PROLOGUE

NORTH SHORE DAILY OBITUARIES

Paul “Paulie” Barat, age 17, a North Shore High School junior and cherished son of Henry Barat and Merle Sloan-Barat, died suddenly on Saturday, May 28, in North Shore. He’s survived by his parents and his younger sister, Anna. A gifted actor, Paulie participated in NSHS’s musical theater productions, senior one-act plays, and variety shows, and won the Illinois State speech team titles in both Humorous Interpretation and Original Comedy. His joyful personality and captivating laugh will be eternally missed. Visitation will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. Monday, May 30th, at the Good Shepherd Methodist Church at 191 Oakley Road in North Shore. The funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday, May 31, at Good Shepherd, with interment to immediately follow at North Shore Memorial Gardens, South Quadrant. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations in honor of Paulie be made to the Paul Barat Memorial Fund, c/o North Shore Thespians.

* * *

NORTH SHORE DAILY OBITUARIES

Macey Lund, age 18, of North Shore, passed away on July 17th. Loving daughter of Therese and Geoffrey; sweet sister of Knox and Langley. A seasoned athlete, Macey led the Lady Knights to capture the Illinois Division I Soccer Championship and was blessed to perform her beloved Irish dance on three continents, including special presentations for Pope Francis and Queen Elizabeth. Memorial Service to be held Wednesday, July 20th, 3:15 p.m. at the Church of Christ, 212 West Wisconsin Ave., North Shore. Info: Harper and Horvath Funeral Home, North Shore. Interment will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in her name to AYSO Youth Sports, North Shore.

* * *

Mallory

7:55 AM

where r u?

 

8:11 AM

r u coming??

 

8:17 AM

seriously wtf, when will u be here?

 

Liam

10:34 AM

Srry

* * *

CHAPTER ONE

MALLORY GOODMAN

Seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three.

 

Harder.

 

Faster.

 

You can do it, I tell myself. You have to do it.

 

Seventy-four, seventy-five.

 

Stop being the kind of lard-ass who let her boyfriend pressure her into scarfing down onion rings. “They’re so good,” he’d insisted. “Extra salty, really crispy. They’re the perfect balance of light batter and onion, like tempura. The chef brought his A-game to the deep fryer. You’ll be sorry if you don’t at least try one.”

 

Whenever our squad wants to meet for dinner, I suggest a place with a salad bar. I always eat the same thing—a blend of arugula and romaine, shredded carrots, red cabbage, diced peppers, and celery sticks, tossed in lemon juice, with a side of fat-free ranch dressing. If I’ve been good, I grab a grapefruit or an apple for dessert at home.

 

Obviously, I wasn’t good last night.

 

Liam wouldn’t let it go, though. He leaned across the table, doing that baby-feeding, airplane-in-the-hangar move with the onion ring, complete with sound effects. Everyone in the whole restaurant started looking at us. Sure, they’re always looking at us because Liam’s kind of our school’s Golden Boy, but last night they were seriously staring. The easiest thing was to open up and just eat the stupid, greasy thing. So I chewed and smiled when all I wanted to do was to spit it into my napkin— but I’d never hear the end of it if I did that.

I swear Jasper Gates was ready to search inside my mouth afterward to make sure I’d actually swallowed, like on those cheesy survival game shows where the host verifies contestants downed the whole worm. Jasper was the one who demanded I eat another, because the first one was “too small.” Sitting there, all kicked back and smarmy in his obnoxious plaid shorts and Ray-Bans, I wanted to smack him. Who wears sunglasses inside at night? We’re in Illinois, not LA. And my diet is Jasper’s business how exactly? Do I get on him for the stupid loafers he insists on wearing without socks, even when it’s snowing?

Can you believe he actually wonders why I call him the JasHole?

Ugh, I hate Liam’s friends.

Seventy-six, seventy-seven.

I dig in my heels and try to spring up even more quickly as I run the stadium steps for the third time. My pulse quickens inside my chest.

Okay.

That’s more like it.

My brother Theo and his best friend, Braden, turned me on to running the stairs, something their football coach makes them do first thing in the morning during the season. That way they can spend the afternoon drilling on the field or weight training for their two-a-days. Kids at other schools can’t believe how much our teams practice. They always say this after we’ve beaten them, so you tell me who’s got it right.

One twenty-one. One twenty-two.

Well, most of us believe in all the practice.

Ahem, Liam.

First, he makes me ingest a fatty carb bomb and then he doesn’t even show to run the stairs with me this morning? He claimed he hurt his knee playing ultimate Frisbee after soccer practice yesterday. Last night, the JasHole was all, “You should give it a rest, brah. Don’t want to be a gimp when the season starts. Take it easy.”

Well, guess what, Liam?

Winners walk it off.

Winners play through the pain, brah.

Winners make time to run the stairs, each day, every day, even those days when they know they’ll be up until 2:00 a.m. writing their final AP Italian theme on Il pendolo di Foucault.

I keep going.

I mean, my calves feel like they’re on fire right now, like they’re being poked with burning hot knives, but discomfort’s just spurring me on.

Go. Run faster.

I make it to the top and sprint back down the steps double-time. I don’t count the stairs on the way down; that’s considered rest.

Rest is for the weak.

Three hundred. Three hundred and one. Three hundred and two.

Move it, Calorie Mallory. Get your fat ass up those steps. Knees up. Knees up to the chest. More. Do more.

I ask myself, Do you think the New Trier Trevians ate onion rings last night? Hell, no. Did the Lake Forest Scouts wolf down fro-yo last week? Doubtful.

Hustle. Now.

I glance at my iWatch. All right, I’m in the zone. I’m at 95 percent of my target heart rate. I’m a finely tuned machine, burning off serious blubber. Keep it up.

Five hundred forty-nine. Five hundred fifty. Five fifty-one.

I’m sweating now, but that’s good because sweat is fat crying for mercy.

I mean, why would Liam slam on the brakes now? Why would he look for an excuse to slack? Our senior year starts Monday.

This is the time to go balls-out.

We haven’t reached the summit. There’s no time to coast. We’re coming up on the hardest part of our twelve-year academic climb—applying to college.

Now is when we show the world what we’re made of.

Now is when we prove we have the right stuff for Princeton’s early decision.

Now is when we lay the groundwork for our senior year.

Liam and I spent the past couple of months honing our skills at our camps, getting in our volunteer hours, and doing our extra coursework so that we’ll to be ready to kill our exams and nab our respective state championships when classes start. Winning those matching Homecoming King and Queen crowns come October wouldn’t hurt, either, because that would show that we’re social as well as athletic and academic.

We’re the full package. We’re hashtag BarbieandKen.

Which is why we have to push ourselves harder right now.

I don’t want to give up. Quitting? Not an option. I remember what happened over the summer with Paulie and Macey, and I feel like I’ve swallowed glass, like I’m all slashed up inside. They had everything…until they decided they didn’t, so they gave up. Stopped fighting. Braden speculates that maybe they both burned so brightly, flaming out was inevitable.

I refuse to accept that.

So I need to be strong. I need to be hard. That’s why I’m not even allowing myself a drink of water until I hit my first one thousand steps.

I give myself a gut-check. Are you tired, Mallory? Do you want to surrender? Yeah? That’s because you’re not reaching your full potential. You’re at a B-minus of effort right now, and that’s an unweighted grade, non-honors track. Your performance doesn’t even merit a state school, let alone Ivy League early decision. What are you going to do, end up somewhere mortifying like the University of Iowa, with all the slackers? NO. You’ve sacrificed for this. You’ve earned this. Claim what’s yours.

I step it up.

I push and pump my arms.

Explode. Off. Each. Step.

I won’t give up.

I can’t flame out.

I harness the energy inside of me.

I go harder and higher.

Senior year starts in three days.

And I will be ready.

* * *

 

Stephen

12:30 PM

can we walk by again @ 1:00 PM?

 

Kent

12:31 PM

stalker 

* * *

Chapter Two

STEPHEN CHO

“So this is your homerun swing?”

I don’t reply.

Kent persists. “Walking back and forth in front of the new girl’s house in the broiling sun ‘til she notices you?”

The beads of sweat dotting his upper lip give him the illusion of having a mustache.

 

Yeah, he wishes.

“Trust in the process,” I assure him. As we approach her house, I slow my pace so drastically, it’s like we’re suddenly a couple of senior citizens mincing along behind our walkers.

“I trusted in the process an hour ago, back before my Chucks were melting into the asphalt.” He points at his black Converse. “Now I just want to strip down to my underwear and lie on an air conditioning vent. I wanna mainline a pony keg of Gatorade.”

I attempt to explain my rationale again. “She’s gonna notice us out here. She’s gonna notice us and then she’s gonna invite us in, at which point we’re gonna be charming and shit and it’ll all happen from there,” I say. “My plan is foolproof.”

Kent tugs at his vintage Run-D.M.C. Adidas T-shirt, which is now drenched in perspiration and clinging to his narrow frame like a second skin.

“Please. Your ‘plan’ is the opposite of foolproof.” Kent makes air quotes with his fingertips when he says the word plan. “This is the worst ‘plan’ in the history of ‘plans.’ If this ‘plan’ were World War II, this would be your Stalingrad. PS, you’re the Germans losing 330,000 men in this scenario, not the Soviet resistance. Pretty sure MENSA’s revoking your membership over said ‘plan.’”

Kent’s probably right, but I refuse to admit it. See, I’m so desperate to meet this girl that I don’t even care. While it sounds premature, I have a good feeling about her and I can already tell she’s different in all the right ways. (I’m not psychic. My mom had the 411 long before the first moving truck arrived. She’s not only on the Homeowners’ Association but she’s also the Realtor who listed the house.)

 

I’ve been thinking about this girl ever since I heard she existed. Scoop is, the family’s here from London and the mom’s writing some book about the suburbs. Maybe one of those coffee-table kinds, wide and thick, with as many pictures as words? North Shore makes total sense because nowhere is more suburban than here.

I’m serious—we should be listed in Wikipedia under “suburbs” because this town elevates the suburbs game to a whole new level. Peace and quiet? Check. Amazing school system? Check. Lots of natural beauty and green space? Check. Nonexistent crime stats? Check.

Beyond that, North Shore sets rules on how things should look. Image is everything up here. For example, like every other suburban town, we have a McDonald’s. However, there are no golden arches out front of ours, `cause someone decided that would be tacky. Instead, there’s a small, tasteful wooden sign posted amid a bunch of wild roses. Also, the restaurant’s housed in a big green Shaker-style barn, with columns and white-paned windows.

It’s weird.

The town’s as strict with home standards as it is with businesses. Like, no one’s allowed to chop down trees on their own property without a permit, so every home is surrounded by lots of old-growth oaks. Most of the houses, especially those close to the lake like ours, sit on two or three acres. (Ask me how much this sucked when we used to trick or treat. We wanted candy, not cardio.)

Basically, North Shore’s nothing but big ol’ houses on huge green lawns, yogurt shops, and fancy, useless designer boutiques. I hate having go all the way up to Gurnee or Libertyville to buy comic books, yet there’s three places downtown to pick up a two-hundred-dollar sweater for your purse dog. I’d be all, Who wants that stuff?

Except I know at least ten people who would.

Anyway, the new family bought the Barat house, which is why I feel conflicted about being excited that they’re here. I hadn’t talked to Paulie much since junior high, or hung out with him since grade school, but it’s still really sad. My mom, who’s usually totally in the know, isn’t 100 percent sure where the Barats went. Their attorneys handled the sale because the family hauled ass out of North Shore ASAFP.

I can’t blame them.

The new girl’s dad is this world-famous, super-eccentric British artist with a man-bun. I looked up a lot of his stuff online. He’s always doing these avant-garde art installations, often so bizarre they end up on the news. I read a listicle on BuzzFeed about him. The piece that stuck out most was his exhibit in Burundi, a country where something like 75 percent of all the residents are undernourished. The guy built a replica of McDonald’s golden arches out of bags of liposuctioned fat as a statement about global inequality.

What did that even smell like once the sun hit it?

(FYI, his piece was not shaped like a Shaker-style barn.)

My point is, no one’s like that here in North Shore; no one has that kind of social conscience.

No one’s super-eccentric.

No dads have man-buns, that’s for damn sure.

The girl’s name is Simone and she’s my age and on her Instagram, she’s smokin’ hot, but not in a fake, plastic-y way like everyone else in this town. Maybe that’s because her mom was a famous model. Simone’s got this long, wavy hair that’s shaved on one side and she kind of dresses like a vocalist from a `70s rock group. The times I’ve spied her from the street, she’s been wearing lots of scarves and bangles and other cool stuff that definitely does not come from J. Crew.

Simone has a casual elegance, like a Disney princess who doesn’t know it because an evil queen gave her amnesia and forced her to live in the forest. She strikes me as worldly and wise and chill, deep and interesting in a way that all the brittle future sorority girls in my school are not. She definitely doesn’t seem like the type of girl who’d eviscerate you for the cardinal sin of asking her to a middle school mixer, leaving you shamefaced and speechless in the middle of the cafeteria, too terrified to ever try again.

Kent says no one could have possibly have drawn these opinions, nobody could have come up with all these positive character traits by simply walking past her house.

I maintain that he couldn’t because he has no imagination; he’s too linear in his thinking. That’s also why I always beat him at chess.

I wouldn’t expect him to understand my fascination with Simone. He’s been obsessed with this generic blond goddess named Mallory since grade school. I bet Mallory wouldn’t even bother to spit on him if he were on fire, but I keep that to myself. Kent soldiers on in his relentless pursuit, hope springing eternal. He kind of reminds me of a dog chasing a car when it comes to Mallory—he’s never going to catch the vehicle and he’d have no clue what to do with it if he did, but damned if he ever stops running behind it.

While he might whine about stalking Simone, he’s helping me anyway.

“There’s no fluid left in me, I sweated it all out. I’m literally leeching salt at this point,” Kent complains. He swipes his forehead and rubs his fingers against his palm. I hear the grit when he scrapes his hand against itself but pretend I don’t.

He says, “Seriously, bro, there’s a crust on my brow. Come on, Stephen…it’s over. Give it up. Let’s head to the beach. I wanna go walk directly into the lake, like, shoes and all, I don’t even care.”

I need to admit defeat.

And yet…

“One more pass?” I want this to sound like a command, a marching order, but my words come out more plaintive than planned.

He narrows his eyes and stares me down for a solid thirty seconds. “You suck.”

I guess plaintive worked.

We turn at the corner for our final walk-by when we see her garage door opening in the distance. Like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Simone comes into focus from the darkness of the garage, her form slowly revealed as the door inches upward, only instead of being surrounded by angels while naked astride a clamshell (my preference), she’s standing in front of a mountain of cardboard, buttressed by recycling bins.

She is the embodiment of divine love, august gold, wreathed and beautiful, clad in the heavenly raiment of a baggy, tie-dyed overall dress.

Oh, yes. She will be mine.

“You said that out loud, dude,” Kent tells me. “You may want to work on keeping your internal monologue, you know, internal.”

Simone spots us and waves.

“Check it out, she’s waving!” Kent says, shielding his eyes with his hand as he squints down the long, curved, sun-drenched driveway. Every house in our ‘hood is set back from the curb no less than one-tenth of a mile. (Again, this blew at Halloween. Batman shouldn’t have to wear gym shoes.)

Kent continues, “No, that’s not a wave. She’s gesturing for us to come up to her garage. Yes! Score! You know, I doubted you, Cho. I did. Thought we were wasting our time, but you proved me wrong. Get up there and claim your woman. `Bout time something good happened around here.” He gives me a small push in her direction.

“Walk faster,” I hiss, my heart beginning to race like a hamster on a wheel. “Actually, run.”

Kent comes to a dead stop. “Aw, hell no. Not this again. I am not walking faster and I’m sure as shit not running. I did not just sweat out half my body weight going back and forth for you to puss out when you finally get your chance to talk to her. You wanted her to see you? Mission accomplished. Get your ass up there and have a conversation. `Cause I’m done here. We have less than a week left before school starts and the last thing I wanna do is stand in the blazing hot street for one more second. Now, I’m going for a swim and you’re gonna go work your magic. Text you later.”

He walks toward the wooded path that leads to the residents-only beach on Lake Michigan a couple of blocks away while I stand frozen by her mailbox.

I want to talk to her. I do.

I want to work my magic.

I want to so badly…but I just can’t.

Maybe Kent’s not the dog who’s caught the car. Maybe it’s me.

I open my mouth to try to explain but the words won’t come out.

Kent’s a whole house away when he glances over his shoulder. He sees that I haven’t moved. He looks at a bemused Simone—she’s still midwave—and then at me. With a small shake of his head, he jogs back over. He’s out of breath by the time he reaches me.

Grudgingly, Kent says, “I could probably be your wingman for a few more minutes.” Relief washes over me and I’m able to move again. We start walking up the drive together.

He asks, “How is it that you’re both the smartest and the dumbest guy in our school?”

I shrug.

If I knew, then I’d tell him.

* * *

Chapter Three

 

KENT MATHERS

“You are coming across as a fucking lunatic right now, you hear me?”

Stephen won’t look at me.

I tell him, “You don’t seem like someone walking up to introduce himself to a girl he’s been crushing on, oh, no. You look like someone who wants to make an ottoman out of her skin. Take a deep breath and chill.”

I’m trying to not sound as frustrated as I feel…and totally failing.

I don’t know how Stephen always ropes me into his schemes, but here we are. A-fucking-gain. All I want to do is go to the beach and catch some sun so that I don’t look like I spent the summer walking to and from the dorms at Physics Camp (which I did.) I mean, I can live with being short and I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m still carded for PG-13 movies, but I draw the line at a farmer’s tan. One good afternoon on the sand; that’s all I need.

Yet am I chillin’ on the shores of Lake Michigan gettin’ my bronze on?

No.

Instead, I’m on another one of Mr. Cho’s Wild Rides and I’m over it.

Stephen’s always all about this false bravado, Mr. I Have a Plan and Mr. I Will Make It So. He’s such a nerd that he actually draws what he envisions. I mean, he storyboards out the whole damn thing. Because he’s so good at picturing himself Making It So with the Plan He Has, we reach the point where everything clicks and he actually could achieve his goal but then he chickens out and blows everything.

He had one job today, which was to go up and say hey to the new girl, and he can’t even do that on his own.

I want to help him, I do, but being his keeper is getting old. We’ve been locked in this wingman dance since we met in preschool. This is his pattern. Today reminds me of when we used to go to the waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells as kids. The whole school year, he’d boast about jumping off the high dive and all the flips and somersaults he’d do, comparing himself to Sammy Lee, the first Asian American to win Olympic gold in platform diving. How he’d be a better diver than anyone else at the pool because he understood aerodynamics and would use that to his benefit. I have no doubt that’s true. Stephen’s getting early acceptance to MIT., count on that. Dude’s got a brain the size of Montana.

 

But then he’d climb up, tiptoe to the edge of the board, look at the water and freak the fuck out. Everyone would have to scramble off the ladder so that he could climb down. He’d talk a huge game but couldn’t follow through, could never commit. He didn’t dive off the big board, not once. He had zero confidence in his execution, regardless of having it perfect on paper.

His problem is, he builds all this stuff up in his head. Thinking about whatever he wants to do ends up being so much scarier than the act itself that it cripples him. The only reason he ever made it down the giant slide at the park is that I went in tandem with him.

I can only say, “Just do it” so many times.

I mean, I’m not a goddamned Nike T-shirt.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s great at what he knows. He’s the strongest competitor on our Physics Olympics team. But the second there’s not a set answer to a question or he encounters an untrodden path, he falls apart.

The bitch of it is, I bet he has a chance with this girl. At a cursory glance—and given the full, rich backstory Stephen’s already assigned Simone, provided it’s true—she could be a match. I mean, I spend all day, every day with him, so I know he’s interesting. He has to be, for me to put up with all his bullshit. He can fascinate me and I’m not easily entertained. When he feels comfortable, he’ll talk at length about any subject, and he’s not like those boring-ass meatheads at school who are All Sports, 24/7.

At the very least, Stephen could be the first guy to ask her out here in North Shore. They don’t have to fall in love; maybe they could be great buds. Maybe no end zone, just friend zone? At least he’d have tried to score, you know? But if I weren’t here walking him down the long-ass driveway, telling him to not look like a goddamned serial killer, even that would have no chance of happening.

I don’t want to be all, He holds me back! because that’s a shitty thing to say about my best friend. Although sometimes I think about where I’d be if we hadn’t met, if my parents had bought that smaller house in Kenilworth and not the one a few miles up the road in North Shore. Then he’d be my archrival at the Physics Olympics and not my closest companion.

Would that be so bad, I wonder?

Would we push each other toward greatness, his Tesla to my Edison?

Guess we’ll never know.

The closer we come to the garage, the more Stephen slows, and I feel like I’m dragging a reluctant mule to market.

Ridiculous.

On second thought, I wonder if Stephen’s just freaked out about this being the Barat’s old house. Didn’t happen here, but there’s still kind of a bad vibe, you know? We hung out with Paulie all the time when we were little. But he and I stopped running around with Paulie around the time that friendships solidify more because of shared interests and less due to geographical proximity.

Neither of us ever fought with Paulie, never had a falling out or anything. We just went in different directions. It happens, you know? God, though, I felt so bad for everyone in his family, especially his little sister, Anna. How do you even deal when you’re twelve?

Stephen took it extrahard. He was fixated on the whole thing, to the point that I was secretly kinda glad about going to a different camp than him over the summer.

I thought he was moving on, but what if he’s not? Maybe that’s why he’s suddenly panicky about his plan working. Maybe he’s freaked out about seeing the inside of Paulie’s house again.

When we’re about ten feet away from Simone, I get my first good look at her. Beyond her mountain of   hair, I notice her eyes, which are a warm amber color. Through Stephen’s extensive social media stalking, he found out that her grandfather’s from India. But for being part Indian, her skin’s surprisingly pale and she’s covered in freckles. She’s cute in a messy, hipster way, except she doesn’t give off a pretentious vibe. She strikes me as the kind of girl who’d forget she’d stuck a paintbrush behind her ear.

While she may not be my type, I see what intrigues Stephen. She’s about the first girl up here who doesn’t come across as a miniature version of all our mothers, with sculpted triceps, blown-straight hair, and a splashy floral tank dress.

(Is it weird/kind of oedipal that I find that combination oddly erotic? Wait, don’t answer that.)

“Cheers!” she says. I don’t hear much of a British accent. Huh. Thought she was from England? “We have a right mess going here. Look at this rubbish—we’re practically drowning in it! Can you please tell me when and how they collect the wheelie bins?”

I can’t help it, I start laughing at her turn of phrase while Stephen shoots me a murderous look, I mean, really full of poison. I get a hold of myself, explaining, “Sorry. That sounded exactly like something Mary Poppins would say. By the way, hi, I’m Kent Mathers.”

She holds out her hand. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Mary P.”

Stephen bleats, “I thought you were Simone!”

I want to face-palm out of secondhand embarrassment but I quickly interject with a subject change to afford him some dignity. “So, the garbage cans and recycling bins are picked up on our street on Tuesdays and Fridays. Just leave them by your garage and a guy from Streets and Sanitation will pull up to the side of your house in a little golf cart.”

“That’s brilliant!” she exclaims.

“Nothing but the best for North Shore,” I say.

“A bit fancy here, isn’t it?” she replies, which is an understatement in the same way that saying that the ocean’s fairly sizable or a Maserati’s kind of a zippy ride. The average home around here has six bedrooms and just as many baths. And everyone renovates their kitchen every five years. God forbid we keep our almond milk in a fridge from 2010.

Simone tells us, “My friend Cordelia says my strategy for America should be finding the biggest bitch in school and immediately taking her down. Is she right?”

“Hmm,” I reply, pretending to muse. “That’s less ‘high school’ and more ‘prison.’ You should probably Netflix Glee and also Orange Is the New Black.”

“I shall make a mental note. I already feel you’re both full of helpful advice, you possibly more than him,” she says with a grin in Stephen’s direction, “so I insist you come inside for something cold to drink before you melt on the spot.”

Even though she’s teasing, I can see Stephen blanch and yet again I feel like I’ve gotta rescue him.

“Okay, very important to discuss before we come in and definitely will determine if we’re gonna be friends,” I say, referencing the one subject that will absolutely, positively draw Stephen out of his shell and into the conversation. “Are you Biggie or are you Tupac?”

She tilts her head to the side. “As in… Smalls and Shakur?”

“Uh-huh. As in the most violent and hotly contested rap rivalry from the mid `90s.”

She crosses her arms over her chest and looks thoughtful. “When my parents were our age, they said they could immediately identify kindred spirits by scanning their vinyl/cassette/CD collections, but now that music’s digital, it’s impossible to walk into someone’s home and assess their tastes. Kind of a shame, really.”

“You’re dodging the question,” I say.

“Not a dodge, just providing context. Honestly, my musical proclivities are profoundly eclectic. I listen to everything from opera to Swedish death metal depending on my mood.”

I raise an eyebrow. “There you go, dodging again. This gonna be a thing with you?”

She makes an X mark over her heart. “No, promise, won’t be a thing.”

“Then what’s your answer? Or did you need to step into your car first to collect your thoughts?” She seems confused as I peer around the four-car garage. I clarify, “You do drive a Dodge, right?”

 

Simone holds up her hands in the universal stop symbol and I notice she’s wearing dozens of funky bracelets. Do they get in the way in the bathroom?

(Is that a strange thing to wonder?)

“Okay, okay. Point taken. Hmm…who do I prefer? Well, both artists had such an influence on modern hip-hop that to choose one over the other would be like deciding between peanut butter and chocolate. Both are perfect, for different reasons.”

My suddenly mute friend Stephen avoids eye contact and traces circles on the floor with the tip of his sneaker. Some days it’s like I want to take video of him so he can see how he comes across. Bro, give me something to work with here.

(I should storyboard that shit out for him.)

I persist, “Oh, you must be into baseball because clearly you root for the Dodgers. Listen, anyone who’s familiar with the genre has an opinion. Can you like them both? Absolutely. But you have to prefer one over the other. So who’s it gonna be-Biggie or Tupac?”

“I feel like there’s a lot of hidden weight in this question,” she says, tucking a wild strand of hair back into her scruffy topknot.

“There is,” I reply. In my peripheral vision, I see Stephen sizing up all the cardboard. Ten bucks says he’s mentally drawing himself inside a fort made of boxes.

Simone tucks her thumbs into her dress pockets and leans back on her heels. “You understand my reticence, what with being new and all.”

“I do.”

“I clearly run the risk of alienating one of you, potentially both.”

I nod. “Distinct possibility.”

“One that I fear.”

“Right now, your choice is the Schrödinger’s cat of opinions. At this moment, you say you prefer both Biggie and Tupac but that can’t be. It’s simply not the natural state. You have to be one or the other. We need to open this box and find out for sure.”

I like her.

I don’t like her like her but she seems fun, seems like she’d be a fine addition to our crew. Let’s be honest, it’s a fairly exclusive crew, as Stephen and I aren’t exactly the most popular kids in school. We’re not hated, we’re just not even… considered, you know? Adding an interesting person to our social circle could only make our senior year better. We used to be friends with everyone growing up, but people started to splinter four or five years ago, forming their own cliques, and now Stephen and I are way too insular. We’re a party of two, which is kind of depressing.

Maybe if we tried a little harder, we’d be invited to stuff. We’d be welcomed back into the fold, reintroduced into NSHS’s social scene. (People are always crying about all the drinking and the drug use among high school students up here, but I’ll be damned if I’ve ever even seen any.)

However, Simone’s not going to want to be around me and my fascinating friend Stephen if he can’t find a way to open his goddamned mouth and interact.

“Then, my answer is… Me Against the World,” she says, naming off a Tupac album.

Stephen breaks into a massive smile and fist bumps Simone, the thrill of this unexpected victory infusing him with a turbocharge of confidence. “I’m Stephen, Stephen Cho. Welcome to the neighborhood.”

I exhale.

He may just be okay after all.

© 2017 Altgeld Shrugged, Inc.

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