarcastic, but there was something very clear and quiet and undeniably earnest in my voice. I heard it. Jesse must have too. I felt him stiffen. Even if he didn’t, my cheeks warmed against his cool skin, giving me away for sure.
I didn’t even have enough time to regret it. Out of nowhere, my neck snapped back hard and the lights overhead streaked fast like shooting stars. It wasn’t a slow, romantic dip. It was more like whiplash.
Once I was upright again, Jesse’s hands let me go. It took me a second to figure out what was happening. Jesse and I were no longer slow dancing, even though the slow song poured out of the speakers. That he’d hip-checked me, and it popped me a few steps to the side. Off-balance, I tried to steady myself, but Jesse spread his legs and thrust his crotch at me, grinding himself on my bare leg to a nonexistent beat. Hard, almost like I was a soccer player on an opposing team and he was trying to steal the ball from me. I wish I had been ready for it, I wish Jesse had given me a heads-up, because if he had, there’s no way I would have fallen.
There were gasps from the people watching us as I hit the floor, I definitely heard them. And then laughter. Shocked, I stared up at Jesse, but he was all smiles, giving me a come-hither look and crooking his finger, beckoning me to stand back up. He opened his mouth and said something, but I couldn’t hear it because of the screams of everyone rushing close to watch us. I turned and saw Morgan. Even she was clapping. And Victoria too, with a bemused look on her face.
So I did it. I did what Jesse wanted, what the entire gym wanted, the only thing I really could do in the situation. I hopped back up to my feet and grinded on him as hard as he’d grinded on me. I did the running man in a circle around him while everyone clapped to the beat. I forced him to turn around and spanked his butt over and over again while he bit down on his finger and made groaning sounds.
That’s when Bundy raced over and got between us. Jesse held up his hands in mock shock, pretending not to understand what she was upset about. The crowd booed. Then Bundy looked at me. Glared at me.
“Three years later and you’re still hell-bent on embarrassing yourself.”
My mouth plopped open. It was a sucker punch, as mean as or maybe even meaner than the way she came at me right before I quit Mock Congress. Even though I was older now, practically a senior, I shrank and shriveled inside like I was still a freshman. And just like she had then, Bundy turned on her heel and walked away from me before I could defend myself.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one to walk away from me.
I looked for Jesse to see if he’d heard, but he was already strutting back toward his friends, who either had their hands up for high fives or shook their heads with amused disbelief.
Left alone, I smoothed my dress. It was even dirtier now, the lace smudged muddy, having picked up the dirt from the gym floor on the spots that were still damp. I walked over to the food table, hoping they might have club soda or something, but of course they didn’t. High school dances were club soda–free zones.
Elise and Morgan waved me over to our table.
I got myself a can of soda and headed toward them, trying to hold on to the good feelings I’d had earlier in the night.
“This is honestly the craziest courtship I’ve ever seen,” Elise said as she scrolled through pictures on her phone she’d taken of Jesse and me. “I don’t even know how to advise you.”
Morgan rested her chin on her hand. “But it’s so perfectly them, don’t you think?”
“Oh, totally! Whatever you’re doing, Keeley, keep doing it. It’s clearly working!” Elise held up a photo of me and Jesse dancing and beaming million-dollar smiles.
“Keeley, what’s wrong?” Morgan asked. Even though she said it quietly, Elise looked up from her phone.
“Nothing,” I said quickly, and I rolled my wrist to be extra convincing. “Just Bundy being a beeyotch. Whatever.”
Morgan twisted her head around until she saw Bundy, and then curled her lip. “Ugh. Forget it.” It was the second time in two weeks that my best friend had said those words.
Wes didn’t know Morgan had him on speaker when he asked her not to bring me to his friend’s party because I was obnoxious and not funny and none of his friends wanted to hook up with me anyway.
Morgan and I looked at each other, and then at the phone on her bed. Morgan dove for it, but she wasn’t quick enough.
“Not even Beeker,” Wes said. Which was probably another insult, though I didn’t know Beeker, so I couldn’t say for sure. “Come on. Can’t you tell her you and Elise are doing something else this time?”
The way he asked it, whiny, I knew he’d asked her not to bring me before.
Morgan finally turned the speaker off and put the phone up to her ear.
I sat down on the floor and for whatever reason, started folding random clothes that Morgan had strewn around her room. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised Wes would say such shitty things about me, especially considering what had happened a few days before, but I still was.
After that, I only heard half the conversation.
“Screw you, Wes, she’s my best friend.” And then, “I told you she didn’t mean it. She was just kidding around.” There was a long pause. “No.” And then a longer one. “Yeah, well, if you can’t take a joke”—at this point, she looked at me and made a stupid face, like Wes was being annoying—“then, yeah, I guess we are breaking up.” She hung up her phone and threw it across the room.
“You and Elise can go without me,” I said after a few minutes of stunned silence. “I don’t care. You’re not going to hurt my feelings.” That wasn’t even a lie. I couldn’t be any more hurt than I already was.
“Forget it,” Morgan said. Then she hugged me very, very tightly, as if she wanted to make sure that this was really happening, that her dumping Wes wasn’t just a bad dream.
Even though it hadn’t worked the first time, I tried again to do exactly what Morgan said. Forget it. I sat quietly in the gym for the next few songs, while Elise sent texts and Morgan danced in her seat.
And then, lo and behold, “Cupid Shuffle” came on.
A rush of people headed to the dance floor, boys as well as girls. Maybe because the song lyrics were instructions? I’m not sure. The three of us went out too. Of course I looked for Jesse, but didn’t see him.
I went through the motions, twisting and turning, but I kept scanning the gym. Where had Jesse gone? Maybe back to the locker room? I knew he wouldn’t miss this opportunity to put on a show in front of everyone.
About halfway through the song, I figured I should go look for him.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also have a sense of dread. I already knew that the night had slipped away from me somehow.
I walked quickly down the hallway, past the girls’ bathroom, past the guidance offices and the library, “Cupid Shuffle” melting away underneath the rain the farther I got from the gym. My feet were still bare, the bottoms black, and I moved silently. No one would hear me coming. I rounded the corner and peered down at the science wing.
And there, at the end of the hallway, was Jesse Ford.
With Victoria Dunkle.
She sat on top of the hall monitor desk where Mrs. Treasman handed out demotions. Victoria’s legs were crossed and angled to the side. She wore a lemon-yellow halter dress, a plain cotton one, nothing special. Jesse had both hands on the corners of the desk and he leaned in to her, whispering something. She tipped her head back and giggled.
I whipped back around the corner and steadied myself against a set of lockers, listening. I couldn’t make out what they were saying. It was Jesse talking, mostly. Victoria, all she did was giggle.
I almost, almost laughed. But then I looked down at my dirty dress and everything got blurry.
I quickly wiped my face.
I did not cry at school. Ever.
I felt a hand on my shoulder. Morgan’s hand, I thought. I hoped. I remembered her warning earlier in the morning. You don’t want to make Jesse laugh tonight. You want him to kiss you. God, I screwed that up.
Or maybe it was Jesse?
I didn’t want him to see me crying. But maybe it would be a good thing if he did. He’d know that I really did like him.
But how could he not know that already?
I looked up. Levi Hamrick, in wet jeans, running sneakers, and a black rain slicker. “Keeley.”
I had never heard my name spoken so gently.
Then the lights flickered out.