Another week, another new excerpt! Can we just take a quick moment to say how many awesome new releases are coming out this year that we get to tease? SO MANY good books! And on that trend, today, we’re talking about If You’re Out There by Katy Loutzenhiser!
It’s a new contemporary thriller you’re not going to want to miss—because it focuses on a ride or die relationship between two best friends. When Zan’s best friend, Priya, moves across the country, she’s baffled and hurt to find herself ghosted. But the more time she goes without hearing from her friend, and the more vapid and Priya’s Instagram posts become, the more Zan begins to think something might be disturbingly wrong. No one—especially not her Priya—would just reinvent herself so completely without even cluing Zan in. It isn’t until Zan meets the new boy in school that she finds someone willing to believe her theory, and together they set out to learn what really happened to Priya.
If that’s not enough to convince you, Becky Albertalli (you know, the genius behind Simon vs. and one half of What If It’s Us) called it “Funny, engrossing, and one-of-a-kind. If You’re Out There completely swept me away.” Do yourself a favor. Listen to Becky. Start reading it now!
If You’re Out There
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
I keep coming back to the same shot. A pair of sandy to-go cups, sort of leaning into each other—like a contented couple, looking out at the distant city lights against a watercolor sky. It was May, almost her birthday, and we’d spent the afternoon bundled in sweatshirts on one of Mom’s ratty yoga blankets, blowing dollar store bubbles at the lake.
“You know what’s weird, Zan?”
The ice in our Vietnamese coffees had nearly melted, the half-filled cups slick with condensation. Priya’s eyes were closed, her face bathed in peachy light. She’d used my actual name, which meant she was thinking serious thoughts. Otherwise I’d be ZanaBanana, or Prescription Xanax, or Alexander Zamilton.
“What?” I said, dunking my wand into the suds.
She made a visor with her hands and looked at me. “Before my mom got married, she had your mom down as the person who would get me if something ever happened.”
I unpursed my lips, just before the bubble broke. “I didn’t know that.” I staked the bottle into the sand and brushed my hands clean. “Would I have gone to you guys? If something happened to my parents?”
I felt terrible before she even said it.
“Doubt it. You have a whole family.” She flipped onto her stomach. “It’s so wild to think about. We would have been like . . . sisters.”
I sprawled out beside her. “We are like sisters.”
She hadn’t quite been her chipper self all day. But I believed her when she smiled and said, “True.” She bent down to take a sip without moving her cup. “I guess all roads lead to us.”
* * *
I’m still lost in the picture—in that day at the lake—when someone clears her throat.
I don’t recognize my Spanish name at first. Then I glance down at the Sharpied name tag emblazoned across my chest. Señora O’Connell is standing over me, her eyes on the cell phone resting not so subtly against the frayed hem of my denim shorts.
I steal a final glance at those happy, sunlit to-go cups on the screen. “Sorry,” I say, the word slow to arrive. I slip the phone into my backpack. “I mean, lo siento.”
Señora O’Connell lets out a clipped breath, as if determined to stay positive. At the whiteboard, she begins scribbling in bright green loops, her ponytail bobbling along as she talks—each orange strand practically screaming, We’re Irish! And no, this is not our first language! I can’t say her accent is all that good—the vowels dull, consonants soggy.
I feel bad for her, though. She’s new, and no one’s really paying attention. Skye and Ying, fellow soccer girls, are whispering in front of me, while Eddy Hays, resident idiot, has formed a pillow with his hands at the next desk over, not even trying to hide his plans to nap. I guess this year I might as well be new myself. My older friends have graduated. And Priya, well . . . It’s going to be a long year.
I’m still observing Eddy, mildly impressed by the boldness of his sleep, when he pops up. “Hey‚ Zan,” he says, as if suddenly confused. “Where’s your other half?”
The words sting. “She moved,” I tell him under my breath.
Señora O’Connell turns around, the Spanish trailing off. She surveys the room and glances at the clock: still ten minutes before the bell. “Oh whatever.” She sighs, her shoulders slumping with the sweet relief of English. She nods to a kid up front and holds out a stack of papers. “Pass these back, will you?”
When I look up, a boy is standing in the doorway, all legs and sunken chest, his grown-out blond hair swept back into a short knot. He takes a step inside the room. “I think I’m supposed to be in this class. I was in AP by mistake and it was over my head.” His eyes settle on Eddy, who has since resumed his nap. “This seems . . . more my speed.”
La Señora tucks the flaps of her cardigan around herself. “I’m going to choose not to take that personally. But hey.” She finds a sheet of labels on her desk. “¡Bienvenido!” she pronounces, a dry-erase marker flying from her hand as she slaps a name tag on his shirt pocket.
I find myself mirroring the bo
y’s curling lips as amusement flits across his face. “¿Gracias?” He bends down to grab the marker from the floor and catches me watching him. I don’t look away, and for a moment, he doesn’t either. “I think you dropped this,” he says, returning the marker to our teacher.
La Señora studies him a moment, through narrowed eyes. “You’re one of the nice ones, aren’t you? Please tell me you’re one of the nice ones.”
The boy smiles. “I’m one of the nice ones.”
* * *
“Manny! Where are my buffalo wraps?”
It looks like a head of purple cabbage has exploded at the salad station.
“Manny?” I had to run to make my shift after school let out, shoving past hordes of Cubs fans as they spilled out from the Red Line. It felt good to run, to think of nothing but the clock. Now I’m hacking away at veggies while my tables wait, enjoying a familiar rush of frazzled self-importance.
“Hello?” I crane my neck as I chop. “I need one seitan and one tofu. And table six wants more veg gravy for the meatless loaf.”
Manny shakes his head and pulls a basket of zucchini from the deep fryer. “I don’t understand these people.”
“Just cook the food,” says Arturo, entering the kitchen through the swinging double doors. Manny grumbles something in Spanish and reaches a tatted arm to raise the volume on his banda music, which, to my untrained gringa ears, sounds a little like polka and mariachi had a baby.
Arturo slides his messenger bag onto the counter by me. “Busy out there.”
“Seriously,” I say. “Who knew so many vegans liked baseball?”
He chuckles, wiping the grease from his glasses with the bottom of his checked shirt. “How was school?” he asks. “First day back, right?” My face must give me away. “Aw. Poor Zanny-
“Stop,” I say with a deadpan expression I hope will discourage any further sympathy. I scrape a mound of cabbage into a plastic bin and slot it into the salad bar. “I’m handling a serious salad shortage over here. Not to mention a major meatless loaf emergency. The lady at table six says it’s dry.”
“Wonder why that could be,” mutters Manny.
Arturo yells over the trilling trumpets, “You do know I could fire you, right?”
“Your own uncle? Please. You don’t have the cojones.”
Arturo sighs, resigned. “Never work with family, Zan.”
I bend down to grab cucumbers from a box on the floor. “Well, related or not, you need to hire another person to do this prep work. This is well beyond a waiter’s job description.”
“I know,” says Arturo. “I’ve been meaning to. I think I just got used to . . .” He grimaces.
“What?” I say.
“Priya was always doing prep in her downtime. Said she found it therapeutic.”
“Yeah, well,” I grunt, carrying an armful of cucumbers to the sink for a rinse. “I find it to be a pain in my ass.”
Arturo laughs. “You’re right. I’ll post an ad.” He clears his throat as I begin to chop. “Sorry. I know I shouldn’t bring her up.”
He hesitates. “Well, I guess . . . While we’re on the subject.” He fishes through his messenger bag and pulls out an envelope. “Priya’s last paycheck keeps bouncing back in the mail. She must have given me the wrong address for the new apartment. Or maybe I took it down wrong. I don’t know. Do you have it?”
I swallow, my saliva thick, and wipe my hands on my apron before pulling out my phone. After a quick search, a June email from Priya comes up.
I know I shouldn’t, but I read it anyway.
Your semi-weekly love letters may be sent to: 418 Bellevue in Santa Monica, Apartment C. Care packages welcome. Send cake. We have one week left, Zan. One week! Wait a minute. WHY AREN’T WE EATING CAKE RIGHT NOW? Okay fine, you convinced me, I’m coming over.
Over my shoulder, Arturo looks back and forth from the phone to the envelope. “It’s the same address I have,” he says. “I’ll check with the post office. Maybe I need the extra zip code numbers or something.” He frowns suddenly, looking me over. “Who’d you sit with today?”
For a minute I’m somewhere else, still hazy from her lingering words. “Hm?”
“For lunch. At school. Who’d you sit with?”
“Oh.” I’m back to hacking at the cucumber again, just slowly enough to avoid mutilating myself. “I didn’t . . . It was nice out. I sat under a tree.”
When I glance up, Arturo maintains eye contact in that awful way he does. I think it’s all the improv training. He and his teammates share a collective subconscious. They make up instantaneous scenes and say, Yes, and! to everything that comes their way. They also sing. In public. Arturo’s life is essentially my worst nightmare.
“Can’t you sit with the soccer girls?” he asks.
I stop chopping in a huff. “I was the only junior on varsity last year. Everyone I played with graduated. The other senior girls this year are . . .”
“Better than a tree?”
“They’re fine is what they are. I’ll get to know them when the season starts this spring. Happy?”
Arturo scratches at his stubble. “I think I’m gonna have to cut back your shifts.”
“What?” My hand flies open.
“Jesus!” cries Arturo.
I look at my clenched fist, wrapped around the handle I caught midair. A second later and the blade would have pierced one of his canvas flats.
Arturo eyes me warily. “Nice reflexes, by the way.”
“Thanks,” I breathe. “Sorry.”
“What were we talking about?”
“My shifts,” I say, still a little dazed. “The ones you cannot take away from me.” My heart pounds as I scoop cucumbers into a bin. This job has been my life raft all summer. It was a loophole, or a wormhole, or whatever kind of hole it is that lets your mind go blank.
It’s not as if there aren’t reminders here. Priya and I applied to this job together—got hired the same week Arturo came on as manager. There were countless shifts, helping each other through dinner rushes, trading stories of our most eccentric customers, collapsing in those sparkling booths at the end of a long night.
But Priya is at home, too. She’s at school, at the beach, on every walk through the neighborhood. At least in a restaurant there’s no time to think. Because in a restaurant, you’ve got zucchini and gazpacho and seitan wraps to attend to.
“You took every shift I offered you this summer,” Arturo is saying. “You never had any plans! I can’t be the enabler here. You’re much too young to become a hermit.”
“Look. Can we please . . .” I wipe my forehead with my wrist. “I’m drowning here.”
Arturo slips on gloves and lets out a sigh. “You’re right.” He gestures to the knife. “Gimme. . . . Carefully.”
“Thanks, boss,” I say, the to-do list already buzzing through my mind as I hurry away. Through the crack in the double doors, I peek at my tables, right as Samantha barges in with a bucket of clanging dishes. “Ouch!” I stumble back, the area around my eyebrow beginning to throb.
“Shit! Sorry, Zan.” She whips her head back toward the kitchen. “Manny! I need polenta fries and a quinoa burger. And so you all know, I was up studying until three a.m. last night, so nobody bug me!” After law school, Samantha Yun will surely go on to be a state prosecutor, a federal judge, or some kind of badass bajillionaire litigator. But for now we serve Veggie Joes together, and she’s pretty much the greatest.
“Hey, you okay?” she asks, swiveling back to me as I cup my forehead.
“Yeah,” I say, laughing though it definitely still hurts. Arturo walks up and she lets him kiss her cheek. I avert my eyes out of respect. Sam hates PDA.
“Have you been considering my proposal?” asks Arturo.
“Uh, no,” says Samantha.
I perk up. “What proposal?”
“I’m trying to get her to introduce me to her mom,” he says, turning to her. “It’s not fair, you know. The entire Reyes family practically throws a parade whenever you come over.”
I smile back and forth between my adorable bickering work-parents, but Sam just rolls her eyes and walks off to make a salad at the station. “You want to kill my mother?” she asks as Arturo follows, with me at his heels. “You want that on your head?”
“So, what?” he says. “I just have to be Korean?”
“Not necessarily.” Sam pauses in contemplation above the shredded carrots. “But maybe like . . . Like a God-fearing anesthesiologist. That’d be pretty good.”
He groans. “At least let her give me a chance. You could take her to one of my shows!”
Samantha gives me a knowing look—the kind that makes me love her. “He really thinks that’ll win her over. Watching a bunch of guys in plaid pretend to be a talking spaceship.”
“That was one scene,” says Arturo, possibly pouting.
Sam softens a little, smiling his way before looking around, as if to regain her train of thought. “Oh right. Some lady keeps whining about veggie gravy.”
“Crap,” I say. I rush to the back to ladle some out myself and bolt toward the double doors.
“There’s a one-top for you, too,” Sam calls after me. “Reggie. Table nine.”
Out in the crowded dining room, I deliver several salads, even more apologies, and the long-awaited gravy before finding Officer Reginald Brooks at his usual booth. He’s sipping ice water in full uniform, his radio crackling.
“Let me guess,” I say, not even bothering with the notepad. “Zucchini fritters, extra sauce, vanilla-coconut milkshake. And a side salad so it’s healthy.”
“It’s a common misconception,” he says, slapping his stomach. “Vegan and low-cal are not the same thing. My wife finally figured this place out. If you see her, maybe don’t tell her about the milkshake. Better yet, I was never here at all. We’re on a diet.”
I roll my eyes. Reggie is looking lean as ever, strong and clean-cut, his dark skin practically radiating good health. “Your secret’s safe with me, Reg.”
He nods up at me. “Hey, what’s up with you? Something’s off.”
“Oh,” I say. And here I thought my mood was lifting. “I guess I haven’t seen you in a while. It’s . . . been a weird few months.” I’ve known Reggie since long before he started coming here—since middle school, actually, when my nut-ball of a mother dragged me into the Lakeview Community Center after a self-defense class let out and asked Reggie—a cop and perfect stranger—if he could teach her eleven-year-old how to box. I was the product of a newly broken home then, and she felt I had some anger to unleash. “It’s funny seeing you, actually,” I say. “My mom keeps hinting I should pick up where we left off. You know her theories on catharsis.” We share a smile.
“Well, I still teach self-defense every Thursday,” he says. “However, boxing lessons remain exclusive to scrawny kids with persuasive moms.”
“Good to know,” I say, walking off. “I’ll get your order in.”
“Hey!” he calls after me, and I turn around. “How’s your shovel hook these days?”
I laugh. “You know? I have no idea.”
The air inside my house feels weightless after a walk through the muggy night. I lean back against the door and soak in the stillness. “Hello?” calls my little brother, Harrison.
I round the corner toward the darkened living room. He and Whit are lounging on the L-shaped couch, their legs fanned out in opposite directions, heads together over a shared pint of ice cream.
I smile. “Working hard, I see.” They’re gazing blankly at some home improvement show I can’t believe my brother likes. I hold my apron over the coffee table and release it, the bulging pocket of loose change landing with a thud. “You two look like you just went through battle.”
Harrison sighs up at me like a haggard adult. “We unpacked eight more of Whit’s boxes tonight. Eight!” Though disheveled, he’s still rocking the bow tie we picked for school this morning.
“Hey,” says Whit. “I got you ice cream, didn’t I?”
My little brother finishes his bite and looks at her. “Our mom’s right, you know. You do have an unhealthy attachment to your stuff.”
Whit drops her jaw, somewhere between amused and offended. “Your mom said that?” She narrows her eyes. “Oooo, Alice, you’re in trouble. . . .”
I balance against the wall and slip out of my sneakers, tiny foot bones compressed and aching from a long shift. “Where is she anyway?”
“Client meltdown,” says Whit. “The woman can’t say no.” I shudder, in a good way, as a glorious draft from the AC tingles against my skin. “Well?” says Whit, her eyes on me. “How was the first day back?”
“About what I expected.”
I settle in beside Harr, and Whit raises the pint. “Pistachio.” She’s out of scrubs tonight, wearing cutoff shorts and one of Mom’s old Flaming Lips T-shirts tied up at the sides. “We made extra lasagna, too. For the workaholics.”
“Like mother, like daughter,” I say, stealing Harrison’s spoon to dig in.
Whit raises an eyebrow as she toys with a shiny, stiff curl of black and brown and gold. “Uh, daughter doesn’t have a mortgage.”
“Or friends!” I say through an enormous creamy mouthful.
I sort of like how casual Whit is with me. She doesn’t get all parental or try to cheer me up. Instead, she lets the comment hang in the air as she presses her lips together. A lot of the time it’s like we’re still feeling each other out.
Whit’s eyes flit to my bare legs glowing in the TV light. “You really didn’t leave the house much this summer, did you? I’m honestly worried about your vitamin D.”
“Hey now, I left on occasion,” I say. “And this is some primo frecklage over here.” But she’s not wrong. Next to her smooth, brown skin mine looks pretty much translucent. It’s something I’ve come to accept. My dad’s olive-toned Italian half must have been off duty when the genes were being divvied up.
“Was your day better than mine?” I ask.
Whit draws a long breath. “Let’s see. I had to go in at four in the morning. It was after eleven when I finally got a chance to sit down and drink some coffee. . . .”
“Oof,” I say. “That sounds bad. Waking up early is stupid.”
“Zan,” says Harr, bug-eyed. “S-word.”
Whit smiles. “But I delivered a healthy baby. Cute little guy. Well, big guy. Ten pounds. And the mom was tiny, you should have seen her. Weaker sex my—” She stops, a glint in her eye. “Butt. Weaker sex my butt.”
I sink into my brother. “And you, Harr? How was your day? Is Matilda still your girlfriend?” He doesn’t answer.
Whit gives a somber shake of the head. “We hate her now.”
My brother guffaws, scandalized, and Whit seems confused.
“H-word,” I explain with a smirk that says, Duh.
My brother burrows against me. It seems he’s taking the breakup well. With my cheek resting on his head, I almost forget he’s no longer that squishy toddler whose obsessions included tortoises, jelly beans, and Barack Obama.
Keys jingle and a door slams down the hall. “Hellooo?”
Mom peeks into the living room. “Oh. Look at that. All my favorite people on one couch.” She kicks off her heels and pulls out a set of heavy dangly earrings with mini forks and spoons on them.
“We made extra lasagna,” says Harrison. “For the workaholics.”
Mom shoots Whit a playful glare, then looks at me. “So?”
“It sucked,” I say. My brother gasps again and I slap my forehead. “Sorry! Other S-word!” Mom holds my gaze for a moment, her doe eyes sinking in as if to say, Should we talk at length in the other room? To which I respond, Please, no.
“And you, my son?” asks Mom. “How was second grade? I’m so sorry I couldn’t pick you up.”
“It’s okay,” says Harr. “And it was fine.”
She pauses a moment. “What’s the Matilda verdict?”
He shakes his head and Mom’s bottom lip slides into a pout. “My poor babies.” She plants a kiss on Whit before plopping down on the couch, and I get a waft of her coconutty smell. She leans forward to remove a fuzzy orange cardigan. “I thought you guys were going to unpack tonight.”
“We did,” says Harrison. “Eight boxes.”
Mom gazes down the hallway toward Whit’s looming towers of cardboard. “Lord help us.”
The episode ends and Harr scrolls through the options, pulling up Meryl Streep mid–Mamma Mia! where we paused it the other night.
“Can we watch a little more?” he asks. “Now that you’re home?”
Mom pulls him close. “You are the perfect son.” They snuggle up, and Whit smiles, watching Mom more than the screen.
These two have hardly been able to hide their giddiness since Whit moved in. Their friends say they’re like teenagers in love. It’s a comparison to which I cannot relate.
Mom met Whit in the hospital cafeteria two years ago, waiting on X-rays for a broken foot. Priya’s stepdad, Ben, was supposed to pick up Mom later that afternoon, but she texted that she’d found another ride. I don’t know how people do that. Just meet and talk and fall head over heels. For the first few months, we were supposed to believe Whit was a friend. Then at a Cubs game all together one night, Harr leaned across the row to Mom, nodded at Whit, and said, “You love her, don’t you?” Mom turned red, and Whit choked on her hot dog.
My phone buzzes and I jump to my feet. I find it buried beneath my apron and promptly deflate. I should know better by now. It’s a text from Arturo.
Okay fine, I’m an enabler. Can you work tmr in addition to your other shifts this week? I’m guessing yes since you’ve gone all Boo Radley on us? You’re taking Thursday off so help me! Ps. For the love of Amy Poehler, talk to some humans at school tmr, k? Abrazos.
I text him back.
No promises on the human front, but I’ll be there. Love Boo.
I slip out into the kitchen to lop off a chunk of lukewarm lasagna, doubling back to swipe my apron from the table. “All right.”
“Bed already?” Mom’s eyes reveal a flicker of disappointment.
“Yeah. Sorry. . . .” I ruffle Harr’s hair and bend down to let Mom squish my face for an exaggerated smooch. Whit just nods. We don’t have a bedtime thing yet.
“Sweet dreams,” calls my brother as I climb the stairs.
Even once I close the door, I can still hear the murmur of the TV between bursts of happy chatter. When I turn around, I’m not entirely surprised to see a relic of my past resting in the center of the room. It’s my old freestanding punching bag, brought up from the basement. I haven’t used it since the Reggie days—not since the year Dad moved out. There’s a sticky note from Mom.
Kick this year’s butt.
I half laugh and drop my apron to the floor, not even bothering to count my tips. Piles of shorts and rumpled T-shirts litter the floor, separated into vague categorical piles of Sort of Clean and I Guess I Should Wash This. It’s the room of someone who’s only half-awake.
Some photos are taped straight to the pale green paint. Others have been stabbed with tacks, layered over movie stubs and funny birthday cards. Me and Pri in Michigan picking apples in the fall. Pri on Mom’s shoulders at the beach because even at age fourteen Priya was still freakishly light. Me and Priya filling water balloons at the park with Harr when he was only three. He called me An. He called her Pee.
I chew my lasagna standing up.
Needs salt, or cheese. But I don’t feel like going back downstairs. It’s not as if I taste much anyway. My senses have become duller lately. Like it’s not quite me who’s doing the seeing, the smelling, the tasting.
“Blech,” I grumble to my plate. “That’s enough of you.”
A fit of laughter from Mom and Whit comes reverberating through the walls. Harr probably said something cute. I’d drown them out with music but I find that it’s no help. Sometimes I think I’m a bad teenager. There’s no band that knows my soul. Most of the time I just liked what Priya liked—a step up from “basic bitch” pop, but nothing obscure enough to say, “their old stuff was better.”
I stand, slumped, scanning the room for something comfortable to sleep in. Every step seems to require a little too much of me. Wake up! Brush teeth! Speak to people! Do things! I spot the sleeve of an oversize T-shirt poking out from under my bed and, with superhuman strength, crouch down to
A sliver of lime green catches my eye, hidden by all the junk that’s found a home down there, and I realize what I’m looking at.
The book feels strange in my hands as I stand. I can’t remember the last time I rifled through its pages. I peel open the cover and out jumps the bubbly, gel-penned handwriting of my middle school self.
THE PRINCIPLES OF PRIYA
Even as a tween Priya was so full of grand statements about life—some astute, some downright weird—that at some point I started writing them all down. The notebook has seen some wear and tear. I turn the page and smile.
#1. Pigs forgive you when it’s bacon.
When Priya first spouted this one off, I shot chocolate milk straight through my nose. The way she saw it, pigs were intelligent enough creatures to accept sacrifice for the sake of greatness. In subsequent years, this principle remained the sole exception to her otherwise steadfast vegetarianism.
#2. Hug a lot. Even if it’s weird.
We were divided on this issue. Priya lacked my regard for personal space. If she liked you, she hugged you. And sometimes it was weird.
I skip ahead, to the middle—age fourteen or so.
#126. First the train, THEN champagne.
This was a lesson on the virtues of preparedness, and Priya never let her stepdad live it down. He’d taken us with him to a swanky dinner with some old colleagues who’d flown in from New York. At the end of the night, in a moment of enthusiasm, he paid for the whole table. But when it came time to buy our rides home from the Loop, his credit card was declined. Up on the platform, on the wrong side of the turnstiles, Priya looked disappointed. You would have thought Ben was the kid.
#127. Beware of inspirational bathroom plaques, and the people who put them there.
. . . Also starfish-shaped soaps.
. . . Thematic soaps in general.
. . . Or anything nautical.
I laugh lightly. Priya drew inspiration from Ben’s mother for this one. I only met the woman a few times, on her rare visits here and a lone day-trip to her home in Indiana, but she was referenced often—famous for the motivational throw pillows and posters she sent as gifts, each line of pseudo-Buddhist wisdom written out in varied whimsical fonts. Priya also took issue with whimsical fonts. (See #129: Enough with the whimsical fonts!)
I flip ahead.
#208. Ladies before mateys!
Priya didn’t like calling friends hos (over bros). Or chicks (before dicks). So here she preached in ye old pirate English. To her credit, she lived by this one when she met Nicholas Wallace Reid. I think she didn’t want me to feel like I was coming in second. I think she knew she was falling hard. My breath catches a little when I see a burst of Priya’s handwriting scribbled beneath my own.
Especially if that lady is Zan.
I slam the notebook shut and chuck it across the room. It lands, uncathartically, with a little plop in a soft heap of dirty laundry. My laptop is already taunting me from the floor beside my bed. It’s the same standoff we’ve been having every night.
And like always, I lose.
I climb under the covers with a familiar sense of dread. I settle back, tap the screen awake, and there they are. Two new photos. The first is painted toes in flip-flops. The caption?
California Dreamin. Maybe everything happens for a reason
Oh, rub it in, why don’t you? With poor punctuation, no less. I move to the other—a blueberry tart at an ocean-view table. It’s almost humiliating how much the words hurt.
I think I may never go back. . . .
I rush through the other ones—ones I’ve seen before. So elegantly filtered. Palm trees, and beaches, and California skies. I wish she could hear me as I whisper to myself, “What the fuck, Pri?”
Then I close the laptop and go to bed.
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 6
My bag hits the ground and I plop down beneath my tree. Yes, I know. The loneliness tree. Arturo can suck it.
“Hey, Zan.” Skye and Ying wave as they glide up the grassy slope by our school. I spot Lacey a ways behind them, jogging to catch up.
“Oh hey!” she says, stopping when she sees me.
She rests a moment with hands on knees, a long ponytail of dark brown hair falling forward. “Woo!” She stands abruptly, her head narrowly missing a low-hanging branch. “I need to get myself in better shape before spring. That or get ready to watch me do some serious benchwarming. It’ll be nothing new. You always were the talent.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” I tell her. Lacey and I were in the same soccer league in elementary school. We bonded the way little kids do, over nothing important. I liked that her mom brought orange slices to practice. I liked her house. I jumped on her outdoor trampoline.
I squint up as light filters through leaves behind her. A crinkle forms between her eyebrows. It seems I’m being evaluated. “You know, you can sit with us,” she says, nodding toward the hill’s summit, where Skye is no doubt already peeling off layers to lie out in the sun. I’m sure Lacey’s friends will be fine as teammates, but in our brief interactions, I’ve struggled to relate on any sort of meaningful level.
Skye DeMarco is a far cry from stimulating. I’m pretty sure the girl could talk about Kardashians all day. And then there’s Ying Li, who pretends she doesn’t know she’s extremely pretty and uses words like “heinous” to describe herself. In this little game, I believe you’re supposed to say, “What? No way. I’m heinous!” And then you and Ying compliment each other for the rest of your lives.
“It must suck with the rest of last year’s team gone,” says Lacey, scrunching her nose like a cute, concerned bunny. “And I heard Priya moved?” I tense at the mention of her, but Lacey doesn’t seem to notice. Actually, her eyes are sort of gleaming now, the way they do when she’s prowling for an inside scoop. Sometime around middle school, Lacey became the go-to girl for salacious intel. I do occasionally wonder where her allegiances would lie if the day’s big story was ever about me. “So, are Priya and her boyfriend doing the whole long-distance thing? I’ve seen pictures. College guy, right? He’s cute. Like, dork-sexy.”
I laugh. “I guess you could say that. And yeah, I think that’s the plan.”
“I have to say, it’s weird to see one of you without the other around here.”
“Definitely weird.” I sigh, miraculously impassive as I glance up the hill. “Anyway, thanks. That’s really nice of you. But I’ve got some reading to do.”
“Suit yourself,” says Lacey with a shrug. “I’ll see you in English?”
When she’s gone, I rest against the tree and close my eyes, grateful for the return to silence. A heavenly breeze cuts through the thick, midwestern air and I feel my body start to settle. It’s the warm months that remind you that Chicago is nothing more than a paved-over prairie—the flatland held up like an offering to the scorching sun. The hill by our school is the only one I know of. I guess that’s why everyone likes it so much. I pull out a paper-topped tin of leftover mac ’n’ peas from the restaurant and take a bite.
The truth is, it’s pure relief to be alone. Who says solitude is a bad thing? Maybe it’s a path toward clarity. Maybe I’m just . . . Thoreau-ing it for a while.
My phone dings, and I perk up like an idiot.
From: Anushka Jha <firstname.lastname@example.org></email@example.com>
To: Yasmine Baker <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Ben Grissom <email@example.com>, Priya Patel <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Alexandra Martini <email@example.com>, Caroline Sax <firstname.lastname@example.org> . . .</email@example.com></firstname.lastname@example.org></email@example.com></firstname.lastname@example.org></email@example.com>
Date: Thu, Sep 6, 12:11 pm
Subject: Let the fundraising BEGIN!
We at Girls Reaching Equality Through Academics are thrilled to kick off the countdown to our inaugural Teen Volunteer Summer Term!
So without further ado . . . Let’s talk INDIA! Nine months from now may sound far away, but remember, we have to raise enough funds to cover flights, housing, food, supplies, and all additional expenses for six whole weeks! To supplement your individual savings and crowdsourcing, we’ll be holding monthly meet-ups here in the office to plan events (think bake sales, auctions, NON-DEGRADING car washes, etc.). And for all you non–New Yorkers, we’re happy to be a resource from afar. To stay on task, let’s get those fundraising proposals in by the end of the month, shall we?
Also, not to be completely embarrassing, but Yasmine and I want to send big props to our mini CEO in the making, Priya Patel. Summer Term was her brainchild, and this year she’ll be taking what we hope will be one of many steps in carrying out her beautiful mother’s legacy alongside her stepfather, our prince and financial wizard, Ben Grissom. (Yasmine is leaning over my shoulder telling me to stop before I get overly emotional, so I will leave it at that. But we are so proud of you, kiddo!)
Welcome to the GRETA Fund family, ladies. You pumped? GET PUMPED!
XO, Anushka & Yasmine
I lean back against the rough bark. India was all Priya and I talked about last spring. But now . . . I shovel in a few bites. I should write them back and tell them I’m not going.
The thought makes me stop chewing. Priya would have to face me if I went.
I set the tin aside. No. What if I scared her away? That would be going too far. Not that I think she’d give up so easily.
Sita brought Priya to India only once, when she was little. Years later, Priya still clung to the faded memory—walking with her older cousins along Juhu beach, snacking on chaat and trying to take it all in. There was a time when Priya was excited to show me India herself. She said I wouldn’t believe the sweltering summers, the crowds, the colors. I know she was itching to go back.
Anyway, this trip is Priya’s baby. She thought it up. Pitched it. Fought for it. Hell, I was there—literally, right beside her on the couch as she made her case via Skype at the monthly GRETA board meeting.
I remember thinking my best friend was kind of a badass that day.
Ben had been particularly skeptical, but I knew she’d wear him down. “Is this even what your mom would have wanted?” he asked from his own computer. We were maybe ten feet apart from him and Priya gave him a WTF? look from across the living room.
“What?” he said. “I’m just saying. Do-gooder volunteer trips abroad? I can see kids using it as a photo op. Or, I don’t know, a quick résumé builder for college applications. Is that who we want to be?”
Yaz and Anushka frowned into their shared screen, and Priya sat up tall. “Look. I hear what you’re saying, but I think we can make this a big enough commitment that people don’t treat it that way. And why not let people use their privilege for good? We could be fostering the next generation of people like my mom.” I could tell Yaz and Anushka were intrigued, judging by their growing smiles.
I gave Priya a nudge. She had this in the bag.
She shot me a smile and returned her focus to the screen. “From a practical standpoint, this would help us get grants from larger organizations that might not otherwise notice us. Suddenly we’re not just a dwindling fund. We’re a multifaceted nonprofit, creating opportunities for cultural exchange.”
“Our girl has a point, Ben,” said Yaz into the camera as Anushka nodded along. “We’ve been spreading ourselves thin—taking on more schools than ever before. Qualifying for new grants could certainly help.”
When their conference ended, I stayed for dinner, and afterward we did homework in the attic. I rarely brought up Priya’s mom. It was a kind of loss I couldn’t possibly understand, and I never wanted to cause her pain. But that night I thought she should hear it. “Your mom would be really proud of you, Pri.” I looked up from my page and she bumped me with her body—a silent Thanks. Then she went back to her textbook.
I find GRETA in my contacts and hit the button, ripping out grass as the phone rings and rings. Tempted as I am to stir up drama with a mass reply, it’s clear she doesn’t want me there. And this is hers. I’ll tell them I can’t go. It’s not a good time. I can’t raise the money. They might know I’m lying. The GRETA ladies are practically aunts to Priya. They probably know her side of things.
“Zan?” says a happy voice that must be Anushka’s. “That you, sweetheart?”
“Oh,” I stammer. “Anushka, hi.”
“We’ve been sprucing up the office. The new phones have caller ID.”
“Nice,” I say. “How’s, uh, how’s everything?”
“Oh, you know us. The job never stops. Did you see my email? Got some fund-raising ideas already?”
“Oh, uh. No, not exactly.”
She tsks into the phone. “How’s life apart? Are you and Priya surviving?”
“Well . . .” So she doesn’t know. “It’s been . . . strange.”
“I can imagine. You poor things. There’s no one quite like a best friend. Yasmine here is giving me a look, but it’s no secret I’m her everything.” I hear murmuring in the background. “Watch your mouth, Yaz. We both know you don’t mean that.” Her chuckle turns to a listless sigh. “Tell Pri to give us a call, will you? We haven’t talked since she had bacon cupcakes delivered to the office for my birthday. They were somehow both disgusting and delicious and she was incredibly pleased with herself.”
I laugh under my breath. “Sounds about right.”
“Listen, dear, we’re actually about to jump on a call with Ben. Was there something you needed?”
I sniff and straighten up. “You know, it can wait.”
When we say goodbye, I have to pull myself together. Inhale, exhale . . . More and more, the stinging eyes and heavy chest come uninvited, out of my control. I guess some part of me hoped Anushka might know. Might slip and tell me everything. Or at least give me a hint.
My phone vibrates with a text and I wipe my eyes with the sleeve of my hoodie. It’s Samantha.
Out sick with cramps from HELL. Annnnnd I wasn’t the only one to bail so we have no servers. AHHH! I know it’s your day off but please say you can sub when you’re out of school?
I start to reply when I notice the clock and look up. The hill has mostly cleared out, a few stragglers hurrying inside. “Crap,” I mutter. I must have missed the bell. I grab my stuff, dust off my shorts, and bring my trash to the boxy bin by the school entrance. I check my schedule and groan. Even if I hoof it, there’s no way I can get to the other end of the building in time.
I hear scuffling behind me and turn around. In the distance, a tall boy trails a much smaller woman on the gravel path. It appears she’s straining to drag him by the arm with both hands, like a sack of potatoes over the shoulder.
“Jesus Christ, Bonnie. Would you let go of me? I’m not a little kid.”
“Well, you act like one sometimes,” says the woman.
“So I took a long lunch. Can we please talk for one second?”
“Nope.” She harrumphs and resumes pulling, though it’s clear he’s letting her. “I didn’t go to all this trouble getting you here so you could sit on my couch and watch Judge Judy all day.”
As they draw closer, I realize that it’s him—the lanky blond kid from Spanish class. He didn’t come back yesterday. I was actually a little disappointed he’d switched out.
“Don’t you have a job you should be at right now?” he asks. They stop a moment and he pulls himself gently from her grip. “Look,” he says. “I can’t figure out how, but people know.”
“How could they . . .” After a pause, she says, “You know what, who cares what people think? Screw people!”
The woman reaches for his arm again, but he shrugs her off. “I’m going, all right?”
I can’t seem to stop listening to them, but they’re getting close, and before I can even explain it to myself, I’m wedged into the space between the wall and the garbage—which, unfortunately for me, is smelling pretty rank in the hot sun.
The walking has stopped.
“It’s just . . . All this high school stuff . . . None of it matters,” says the boy.
“Well, good thing you can graduate this year and be done with it forever, then.”
They’re only a few feet away, and it sounds like I’m right there with them. I hold my T-shirt above my nose to block the smell and try not to make a sound against the scratchy gravel. “You’ll be fine,” says the woman. “It’s a brand-new year. I’m going to leave now.”
“Super,” says the boy.
“Will you at least try? Please?”
He sighs. “All right.”
“That’s my good boy. I’ll see you at home.”
“Yep.” After a moment he calls after her, “Now go back to work, you stalker!”
“I will!” she calls out, her laughter trailing off. “But know that I have eyes everywhere.”
I hear footsteps pass by, then the door to the school opens.
I wait for it to close, but it doesn’t.
Instead I hear his voice overhead. “Hola, trash girl. You can come out now. You wouldn’t want to be late.”
* * *
Standing before Señora O’Connell’s class, I find myself momentarily frozen—the second latecomer of the afternoon.
“Ustedes llegan tarde,” says our teacher: You’re late. I cross my arms, uncross them. They’re limp, and long. Where do I normally put these things?
Because life is excessively cruel, Lanky Blond Kid did not, in fact, switch out of my Spanish class, which means—FUNNY STORY—we were headed for the same place. After I sheepishly stepped out from my spy perch–slash–garbage can, he held the door for me. As I grazed by, I think I managed a quiet “Thank you” to the ground before bending down to tie my already-tied shoe. Once he was a safe distance ahead I walked slowly behind, waiting for him to peel off. But he never peeled. So I just sort of weirdly followed. Very weirdly.
Oh God so weirdly.
Señora O’Connell holds out stapled packets for us both. “You missed the lecture. Pluperfect. It’s a hoot.” In my utter humiliation I refuse to look at the boy. “There’s an explanation at the top if you’re lost,” says la Señora. “And you can work in groups.” I don’t say a word. I just take my packet and scurry to the back of the room.
“We missed you in class yesterday,” I hear as I slide into a desk. At the front of the room, Señora O’Connell has clamped down on the boy’s packet to hold him there another moment. “But I was assured over the phone earlier this afternoon that it won’t happen again.”
“So you’re the rat,” he mutters.
“Nothing. I’m sorry. I’ll be here from now on. With bells on. Yo te prometo.”
“Le,” she corrects. “And you were supposed to be one of the good ones.” At this, the boy smiles a little. He’s pretty cute. Not that I’m looking. “Well, get to work,” says la Señora, releasing him. “Seriously. ¡Ándale!”
I focus on my worksheet as his footsteps approach. And then, to my horror, the chair beside mine screeches, and an outstretched hand comes into view. “I don’t think we’ve properly met. I’m Logan.”
After a pause, I peek up and say, “Zan,” whilst dying a thousand miserable deaths on the inside. I can’t stop picturing myself climbing out from behind that damned trash can. But his eyes are kind, if a little tired. And forgiving, I think. His palm is soft and cool when I take it, and perhaps a bit electric.
We break apart and he settles in at his desk. I tap a pencil against my page, inexplicably compelled to speak again. “Guess that was kind of weird of me back there, huh?”
“What do you mean?” He rubs his jaw as he scans his worksheet, and I realize he’s having fun with this. “Ohhhh. Oh, right. The spying thing.”
I feel my cheeks go red but push through it. “Was that your mom?”
“Aunt,” he says with a flicker of fondness.
“You’re new,” I say, stating the obvious.
“So.” I clear my throat. (Why am I still talking???) “Did you guys just move here?”
I fill in a couple more blanks. Yo había hablado—I had talked. Tú habías hablado—You had talked.
“Me and my sister,” he says. “We came here to live with my aunt. We were in Indiana before.”
“Oh.” I stop short, afraid to say more. I think of Priya and all the questions people used to ask her about Ben. No one could quite grasp how a single white guy wound up raising her. There was a standard line of questioning. Was she adopted? Half white? A foster kid, maybe? It was as if people felt she owed it to them to make herself easier to place. When the story came out, sympathy and praise inevitably followed. Priya was so brave. And Ben was a such a stand-up guy. She never asked for these opinions or for these reminders that her mother was dead. But people had no freaking sense.
“No one died, if you were wondering.”
I laugh, a little startled. “You’re very direct, aren’t you?”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” he says, staring at his paper again. “Direct would be pointing out how absolutely adorable you find me.”
I jolt upright. “Uh, correction. You are not direct. You are delusional.”
“Says the girl who watched me from a trash can.”
My mouth falls open in mock outrage. “Um, excuse you. I was only watching because you were getting owned by a woman half your size! Let’s be clear about this. I was spying for personal amusement.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” He’s grinning, and it strikes me that I am too.
I hear a grumble and look over to see Eddy Hays perking up from a nap on my other side. “Hey, keep it down over there,” he says grouchily.
“Eduardo,” calls la Señora from the front of the room. “So nice to see you conscious. Perhaps you can join Zan and Logan’s group. Get yourself something other than a zero for the day.”
“Sure, why not?” he says, turning to me. He wiggles his eyebrows. “What are we working on, hot stuff?”
“Pluperfect,” I say. “Like, for example, You had been asleep. And I had preferred it that way.”
The comment doesn’t seem to register. “You know,” he says, “I’m thinking of switching to your gym class. I hear we’re doing ballroom dancing. Let me take you for a spin?”
“Not unless it’s my lifeless corpse,” I tell him.
“You can’t walk away from history, Zan.”
I turn to Logan. “Since he’s obviously intent on bringing this up in front of you, I might as well get ahead of it. Eddy and I played a round of spin the bottle at a bar mitzvah party once. We were children and I puked after.”
“You did not,” says Eddy, a bit wounded.
Without warning, a wave of ache comes over me, but I try not to show it. I can still picture Priya so vividly—the horror rippling across her face as I winced and bravely accepted the kiss from Eddy, cross-legged in the circle among the discarded yarmulkes and shimmering disco lights.
Like the tweens we were, we’d spent a lot of time pondering what kissing would be like. Priya, especially. The girl was always ready to fall in love. But Eddy was not what either of us had in mind.
I can still see us at my house that night as I ferociously gargled mouthwash, Priya watching worriedly from the lip of the tub.
“We need a system moving forward,” she said. “Like a code word for Get me the heck out of this!”
I spat the blue liquid into the sink. “That could work.”
“I propose blueberry,” she said. “I like blueberries.”
“Well, isn’t that kind of a problem?” I started to leave, then doubled back. “What if you really want to bring up blueberries? What if it’s not a blueberry situation?”
“Good point,” said Priya. “We need a neutralizing word.” She thought a moment, to the sounds of my vigorous, second-
round brushing. “Rhinoceros,” she said. “If you’re actually talking about blueberries, say rhinoceros.”
“So if I say blueberry by mistake, you want me to casually drop the word rhinoceros into a sentence.”
“Yes,” said Priya, her grin broad and unapologetic. “Yes, I do.”
I jump back to the moment.
To the classroom.
To stupid Eddy, puckering by my ear. “You know you miss these lips,” he says.
I palm his face and shove.
“All right, all right.” Eddy swats me away. “I’m joining Skye and Ying’s group. You’re no fun.”
“Class act, that man,” I say wistfully when he switches seats. “With time you could be fast friends.” Logan laughs, his green eyes crinkling in the corners. It feels like you’ve done something right when eyes like that begin to crinkle.
“So what about you?” asks Logan. “Who are your fast friends at Prewitt High?”
My stomach drops a step. Maybe I shouldn’t care, but I don’t want him knowing I’m a hermit. “Just people. I’m kind of a grazer.”
“O . . . kay,” he says, like I’m oh-so-mysterious. “Any big weekend plans? Parties I should crash?”
I don’t have it in me to make something up, but I try to play it cool. “I’ll probably chill. Keep it low-key. My mom’s girlfriend and my little brother have been getting into home decorating, so maybe I’ll help with some of that.”
For a flickering moment, I can tell he’s stuck on the word girlfriend. It wouldn’t be the first time. But then he says, “That’s cool,” like a code for Hey, so you know, I’m not a wacko bigot. “One of my best friends back home has two moms.”
“Oh,” I say. I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not quite right. “Actually, Whit’s not one of my parents. Not yet, anyway. I mean I have a dad. He and my mom got divorced when I was a kid. Since, you know, she wasn’t really living her truth or whatever.”
“Huh,” says Logan. “That sounds . . . complicated.”
I shrug. “My mom says life is messier than we want it to be. And that sexuality is a spectrum.”
Logan knits his brow. “Yeah, I don’t think I have a spectrum.”
I lift my chin. “How very heteronormative of you.”
For a moment we’re just smiling. Then he nods to my backpack. “You gonna get that?” I hadn’t noticed, but now that I listen, the inside is buzzing and buzzing. I open the pouch and read through my texts. There’s a whole flood of them from Arturo, and from the number of capital letters he’s using, you’d think the restaurant was undergoing some kind of culinary apocalypse.
Guess Sam didn’t find that sub.
I text back quickly—Ahhhh yes will be there ASAP—and put the phone away before la Señora catches me.
“Everything okay?” asks Logan while he doodles on his page.
“Work,” I tell him, thinking a minute. “I need to go as soon as school’s over. I bet the bus will be messed up. It’s always rerouted when the Cubs play.”
“I could give you a ride,” he says. “I’m right on the other side of the park.”
“Oh,” I say. “Um. Are you sure?”
He shrugs. “I’ve got nothing better to do. Meet me by the front entrance after school.”
“Okay . . .” I say, frowning. “Thanks.” I stare down at my packet. Did we just make a plan? I’m pretty sure the rule is don’t get into cars with boys you know nothing about. But Logan doesn’t strike me as an ax murderer.
“Hey, what’s your deal, anyway?” I ask after a minute. “Why are small women dragging you around places?”
“Oh that?” He smirks. “That’s nothing. That’s just a thing we do for fun.”
“I’m being serious.”
“And so am I,” he says, moving his pen in scratchy strokes. “There’s no deal. Trust me. I’m not nearly as interesting as
I come closer, noting the gorgeous spiral of dark-inked vines he’s etched into the margins. “I don’t believe you,” I say.
Then he catches me looking and turns the page.
* * *
And there we have it, folks. There is always, always a catch.
“You really think you’re hilarious, don’t you?”
“What?” says Logan. “It’s a loaner from my aunt. The woman has flair.”
The turquoise bike is secured to a street sign along the edge of the park, a whole garden of plastic daisies woven into its big metal basket, quivering in the wind. I check my transit app, frustrated to find that the buses have been rerouted as predicted. It’s a long walk, and the nearest “L” stop is about a mile from here.
“You see, Logan, when someone offers to give you a ride, that typically implies four wheels and an engine.”
“Don’t be a wuss,” he says, crouching down to jam a tiny key into the bike lock. “It’ll be fun.”
I let out an involuntary squeak of offendedness. “I am not a wuss. I’m the opposite of wuss. I simply cannot on principle let you put me in that basket. No one puts Zanny in a basket.”
“You’re being silly, Zan.”
“Am I? Okay. Then how about I bike and you sit in the basket?”
“Maybe because I’m six two?” he says, standing.
“That can’t be right.” I look him up and down—well, admittedly mostly up. “And anyway, I’m the one who knows the way there,” I say. “Plus, this is a woman’s bike! I am the appropriate driver here!”
“Now who’s being heteronormative?”
I glance down and see Arturo’s latest text.
HELLLP!! The vegans are rioting!
“Do you want to help get me to work or not?”
“Fine.” Logan sighs. “I’ll take the basket. For feminism.”
I sling my leg over the bar and skid to a park bench, feeling somehow both huffy and pleased. “You can hop on from up here.”
I hold us steady and he lowers his narrow hips into the basket, grumbling, “I’m never giving you a ride again.”
“I’d hold on if I were you,” I say as we wobble down the gravel path. I have to stand to see over him. He’s wearing his backpack on his front, like a baby carrier, and each time I lean forward I feel the heat of his skin through his T-shirt.
Without thinking, I cut down Priya’s street and feel a sudden dip in my mood as we pass her house. I guess they haven’t found tenants yet. The mailbox is stuffed, with newspapers piled at the door.
I speed up, unable to stand the sight, and turn abruptly onto Clark Street.
Logan clutches the handlebars and calls over his shoulder, “In case I wasn’t clear, I would prefer to be alive at the end of this ride.” I veer to the left to avoid a jaywalker and he grips the handles tighter. “Seriously! I’m really appreciating the fragility of life up here!”
“Don’t worry!” A fire engine rips past us and I hike us up a curb, along the sidewalk, and back onto the street.
“We’re definitely going to die,” he says.
“Back there is Molly’s Cupcakes,” I call out, ignoring him. “If you’re ever in need of a treat. They have swings hanging from the ceiling. It’s fun.” Priya and I used to go there all the time. I zoom through an intersection and Logan lightly squeals before clearing his throat. “And that’s the Crêperie,” I say, pointing. “In the summer they have checkered tablecloths on the patio outside. It’s like a little piece of France.” Another Priya place. I guess they all kind of are.
I turn a sharp corner, past a row of thrift shops and a street performer playing an amped keyboard with looped glow sticks around his neck. “Is he a staple of the neighborhood?” calls Logan.
“Glow-stick guy? Oh, big-time. Out here twice a week at least. Even in the snow!” I’m weirdly enjoying this—whisking this boy away on his bike, chatting him up with the wind in my face.
Even if he does think I’m about to get us killed.
We round another corner, past the little theater where Arturo does his shows. “Please tell me this is almost over.”
“It’s almost over,” I say. And with that, we come to a halt.
“You’re a madwoman,” pants Logan. Through the window of the restaurant, I can see Arturo wiping down a booth. He looks up, shooting me a bulging stare before running out to meet us.
“I know, I know,” I say, catching my breath. “I’m sorry. Are the vegans out for blood?”
“Huh? No, no,” says Arturo hurriedly. “I managed to cover all the tables. I’m exhausted, but it’s pretty much cleared out. You should have seen this place an hour ago.”
I blink, wary. He’s smiling like he froze that way. “What’s with the face? Why so happy?”
“Zan!” Arturo bugs his eyes at me, like it’s obvious, then leans in with a stage whisper: “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but there’s an actual human person with you right now.” He reaches out to shake Logan’s hand. “I’m Arturo. I love you already. Please keep hanging out with her. She’s been terribly lonely.”
“Arturo!” I can feel my face burning.
“I don’t mean that in a pathetic-loser sort of way,” says my soon-to-be-dead boss, still shaking and shaking and shaking Logan’s hand. “Not at all. Zan’s the coolest. Way cool beyond her years. We all love her. Although I should warn you she is a bit stubborn, and bossy.”
“So I’ve noticed,” says Logan with a smirk. “Logan. Nice to meet you.”
“You hungry?” asks Arturo, giving Logan a manly slap on the back.
“He was just leaving,” I say.
Logan holds my stare, clearly enjoying this. “Actually, I’m starved.”
Arturo opens the door and gestures happily to the inside. “It’s all vegan,” I tell Logan flatly. “You’ll hate it.”
“I’m sure I’ll find something.” He locks his bike to a pole and returns to us.
“Attaboy,” says Arturo.
“I’m going to kill you,” I whisper to my boss as I slip past.
“Worth it,” he whispers back.
Inside it’s empty, aside from a group of guys at a four-top still lingering, with cash already thrown down for the bill. “You two sit,” says Arturo. “I’ll have Manny whip something up.” He swipes the other table’s check and disappears into the kitchen with a skip.
Logan drums his fingers on the table, admiring the restaurant’s glittery booths and poster-plastered walls. Above us, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice comes slinking through the speakers—the soundtrack of my childhood, one of my dad’s old favorites.
“Cool place,” says Logan. I nod, feeling suddenly exposed and fidgety. Even Ella can’t calm me down. Logan studies my face from across the booth. “So . . .”
“You’re on a no-human streak, huh? I must say I’m honored to be the exception.”
I look at him, defeated. “Please don’t laugh at me.”
Logan’s expression twists into something like worry. “I wouldn’t . . . I wasn’t . . .”
“It’s okay.” He’s kind of sweet. “I guess I was having fun . . . talking to you. And I didn’t feel like getting into the fact that I’m kind of a depressed and friendless loser at the moment.”
“So you’re not a grazer.”
“Not a grazer. Just got dumped.”
Logan frowns abruptly. “Well, then he’s an idiot.”
“Not a guy,” I say, smiling a little. “My best friend. But . . . thanks.”
He leans forward, elbows planted on the table. “So what happened?”
I meet his eyes, and it strikes me that I really want to tell him. There’s something about Logan. He’s so . . . clear. Like staring straight down to the bottom of a lake. And while I have no idea why, he seems to genuinely want to listen.
“Nothing happened,” I say. “That’s kind of the problem. She moved away. We hugged and cried and said we’d visit every break until summer. We were even planning to volunteer together in India after graduation. It was all we talked about. And now . . . nothing. She won’t pick up her phone, or write back to my texts or emails. It’s been months but I still can’t get over it. I hate how I feel. It’s like nothing makes sense anymore. Like I’ve lost all control.”
Logan nods. “And therein lies the danger in loving people.”
“Speaking from experience?” I ask.
“Something like that.”
“Being a hermit is definitely the safer option.”
Logan thinks a moment. “Maybe she’s depressed?”
“She hasn’t had the easiest life,” I say. “But I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like it from her posts.” I grab my phone from my bag and pull up her account. “If anything, it’s like she’s being extra happy just to make me feel like crap.”
Logan takes the phone to study it. “Priya, huh? She’s cute.”
I sigh. “As a button.”
He gets out his own phone and does some typing. “I’m sending her a follow request.”
“What, why? Don’t!”
He shrugs. “Too late. Who were all those people she was talking to in the comments?”
“Friends from different places. Model UN, language classes, her dance team. No one I know too well. We didn’t really share a group. It was usually just her and me.”
He takes my phone back. “Were Priya and Eddy friends?”
“I mean, she tolerated his existence.”
Logan studies the screen. “But the two of them . . . They weren’t like, close.”
“No,” I say. “Not at all.”
“It’s Eddy Hays, right?”
“That’s the one.”
He turns the screen toward me. “Then why is Priya responding to his comments with little hearts?”
“What?” I lunge across the table. “Give me that.”
Priya has posted a photo of a glistening pool, in a valley surrounded by desert. Fifty likes.
eddytheonly Priya, that pool is SICK
thepriyapatel514 @eddytheonly Thanks bud. Miss you!!
“Miss you. Miss you?!” For a moment, I’m in shock. “What. The fuck.”
Logan’s eyes are lighting up. “You should write something, too. How can she keep freezing you out if she just responded to someone else you know?”
“I can’t . . . This is so . . .” I’m babbling. “No, it’s too weird. And anyway, she’s already ignored like a zillion texts and calls from me.”
“Then fuck it!” he says. “What’s the harm? Say something really simple. Like there’s nothing going on between you. Get into her head. This is different than texting. It’s public! Make it a question, so it’s weird not to respond.” He takes my cell again. “Can I write it?”
“What? No!” I dive over the table to wrestle the phone from his hands. “I’ll do it. I’ll say . . .” He’s right. Why not? I tap the space beneath her comment.
zanmartini I’m so jealous! Can I come?
“There.” I let out a breath, immediately regretful. God, that was pathetic. I should delete it. Is it too late to delete it?
“All right!” Arturo is standing over us with both hands full. “Sweet potato fries, garlic white bean dip with house-made pita chips, and some fresh-pressed juices. Not too scary, right, pal?”
“Not at all,” says Logan. “This looks amazing.”
The knot in my gut twists as I glance down at the phone. My ears have begun to ring. “Anything else I can grab you two? . . . Zan?” I hear them, but it’s like they’re far away. “Zan.” It feels like I’ve been blown backward, blasted straight onto the ground. “You okay?” asks Arturo, the volume back to normal.
“Yeah,” I say, looking up at them. “It’s just . . . Priya wrote back.”