Prepare yourselves book nerds—today we’re introducing you to a hero so charming and hilarious that you may never recover from the fact that he’s fictional. We’re talking about the one and only Jack King, of course, the protagonist of Justin A. Reynolds’ debut hilarious, heartwarming, heartaching love story, Opposite of Always.
This story blends the contemporary romance of Everything, Everything with the poignant and heartbreaking time travel elements of Before I Fall and will have you laughing, sobbing, and swooning from start to finish.
To say we fell in love immediately with this hilarious and heart-racing tale is an understatement. But don’t just take our word for it! Authors like Angie Thomas and Becky Albertalli are also crushing on this epic story about love, loss, and how far you’ll go to save the people you care about most. Scroll on down and read the first few chapters for yourself, right now!
How to Save No One
My face is mashed sideways against the trunk of a police cruiser when Kate dies for the third time. The box meant to save her life is smushed near my feet.
I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.
For instance: don’t waste time on clothes.
It’s cold out, easily sweater weather. I’m in short sleeves, plaid pajama shorts, and a pair of beat-up Chucks I wear to mow the lawn. The insides are damp, and there’s a clump of grass in my right shoe scratching my toes, but there wasn’t time for socks. Socks, and weather-appropriate attire, are a luxury. They take time. And I can’t waste any.
Because big lesson number one is this: all the time travel in the world can’t save the people you love.
45 Minutes Earlier
The police are already here.
A marked car, idling beside the emergency room entrance. There’s a chance they’re here for me, but there’s no turning back. Split seconds matter. I grab the small package sitting on the passenger seat and hop out of my car. I rip open the box, jam its contents into my sneaker. I pick up my pace.
I should’ve left earlier.
Should’ve done a hundred things differently this time around.
I push open the door, thinking, Get to the elevator, make it to the fourth floor, and then I run face-first into a concrete wall. Also known as colliding into three hundred pounds of beef and nightstick.
Ah, this must be the driver.
I nearly crumple onto the wet floor, except the officer snares me by my T-shirt.
“I got him,” he mumbles into the walkie holstered on his shoulder. “Back outside,” he orders me, pushing open the door, his other hand hugging his gun grip. “Come on, kid. Let’s go.” All sorts of things run through my mind—acts of valor, courage. I think about pushing past the officer and bolting for the stairs or slipping inside the elevator before it closes. But in the end my legs are spread apart, my hands cuffed behind my back.
Part of me thinks, wonders, hopes: maybe this is it. This is the solution. I’m not supposed to be there. If I’m not there, she’ll live.
They rattle off my crimes, and after breaking and entering, I stop listening. I don’t bother trying to explain, because how do you explain you’re from the future?
“. . . you understand your rights,” they say more than ask.
I nod, the aluminum trunk cool and sticky against my cheek.
“You have anything on you? Weapon, drugs, or the like?” the large officer asks.
“No,” I lie. Because I can’t tell the truth. Not now. Rough hands slide up and down my body. My keys jingle as he fishes them out of my pocket. Then he removes my wallet.
“Nothing interesting,” the large officer says to his female partner.
“Have him take off his shoes?” she suggests.
And my knees nearly buckle.
“Please,” I plead, “just let me go inside. My girlfriend’s dying. Check with the doctors, her nurses. Please. Just five minutes. Please. A heart, have a heart. Just let me see her for five minutes and then you can haul me away to prison, throw away the key, whatever. Please. Think of your kids. Do you have kids? If they were dying, would you want them to be alone? Please. Please.”
I try dropping to my knees to beg, but it’s tricky when you’re being physically restrained. The officer who put the cuffs on me looks over to the other one, a dirty-blond-haired woman with bloodshot eyes, and she sighs in that studied way that all mothers must learn on the first day of Mom School. But then she nods her head. And the cuffs come off.
Which is beyond crazy.
“Don’t be stupid, kid,” he says in a voice that makes me think he thinks I’m going to do something stupid.
“Five minutes,” she says. “That’s it.”
They walk on either side of me, assuring me as we march the greasy linoleum floors and ride the we’re-trying-to-hide-the-piss-smell-with-bleach elevator to the fourth floor that if I try anything funny they will not hesitate to lay my stupid ass out. But I’m not going to run. I check my watch again. There’s a chance.
Except the elevator door hesitates for twenty seconds before finally hiccuping open. And then we’re forced to detour down another hallway because a maintenance man is mopping the floors and apparently takes his floor-mopping very seriously, because he starts shouting and jumping up and down. The officers mumble apologies, but the man just points angrily toward an alternative route, also known as The World’s Longest Possible Way Around.
I try to explain that we don’t have time for detours, for tired elevators, for wet floor signs. But no one listens. And when we get there it’s nearly too late.
Kate’s almost gone.
“Well, look who it is,” she says, her eyes blinking open. In the corner, the chair her mom normally occupies is empty. A crumpled blanket on the floor beside it. A lipsticked Styrofoam cup on the windowsill.
“Hey,” I say. For a second I’m taken aback at how small she looks. The room is quiet, except for the hiss of oxygen pumping into her nose, the drone of IV fluids chugging into her arm.
“What time is it?” she asks, squinting. Even at three in the morning, confined to a hospital bed, she’s beautiful.
“We don’t have a lot of time left.”
Her face twists in confusion. “What are you talking about?” She leans forward in her bed, glances over my shoulder, wincing. “And this time, you brought the police with you. Interesting move. You really know how to make an entrance, Jack King.”
I look back at the officers. “I’m sorry about them.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?”
“I can see how you’d come to that conclusion, yes,” I say, smiling.
“Five,” the female officer reminds me.
Kate shakes her head. “Jack, why are you here? I don’t get it, man. What, you have some morbid fascination with hospitals, is that it? Or do sick girls turn you on?”
“I came here to tell you . . .” My voice trails off because I haven’t really come to say anything.
“I think I know what I’m supposed to do now. I think I’ve figured it out. Finally.”
“Okaaaay,” she says, her eyebrows sliding up. Clearly, I’m only confusing her. Of course I am. Because none of this makes any sense.
“You’re going to be okay, Kate. Everything’s going to be okay.”
She turns away. “Everyone keeps saying that, but they’re lying. Don’t be a liar, Jack. Not like—” She stops when she sees what’s in my hand.
Because for the last twenty seconds I’ve carefully worked my fingers into my shoe. And now I have it.
“Jack,” she says, her voice rising. “Jack, what the hell—?”
But before she can finish I yank back her blankets and fire the syringe into her thigh. She lunges forward, like I’ve hit her with a million electrical bolts.
The police tackle me to the ground, shouting curses into my ear, into the room. “What the—! What the hell did you just do, kid? What the hell was that?”
“Someone help,” the lady officer screams, running out in the hall. “We need a doctor in here! We need a doctor!”
The man officer presses my face so hard against the linoleum it’s a wonder my brain doesn’t rupture out of my eye sockets. Legs and feet come rushing into the room. Lots of shouting and screaming, and people keep shaking me and asking me what I injected her with, what drug was it, and the truth is I wouldn’t know exactly how to explain it even if I wanted to. But I don’t want to. Because this is the only thing that I could do. This is the only way.
While the doctors scramble to save her life, the officers drag me across the wet floor, across the lobby, back out into the night.
I know that if I make the tiniest move, if I even breathe too hard, they’ll probably shoot me. Or at least knock me out cold. But it doesn’t matter. Because I got a peek at the clock on my way out of Kate’s room. And if things happen like before, then either Kate lives, or any second now it starts again.
The male officer has a thing for smushing my face, because now my cheek is back against the cruiser. I’m guessing he intends to search me more thoroughly this time.
“If that girl dies, I’m going to—”
But I feel it hit me before he can finish. I close my eyes. The air already peeling, gravity ripping away from me like a pulled parachute. The tremors are nastier this time, too. I can barely stand. My body one long violent vibration.
“Kid, are you okay?” He barks an order to his partner, tells her to go inside for help, and she darts off at full speed, but it doesn’t matter. She won’t make it in time. If I could talk, I’d tell them not to worry. That I’m not dying. I’m merely buffering. That I was trying to save her. Not that they’d understand. Not that I understand. The first time it happened, I thought I was a goner. But now.
I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s like my body’s preparing for launch. You know, if my body was a highly evolved space shuttle and space shuttles traveled through time instead of just into space.
“Kid, listen to me, talk to me! I think he’s having a seizure. Kid! Kid!”
Oh yeah, lesson number two:
Time travel hurts.
The Experience of
Having Zero Experiences
People love to say, “There’s someone for everyone.”
It’s one of those “feel better” things your mom tells you after your relationship has crashed and burned, or your normally noncommunicative dad mumbles as he slaps you between your shoulder blades, then announces “good talk.” But it’s mostly true. If you consider how many people are walking around this planet, there has to be someone you could fit perfectly with, right? The person who makes your heart say super-crazy things like “I’ll love you forever” and “I can’t wait to meet your parents” and “Oh, sure, let’s definitely get each other’s names tattooed on our necks.” The problem is we spend most of our puny lives chasing someone else’s someone, and, if we’re lucky, we end up with only a third of the time we could’ve spent with the person truly meant for us. That is, if we don’t wind up missing them altogether.
Take me, for instance.
I’m an expert on just missing out—on the girl of my dreams, on class valedictorian, on making it onto any sort of sports team. (I’ve tried them all. In one desperate moment I auditioned for mascot. Turns out “Hairy” Larry Koviak executes a far superior somersault.) And the extracurricular clubs? Yep, tried those, too, only to narrowly miss the cut. Which is funny because I’d always thought that anyone could just join a school club (add that to the Things Jack Has Been Utterly and Unequivocally Wrong About list). Point is, you name it, I’ve found a way to miss my chance, often by the slimmest of margins. By now I’m an authority on Almost, with nearly eighteen years of working experience on my résumé.
Need more proof, just walk with me through our attic. It’s a virtual shrine to Nice Try, or as I like to call it, “Jack’s Stupefying Museum of Almost Was but Never Will Be.” There’s a skateboard in mint condition, from the summer that I almost became a semipro skateboarder. There’s a sewing machine that I used to tell everyone was my mom’s but was actually mine from that time I was really into Project Runway for a few seasons. There’s the Frisbee golf set, the antique marble collection, a crate full of tiny unfinished circuits, a box with every Super Nintendo game ever created, a coffin-size container that was my first (and only) attempt at a time machine (don’t ask!), and a never-used set of noncollectible ninja stars (seriously, don’t ask!).
Almost, almost, almost, almost, almo—
You get it.
I joke that my parents were prophets when they named me Jack Ellison King.
Jack of all. King of none.
Except my mom’s always reminding me that I was named for Jackie Robinson, who broke through the pro sports color barrier, and Ralph Ellison, writer and scholar, best known for his seminal work Invisible Man.
I’m an only child. My parents had me rather late in life, after trying hard for years, and, well, just as they’d abandoned all hope—I swam along. Mom wanted to name me Miracle, but Dad (not usually the voice of reason, but willing to make an exception here) intervened—is it your dream to have Miracle get his ass kicked every day, honey?
And so Jackie Ellison it was.
Which I can’t help but think is a prime example of the Best and Worst of Parenting.
Because on one hand, it’s awesome knowing that my namesakes were these incredible men. An honor. A privilege.
But on the flip side, it’s possible that my parents did not comprehend the ridiculous amount of PRESSURE they were placing upon my freakishly narrow shoulders.
So, yeah, there’s that, too.
I’m Jack King. The guy sporting a five o’clock shadow and an old flannel jacket at a party full of people, sitting near the bottom of the living room stairs, holding an empty glass, semiwatching a basketball game playing on the TV, but mostly staring out into the kitchen, looking at—
It’s always the same girl.
When we signed up for this college visit, I pictured Jillian and me finally getting time alone. That we’d spend the weekend together and she’d at long last see just how (sorta) charming and (semi-) cool and (relatively) interesting I was. That I’m more than just Friendship Material Jack, you know?
But instead, I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes, alone, although in fairness, I’m not completely alone; there are quite a few people who keep bumping into me walking up and down the stairs. I swear I’m not normally this awkward, this antisocial.
Let me explain.
A Brief History of Strong Like
Jillian and I are best friends. We met freshman year in high school, literally bumping into each other (how horribly cliché, right?), our backpacks spilling their guts all over the hallway. I helped her gather her books and we avoided that whole
bumping-heads thing as we stood up, only for idiot me to step on her backpack strap and send her crashing back onto her ass. If there was an embarrassment gun, we’d bypassed Stun and switched right to Kill. A few kids paused to gawk and laugh, and there I was, rapid-firing apology after apology Jillian’s way.
But she’d simply hopped to her feet, barked at our spectators to “keep it moving,” and introduced herself.
“Jack and Jill,” I said, putting it together.
“Ha.” She smiled. “Guess this was meant to be.”
“Sorry I didn’t come tumbling after.” I was far too giddy with my clever reply only to realize hours later that it was actually Jill who tumbled after Jack.
But Jillian didn’t seem vexed by my mistake. “We can always try again,” she said. Her smile upping its wattage, she added, “The tumbling part, that is.”
I knew then we had a chance at something amazing. But in keeping with my long-standing theme of almost, we had neither. Which is to say, three weeks later Jillian had a boyfriend.
Now maybe you’re thinking—who cares if she has a boyfriend, Jack? Tell her how you feel. Let her decide. Except the whole I have a boyfriend thing seemed an impregnable defense. I’m talking snipers on the roof, motion-activated lasers, trained attack dinosaurs, and a moat boiling with molten lava—
Because, major plot twist: Jillian’s boyfriend, Francisco “Franny” Hogan, is my other best friend.
I know, I know.
And I wish I could tell you this is a story about a horrible boyfriend (Franny) who doesn’t appreciate what he’s got, who treats his girlfriend (Jillian) like crap, who doesn’t deserve her. Or that he’d viciously stabbed me in the back going after the girl of my heart. Except Franny didn’t even know I liked her.
The truth is, Franny’s a good guy—hell, a great guy. Were I to pick someone other than myself to be with Jillian—like if Jillian and I were together and were playing that game where you pick one of your friends to take your place in the event of your untimely demise—I’d pick Franny for Jillian, every time. He’d take care of her. He’d love her. (That’s sort of a sick game, right? Let’s not play that again.)
Anyway, they’re a couple. An awesome couple. And I’m happy for them. I would never consider doing anything to jeopardize their relationship. No, I’m here for the Jillian-Franny love connection. The ultimate third wheel, the undervalued eleventh toe, the superfluous third nipple.
The Thing about Stairs Is
That They’re Up and Down
“Excuse me, man, but you’re sort of damming up the steps,” a voice behind me says.
“What?” I swivel around.
It’s a girl with bright eyes and shoulder-length curly hair. She’s wearing one of those sweater-dress things—except I think it’s just an oversize sweater that she’s cinched around her waist with a skinny belt. I recognize her from earlier, our student center tour guide.
“You’re blocking the stairs. You’re a very proficient human dam.”
“Sorry,” I mumble.
I scoot over and she applauds. “Oooh, he’s a motorized dam. Brilliant.”
“Surprise, surprise,” I say.
I wait for her to complete her trek down the stairs, but she doesn’t move. “If you like her so much, you should try talking to her.”
“I hear that talking to people usually alerts them to our existence. You know, as opposed to just staring at them like a deranged serial killer.”
“As opposed to a nonderanged serial killer,” I say over my shoulder.
She snaps her fingers. “Bingo.”
I frown. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Of course, I know exactly what she’s talking about, but I’m offended that I’m so transparent.
“You were clinging to her during the entire tour, man.”
“Dude, you reached barnacle status.”
She grins. “I’m saying, get in that kitchen and talk to the girl.”
“I don’t need to. I talk to her all the time. She’s my best friend.”
“Wow, so you guys are best friends but she has no idea you’re in love with her?”
This girl is awfully loud. I realize we’re at a party, but her voice is set to Evacuate Immediately. I almost shush her, except not being shushed is an unalienable right, right there with pursuit of happiness.
I whisper, “I’m not in love with her, okay.”
She leans in closer. “What?”
“I’m not in love with her,” I repeat.
“I can’t hear you. Why are you whispering?”
I resume normal volume. “I said I’m not in love with her. She’s really nice, is all.”
“That’s obviously your problem. You’re too nice. You’re, what, waiting for the perfect opportunity to tell this girl how you feel and you’ve already waited for . . .” She pauses for me to fill in the blank.
She palms her forehead. “Whoa, it’s been three years and she has no clue you want to jump her bones?”
“I like to take things slow.”
“Yeah, you do. At this rate, you’ll have to hope they find a way to freeze our bodies so that they can defrost you in two hundred years and you can ask her to go steady. You know, right after you do that whole fake yawn-and-stretch thing and slip your arm around her shoulders. Smooth move, by the way. Spoiler alert, she never sees it coming.”
“Hahaha. Listen, I appreciate the pep talk, but if you don’t mind—”
It is at this point that this girl, rather than proceeding down the steps, instead slides in beside me. Now, by our powers combined, we are officially damming all second-floor access. No one is going to pee on our watch.
“I’m Kate,” she says, extending her hand. Which is awkward because it’s a tight squeeze on the stairs, and I can’t turn my arm to meet hers.
“Jack,” I say, managing to give her The Wimpiest Handshake in Recorded History. “Jack King.”
“Do you always give people your full name when you meet them?”
“Nope. I only hand out full-name intros to cool tour guides.”
“Ha.” She grins. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jack King.”
“It’s nice to meet you . . .”
“Just Kate, huh?”
“Gotta keep the mystery alive, right?”
“I don’t know. I sorta hate mysteries. I’m more of an all-cards-on-the-table guy.”
“So, Jack and King, that’s different.”
“’Cause I’m just looking for my queeeeeeeen,” I say with instant regret.
She bursts into laughter.
My cheeks are ablaze. “I promise I’ve never said that before.”
She shakes her head. “It came out of your mouth pretty quickly, so . . .”
“I’m not sure if I believe you, Jack.”
“Cool. Only fifteen minutes in and we’ve already introduced distrust into our relationship. I normally like to reserve that for the second time I talk to someone, but.”
She snickers. “So, look, Jack King, I’m not trying to bust your balls, okay? But I think you could use help from someone who understands the female species.”
“And you can put me in touch with this someone?”
“Hey!” Kate punches me in the shoulder. It stings, but I pretend to shrug it off.
“Okay then, Ms. Love Doctor, what do you suggest?”
Kate laughs again. “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest. I’m still only in my Love Doctor residency, so.”
“Well, I haven’t told you the best part yet,” I say. By this point, I’m laughing too—partly because it took a stranger to validate what I already knew (that it is too complicated for Jillian and me), and because if I don’t laugh, I’ll probably cry.
“What’s the best part?” Kate asks. She clasps her hands together.
“She’s dating our mutual best friend.”
Kate erupts in laughter and mock-horror. “You giant douchebag!”
“I know, right? I am The World’s Giantest Douchebag.”
“Easy, boy, don’t give yourself too much credit. I’m guessing you’re an average giant douchebag at best.”
“That’s sort of my MO.”
And I don’t mean to say it but I’m on a sad roll, so. “Average at best.”
Her mouth opens but she says nothing, and for this minor miracle, I’m grateful.
We watch a kid sporting the plungiest V-neck sweater murder a pop song while a girl with a Hello Kitty tat on her neck accompanies him on the piano. Kate’s lips are moving, faintly singing the melody. My phone buzzes.
A text from Franny.
FRANNY: Hope you’re having fun, man! I know I don’t have to say this but watch out for Jillian. Keep those drunk frat-goons away from her!!
ME: I got you
I redeposit my phone. Kate stops singing. I try to think of something to say because I don’t want her to stop talking. “Is it just me or do these steps smell pretty awful? I’m thinking numerous people have puked and peed up and down them.”
She nods. “So us sitting here, it’s like we’re participating in ancient party history.”
I laugh. “I like the way you think.”
She smiles an awesome crooked smile.
Maybe it’s her smile that emboldens me.
Maybe the jittery party lights are doing weird things to my brain.
Or maybe it’s that there’s suddenly guitar strumming from the speakers. Me, forever a sucker for acoustic.
Maybe it’s that, for the first time in three years, I feel like it’s okay that Jillian and I will never be. That after a few minutes on some crusty stairs I can suddenly see a different future. An alternate ending, or two.
Maybe it’s because everything around us is now an unrecognizable swirl, Kate the only thing in perfect focus. Portrait mode IRL.
I gulp, which I don’t think I’ve ever done before. “Can I ask you something, Kate?”
Kate smiles, and in a very formal-sounding voice says, “Yes, Jack, you may ask me your question.”
“It’s a tough one, though. Fair warning.”
“Consider me warned.”
I clear my throat, a habit when I’m uncomfortable, and/or when I’m about to say/do something stupid. “So how would you suggest a guy transition from talking about a girl he has a crush on but has no chance of being with to another very attractive girl—okay—to hitting on that very attractive girl even though he, at this point, also has zero chance of being with her, either?”
“Ooooh, that is a tough one.”
“See, I told you.”
“I’m fairly certain that such a maneuver is entirely impossible,” she says.
“But were I to suggest a strategy . . .” She grins, as if she is about to divulge a top-secret tactic.
I lean in. “I’m listening.”
“I’d say, start with getting that girl a drink, and when you come back she can tell you she’s not looking for anything serious because she has a million commitment issues that she’s currently not at all interested in sorting, and also because she is only just escaping a disaster of a relationship and essentially hates all human beings at the moment.”
“Right, so definitely hold that thought because I’m definitely gonna go get that girl a drink, okay?”
She smiles. “Okay.”
“Don’t go anywhere. You must guard these steps with your life.”
“I’ll slay anyone who tries to scale these here steps, sire,” she says.
“What was that voice just then?”
She cringes, covering her face as she laughs. “My attempt at sounding Scottish.”
“Oh, is that what that was? Hmm,” I say, smiling hard. “Yeah, maybe work on that. Or maybe just don’t do it again. Like ever.”
“Was it that bad?”
I shrug, playfully. “The worst.”
She nods. “I’m a big fan of failing miserably, so I feel pretty good about it.”
“Oh, well, in that case, mission accomplished. Glad I could be here for that.”
“Me too,” she agrees.
“Sooo . . .”
“So,” she repeats, smiling. “Perhaps you get the drinks and we reconvene this epic pity party on the back porch?”
I stare at her a beat. “Maybe you should just make all of my decisions for me from now on.”
Kate extends her hand to me, this time with far better results. “Deal, Jack.”
I squeeze and sidestep my way into the kitchen, the alcohol scattered across the long countertop. I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Hey.”
“Having fun?” she asks.
I shrug. “You?”
“It’s okay. Was considering leaving soon actually.”
“Maybe grab a burger.”
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah, we could do that . . . um . . . I was just gonna . . .”
She nods to the bottle of wine in my hand. “Where you going with that?”
“Oh, uh, nowhere, um.”
“Well, not nowhere. That would be silly. No, I was gonna go to the porch. The, uh, back porch.”
“You shouldn’t drink alone, Jack,” she says, smiling.
“I wasn’t planning to,” I say, clearing my throat. “I’ve, uh, made a friend, I guess.”
Her face flashes something I can’t compute, but it’s gone before I can consider it. “Oh, I see,” she says, her smile now somehow different. “Jack’s made a new friend.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“No, I’m happy for you, J,” she says.
“Thanks, J,” I reply. A thing we do. “We can totally get a burger, though, like I’m down for whatever . . . just let me, um . . .”
“No.” She shakes her head, already backing away. “You go do your thing. I’m gonna probably head back to the dorm anyway. Gotta call Franny, so.”
“Oh, yeah, okay, cool.”
“Cool.” She nods. “So, have fun, man.”
“You too. Tell Franny hey,” I say, because what else can I say. Because for maybe the first time the words aren’t easy between us.
Five minutes later Kate and I are drinking from a disgusting bottle of red wine and splitting real estate on the warped porch steps. Already we have Our Thing. Steps. Only this time we don’t budge the rest of the night. Not even when the party’s over, not even when the only lights still on are for security, not even when the moon’s a whisper against brightening sky.
“I think we’re the only people still awake at this house,” Kate says.
“Damn, what time is it?” I say, not actually concerned with the time.
“Who gives a damn about time, right?” Kate says, stifling a yawn.
We move for nothing and no one.
“Tell me about your family,” I say.
“What about them?”
“Anything,” I tell her. “Everything.”
She’s quiet. Crosses her legs, then uncrosses them. She passes me the wine, and I take a sip. It’s still not very good, but somehow less not very good than before.
“My parents are basically professional arguers these days, and it’s mainly because of me.”
“It’s odd, you know, seeing people who you remember sharing so much love, who once couldn’t get enough of each other, and then one morning you’re lying in bed wondering how soon before they start fighting.”
“You said they argue because of you?”
She shrugs. “They can’t agree on how to take care of me.”
“That sucks. I’m sorry, Kate.”
“Why are you sorry?” she asks. She bites her lip, reaches for the bottle, and puts it to her mouth, but she doesn’t drink. Brings it back down, lets it rest between her knees. “If anything, I’m the one who should be sorry.”
I’m not sure if I should ask what she means, although I want to, so I settle on silence, leaving her space to continue if she wants.
“I don’t know. Maybe they’ll stick it out, if only because starting over is scary and complicated and messy. And who wants that when you’re old? Hell, who wants that when you’re young?” She takes a sip, holds the bottle out for me, and our fingers brush, and I don’t know, it’s like a zillion bolts flow into me.
“Yeah,” I say, her touch still stunning me.
“So, what about you? What’s your family like?”
“Well, I’m an only child, for one thing.”
She nods. “That explains everything.”
“Let me guess, you’re a middle kid.”
She turns to look at me, which is not without difficulty considering how close we’re sitting, and our faces nearly touch. “What makes you say that?”
“Whatever, Jack. But you’re right. I have an older sister. Kira. She’s a stylist. And I don’t know exactly how she’s done it, but she has like a million YouTube subscribers. Like, people clamor for her videos. It’s weird, but it’s cool she’s doing her thing.”
“Maybe she could style me,” I say. I smooth the front of my shirt. “I could use some help.”
“I don’t know,” she says. She taps my collar with her finger. “You’re doing okay.”
“Thanks.” I’ve never been happier with doing okay in my life. “So, your younger sister or . . .”
“Brother. The terror.”
“No, he’s all right. Just hyper.”
“Oh, sometimes I have trouble focusing, too.”
“No, like hypervigilant. He’s forever in everyone’s business, but he specializes in mine.”
I laugh. “Sometimes I wish I had more family. Even if they were annoying, just knowing they were there. I mean, my parents are pretty great. I’m lucky that way. And they’re still crazy for each other in a way that almost seems sick. But sometimes it’s like they want so much for me, they’re planning on me doing all these cool things, and I don’t know, like, I worry about letting them down. I mean, they’ve funneled so much of their energy and love into me, while doing their best not to seriously screw me up, but sometimes I still feel like I’m just a screwup waiting to happen. Uh, wow, I can’t believe I just shared all that.”
“I’m glad you did. And that screwup feeling, Jack? I think that’s called youth.”
“The fact that you care so much, that’s good, though. That means you’re gonna try hard to not mess up. But you also gotta leave room for your hopes, your dreams, too.”
“What do you hope for, dream about?”
“Man, I just want to live.”
“Like, live life to the fullest?”
“That too, yeah.” She hesitates.
“I want to be an architect.”
“What made you choose that?”
She smiles. “You’re gonna think it’s really corny.”
“No, you will. And you’ll be right, because it is corny. But . . . I don’t know. Something about the idea of designing something that will be there, still standing, even when you’re long gone. Like, this thing that came from your brain just keeps on being for years and years, for decades, maybe longer, like, somehow that just does it for me.”
“Okay, that’s literally the least corny thing you’ve said all night. I don’t think you understand what corny means. Like at all.”
She laughs, leans into me with her shoulder. “Stop.”
“I’m serious. You’re officially banned from the word.”
“You can’t ban me.”
“Okay, maybe not ban, but we definitely have to impose a moratorium.”
“Oh, do we?”
“Yep, for like two weeks. You can’t use the word corny.”
“Hmm. We’ll see about that.”
“I’m sorry, but the Word Committee has spoken.”
“Well, I’m filing my appeal.”
“Noted. The committee will take it under advisement.”
“Why do I get the feeling this is a committee of one?”
“The committee does not comment on its membership.”
“Huh, why am I not surprised?”
“Strict policy.” I hunch my shoulders, bring the bottle to my lips, but it’s empty.
“You killed that,” she says.
“I had help.”
She shakes her head. “Okay, your turn now.”
“What are Jack’s hopes and dreams?”
“Uh-uh, no possible way I can follow after hearing yours.”
“Okay, uh, let me think.” I clear my throat, clasp my hands. “Let’s see . . . uh, I sorta want to write a book, or several books, I guess.” I laugh because hearing the idea out loud sounds preposterous. Like, if the walls could talk they’d be echoing nevergonnahappen nevergonnahappen.
Except Kate doesn’t flinch. “What kind of books?”
“Uh, fiction, I guess. Maybe young adult books.”
“Why young adult?”
“I’ll tell you, but remember, you can’t say corny, so . . .”
“Just tell me.”
“Uh, okay, well, I’ve always loved reading. But there aren’t a lot of books about kids like me. And I just think every kid deserves a book that looks like them. So . . . you can laugh now.”
“Why would I laugh? You think about lots of things, don’t you?”
“I tend to overanalyze, yes.”
“Ha. Me too. I’ve had a lot of time to do nothing but think and think and think.”
“Lucky thoughts,” I say.
“They get to spend all that time with you.”
Kate shakes her head. “Okay, so that was corny,” she says. Except she stares at me in such a way that, for a moment, I think she might kiss me. I imagine how that would feel—Kate’s lips against mine. And I must’ve zoned out because Kate’s snapping her fingers in front of my face. “Earth to Jack, Earth to Jack,” she’s saying.
“Huh? Yeah? What?”
Kate smiles. “I was asking you, I know it’s a little late now but your friend, she got home safe last night, right?”
“My friend,” I repeat.
“Your best friend who you were drooling over only hours ago? The one true love of your young adult life?”
I look up at the sky—have we really talked the entire night?—I barely remember the moon’s being there, and now the sun’s already punched in, a smudge of campfire orange stoked above our heads.
“Yeah. She went back to the dorm to talk to Franny.”
“Franny’s the boyfriend?”
“Your other best friend?”
I nod again.
She claps her hands together. “Okay, one last ‘are Kate and Jack even semicompatible as friends’ question, okay?”
“Shoot,” I say, twisting my body toward her in preparation.
“Which Godfather movie is your absolute fave?”
“Uh, that’s a tough one.”
“It’s not tough at all.”
“No, it is, because, uh, I haven’t actually seen . . .”
“Which one haven’t you seen?”
“Any. Of. Them.”
You would’ve thought I said I didn’t believe in the moon, the way her jaw drops.
“You’re kidding, right? We’re watching them ASAP, Jack Attack,” she promises.
“You name the time and place,” I say.
“I’m not sure when,” she says. “But sometime in the future, my place.”
The future can’t come soon enough.
Behind us, there’s rustling inside the house, signs of life dragging themselves into the kitchen, chairs scooting, cabinets shutting, glassware handled.
“Come on,” Kate says, standing up.
“You know these people?” I ask.
“Just come on.”
I follow her inside to the kitchen. Last night’s party remnants—plastic cups, stomped-on cheese curls, random wrappers—are strewn everywhere. A girl is slumped in a chair, her blue-blond hair untamed, a bowl of cereal on the table in front of her. A lanky kid with plastic black specs has his face almost inside his bowl. They look up at us.
“Who are you?” the girl asks, midslurp, not like she’s alarmed, but amused.
“We’re starving,” Kate says, reaching for the box of cereal. “It’s cool?”
“It’s cool,” the lanky kid says, wiping away a milk mustache. “Cap’n Crunch for all.”
Two bowls and two spoons magically appear before us, and I think to myself, Where did this Kate come from? And how can I keep her around?
After our cereal, we wind up in a car that Kate says belongs to her roommate. Only we don’t actually drive anywhere. Instead, we sit in the lot, taking turns playing music from our phones’ playlists. She thinks my obsession with nineties hip-hop is cute, and she plays me a lot of stuff that I’ve never heard of. That I’m guessing no one has ever heard of. But I love almost all of it.
“You’re weird,” she says.
“Uh, thanks,” I say, laughing. “Appreciate that.”
“In a good way, silly. You’re likably weird.”
“Likable is good.”
“Likable is very good, Jack Attack.”
And somehow, suddenly, the music is even better.
“So, where do you see yourself in ten years?” I ask her, watching her scroll up and down for the next track. “Like, where do you want to be, and what do you want to be doing?”
“Man, you’re obsessed with the future,” she says.
“Lemme guess, you’re one of those people who hates planning? You’d rather live all spontaneous and mysteriously?”
I say this jokingly, in the same spirit that she and I have batted jokes back and forth all night, only this one never makes it over the net.
Kate turns off the car, tugs her door handle. “I need some air.”
“Hey, I didn’t mean to . . .” But she’s already outside, sitting on the rear bumper. I join her. “You okay?”
“It’s wild, right? How we’re breathing the same air as every human who’s ever lived? The Queen of Sheba, Anne Frank, Rosa Parks. We come and go, but the air stays the same.”
I realize she’s purposely ignoring whatever just happened. But I let it go. “Yeah, it’s pretty wild.”
We walk across campus and it’s quiet. Shadows and old stone buildings stretching across a mile of green grass.
Kate yawns. One of those fully loaded yawns, equipped with intense arm-stretching and growling.
“Well, it’s been fun, Jack Attack,” she says. I like that she’s given me a nickname, because it means . . . okay, maybe it means nothing—yet.
It’s time for us to go our separate ways. Only I’m not ready.
“What, you’re turning in already?” I challenge with a smile.
Kate looks at her watch. I also like that she wears an actual watch, rather than just relying on her phone to keep time.
“It’s only been nine hours, Kate,” I say. “Where’s your stamina?”
She massages her jaw. “What’d you have in mind?”
I shrug. “How about I make you an offer you can’t refuse?”
“You definitely haven’t seen Godfather,” she says, laughing.
“That bad?” I say, feeling my face warm.
“Worse,” she says.
“I can do better,” I assure her. “Kate, howz about I make you . . . howz ’bout I make you . . . Okay, I can’t do better.”
She laughs harder. “Gosh, how does a lady say no to that?”
“She doesn’t . . . I hope.”
Kate smiles through her laughter.
And all I can think is, God, Jack, please, please, please, don’t screw this up. And then, knowing myself, knowing good things always leave me, At least don’t screw it up so quickly. Hold on, Jack. For as long as you can, hold on.
“I should really turn in.” She glances at her watch again. “I have a big paper due in less than twenty-four hours, and I haven’t even finished the reading. Plus, don’t you have to get back to . . .”
“Elytown,” I say. “Elytown Township, technically.” Because I’m nothing if not technical.
“Right. The township,” she says. She clearly has no idea where that is. “You probably have class, too. And parents?”
I laugh, wishing I could come off cool and aloof, but knowing I don’t stand a chance. “It’s just high school. No big deal. And my parents are totally cool. Very liberal. Plus, it’s only Sunday morning. We head back this afternoon.”
“Okay,” she says, grinning. “Well, it was nice to meet you, Jack King. I wish you all the best during your senior year. Enjoy it, okay?” She offers her hand and I take it into mine, in immediate hindsight shaking it a bit too enthusiastically, like I’m a used car salesman closing a deal.
“I’ll do my best, Kate.”
“I know you will.” She lets my hand go, turns to walk away. But she stops and swivels partially back to me, her hair cascading over her cheeks. “And Jack?”
“Don’t be afraid. Take chances. And when those don’t work out, take more.”
I wonder if she means now. As in, Jack, take a chance on me, on this moment. But I don’t budge. Not a muscle, not an eyelash; somewhere a mime is murderous with envy. Instead, Kate walks into her dorm building, into the glass foyer, and it hits me.
I pound on the glass and a startled Kate whirls around, her face making a what the hell look. “How do I get in touch with you?” I yell, my lips pressed against the pane, a condensation cloud blooming against the glass.
She smiles. “Don’t worry. We’ll see each other again.”
Then, like that, she’s gone.
And there’s a feeling I can’t shake—
This isn’t the last time I’ll watch her go.
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