TUESDAY, 4:15 P.M.
Loving your mom can lead to some seriously bad decisions.
I’d agreed to tag along on her quest for face creams mainly out of boredom. But the mall with my mother on a Tuesday afternoon—as though I suddenly believed in the calming effects of retail therapy? We’d been here maybe ten minutes and already I was regretting it.
We were almost at the makeup counter that was our raison de mall when she grabbed a black, fluttery top with laces winding up and down the front.
“Ooh, Rachel, isn’t this nice?” She held it out to me. It looked like batwings in a corset.
“Not my style.” I pushed the shirt away, turning to a rack of oversized sweatshirts in neon-bright colors. Where had she even found that thing?
“No, not for you, for me. I think it’s cool. Edgy. Don’t you?” She held the shirt at arm’s length. One chunk of frizzy hair fell from behind her ear onto her cheek. She always cut it too short; at that length, hair as electrical-socket nutso as ours would not be contained behind mere ears.
“Sure, Mom.” I’d be pretty shocked to see my mom commit to a shirt she had to lace herself into. Usually her style tended toward neutral-colored sacks, but if she really wanted to dress like a vampire, I wasn’t going to tell her no. Besides, it’s kind of awesome when parents try to be cool, like watching a baby sloth play the piano or something. Terrible on the execution, and therefore adorable.
“Hey, do you care if I go get something at the food court? I went straight to ceramics club after sixth period, so I didn’t have a chance to get a snack.” Things would move a lot faster if she didn’t have me to bounce awful fashion ideas off of.
She glanced at her watch. “Meet me back here in fifteen minutes. I don’t want to spend the whole evening at the mall.”
“Sure,” I said over my shoulder.
“And don’t be drinking one of those gallon-sized sodas,” she said. “They’re poison.”
Mom was always finding some new threat to my precious development. Too late: I’d topped out at five foot three years ago.
I felt my phone buzz against my hip bone as I passed by Banana Republic, its faceless, elongated mannequins watching disdainfully as I rounded the Wet Seal, following the faint scent of tasty greases.
(From MO-MO): Do you have a new draft of
Twice Removed ready yet? I don’t think I’ll be
able to look at it until the weekend, but we need
to be on top of this.
(To MO-MO): No, I had ceramics today. I’ll
work on it soon—we still have what, three
months until the deadline?
(From MO-MO): There’s no point in putting it off.
Mo must be stressed about something; trying to micromanage someone else was always her go-to when she had too much on her plate. We were applying together to a summer playwriting program with Twice Removed, but the due date for applications was forever away, and I was doing more of the writing regardless—Mo was more into performing, which meant I usually just let her help with edits. There was no point in calling Mo on it though, unless you wanted to intensify her stress-crazies. The best thing was to divert her to whatever she really wanted to talk about, so you wouldn’t start arguing about not-really-the-point.
(To MO-MO): Don’t worry. I’ll send you
something by the time you’re able to look at
it. Why so busy?
(From MO-MO): Did I ever mention how much I
(To MO-MO): That’s racist.
(From MO-MO): You can’t be racist against a
(From MO-MO): Trying to absorb the entirety
of their pointless history—which is all just wars
and oppressing women, BTW—is making my
head hurt. I am SO going to fail this test.
Doubtful. Monique never failed anything. We’d been best friends since we were in diapers, and I couldn’t remember her ever even getting a B. In third grade, she made two entire projects for the science fair in case one was better than the other.
(To MO-MO): That’s what you get for taking
smart-kid classes EVEN FOR ELECTIVES.
(To MO-MO): Guess how hard
my Art II test will be? Oh wait, we don’t
(From MO-MO): I hate you.
(From MO-MO): I take it back. Distract me.
If my head explodes I at least want to die
I looked around for something I could send to Monique. We had this ongoing game where we’d send each other funny pictures on Flit (basically anything that got an out-loud reaction—from snort to guffaw—scored a point, honors system) and the mall was the perfect spot to play. Monique loved unintentional double entendres or grammar mistakes on store signs. I usually sent funny graffiti or dogs in clothes. There’s something about a dog wearing pants that never gets old.
I glanced around as I made my way across the mall to the food court, but nothing jumped out at me. And now that I was getting close enough to really smell all the different kinds of grease in the air, there was no way I’d be able to focus on the game. I was too hungry to hunt down a costumed Pomeranian. Food would have to come first. I spun around slowly, trying to figure out what I was in the mood for.
There was the depressingly beige buffet of breaded meat bits at China House (pass), sushi that was probably fresh off the boat a week ago at Japan EXPRESS (side of food poisoning, please?), Mrs. Butterbun’s Cookie Shoppe (even thinking about putting an inch of frosting on a cookie made my teeth hurt) . . .
That’s when I saw him.
Instinctively, I ducked my head over my phone and half turned away, so he wouldn’t think I was staring.
I was, obviously—you couldn’t help but stare at Kyle. He was about a thousand miles away from my type—so clean-cut he could be in an ad for drinking enough milk—and still I went fricking googly-eyed whenever I saw him. Extra embarrassing since I had fifth period with him every single day—it was only a matter of time until he caught me drooling.
He was standing behind the register at the Burger Barn, solemnly counting out change for a little girl who couldn’t be more than seven or eight. She had this dreamy, beaming look on her face, like she was so proud to be getting treated like a grown-up, or maybe like she was half in love with him.
You and me both, babe.
He placed a final coin in her palm and straightened up, his shaggy brown hair flopping over his forehead in perfect just-barely-curls. Somehow he looked even hotter here than he did at school. The burnt-orange Burger Barn T-shirt he was wearing made his eyes—a little too far apart on his face, which made them even more beautiful—look greener. He somehow managed to make his pointed paper uniform cap seem jaunty and alluring.
I looked down at myself. I was wearing a shapeless old oxford I’d stolen from my dad’s Goodwill pile. It was so long it made me look like a little kid playing dress-up, and it had clay all over the hem from where my apron hadn’t covered it up. Then of course there were the faded leggings, starting to go baggy at the knees, the Chuck Taylors that had gotten so scuffed over the summer I wasn’t even sure anymore what color they’d started as, and the sloppy side braid that did approximately nothing to contain the bursts of dark-brown frizz I call my hair.
Great look, Rach. No wonder Monique was always asking to give me makeovers. I was a fricking disaster.
Not that it mattered; I was not the kind of girl guys like Kyle Bonham—or really, any guy—paid much attention to. I’d managed to stay pretty much invisible for my entire high school career by hiding out in the art room. Especially to the painfully adorable lacrosse-star seniors who go out of their way to make even eight-year-olds feel special.
An older couple shuffled up to the register, staring perplexedly at the dozen or so variations on meat and cheese the Burger Barn packaged as “specials.” Kyle watched them blankly, looking like someone out of one of those catalogs where everyone is leaning against rustic wooden furniture just “being themselves.”
I should totally send a picture of him to Mo. After all, what could be a better distraction than a perfect-looking boy? Bonus: if I snapped a picture of Kyle I could look at it on my phone whenever. Yes, borderline pathetic, but it’s not like anyone would know but me.
I walked up behind the old woman, trying to look casual by keeping my phone down by my waist.
I tilted the phone up so Kyle’s face was in the frame. He was staring out over the rest of the food court while the older couple worked out their order. I couldn’t believe I was doing this; he was only a few feet away. Even with my flash and sound off, it would be so easy for him to realize what was going on.
But it would be worth it. In fact, this might be my best entry yet. Not like it was hard to find something better than a misplaced apostrophe, but this was gold-star emoji material.
As soon as he turned his head back toward the couple, I could take the picture quick and head over to the Pretzel Hut, like I’d realized I didn’t want anything Burger Barn had on the menu. At least, not on the food menu.
“Well I don’t know, Fred, I don’t think I want triple cheese. Can’t we get regular cheese?”
“Ma’am, if you like, I can substitute the cheese,” Kyle said, smiling easily at the older woman. She seemed startled that he was talking to her. Enough so that she shifted over into my frame right as I was clicking to take the picture.
Well, crap-sandwich. Great photo of old-lady shoulder, Rach.
I shifted my weight onto my left foot, easing over as imperceptibly as I could. Just move your arm, Grandma…
That’s when I saw her, sulking in the line for the Caribou kiosk about twenty feet past the entrance to the food court: Jessie Florenzano.
. . . and her mom, waving cheerily at me like I wasn’t the last person Jessie wanted to see, especially with her mom in tow. Jessie had been embarrassed by her even before our friendship imploded.
Jessie raised an eyebrow as though she could smell what I was doing. I dropped the phone down to my side and waved back. Jessie rolled her eyes and turned her back on me. I could see her whispering sharply to her mom, who smiled apologetically, then turned to Jessie, frowning. There were very few people I’d rather see less than Jessie, anywhere, ever, but I kind of loved that her mom still automatically acted friendly, four years after Jessie had sliced me out of her life.
I turned back. Grandma was laughing and nudging her husband’s arm.
“You know how I love pickles!”
Ew. Not the mental image I needed before eating.
Kyle smiled and tapped at the register. If I moved my arm a couple more inches… but not too far. He couldn’t know what was happening, and Jessie couldn’t guess; it would be way too mortifying. He tapped his fingers on the counter in a rat-a-tat rhythm as the old lady dug through her wallet.
He was perfectly lined up in the frame, the last traces of a smile lingering on his smooth cheeks.
I glanced over at Jessie. She was resolutely pretending I didn’t exist. There was never going to be a better time.
He looked toward me for a second. Crap, I was totally caught. I could feel my cheeks burning, betraying me. My breath caught somewhere around my sternum and stopped there, trapped.
But then he smiled and turned back to the customer, taking her pile of ones and quarters.
I exhaled, trying not to grin. I cropped the photo, typing in Mo’s Flit handle so she’d see it. This was even better than a German shepherd with a tie.
“It’s Rachel, right?”
I looked up, startled. The old couple had moved away to wait for their order, and Kyle was staring at me expectantly. I checked over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t talking to someone else. Like the Burger Barn only served Rachels or something? But I was the only person in line.
“Um, yeah.” I felt my face going hot again. “Rachel. That’s me.” Oh god, I sounded like the worst kind of stupid. Quickly, I clicked to make my screen go dark.
He pointed at himself.
I just stared, totally incapable of forming words.
“We’re in Creative Writing together? Fifth period?”
As though I hadn’t spent every day of the three weeks since school started thanking all the gods for that fact.
“Right,” I said, trying to sound like a girl who didn’t eye assault him daily. “You sit in the back, right?”
“Yeah! So Jenkins won’t call on me too much. I’m not as good as you are at that stuff.”
“I’m not that good,” I said automatically, looking down at the counter. Someone had made a ketchupy fingerprint to the right of the register. Like a cheeseburger crime scene. I couldn’t believe he knew who I was. The semester had barely started, and I wasn’t even his year. Not only that, he had an opinion about me. A nice one.
“No, you are. That story of yours that Jenkins read yesterday was… well it was really weird, but, like, in a cool way,” he said.
“Oh. Um, thanks.” All my words were melting, puddling around my feet in a big sloppy jumble, too liquid-slippery for me to get a grip on. The story had been about a computer that got a weird virus that convinced the machine it was actually the ghost of Queen Elizabeth I. He’d already summed it up: It was weird. I was weird. I could feel my armpits stinging with sweat.
“Anyway, what can I get you, Rachel from writing class?” he said.
You, shirtless, on a stallion?
“Um… what do you mean?”
“To eat?” He frowned. It made his nose wrinkle upward, like it was tethered to his forehead. I was so flustered about him knowing my name that I’d forgotten where we were—in line, at his job. He was being nice because he worked service. For god’s sake, he flirted with the elderly. Even more blood rushed into my cheeks. If you poked them with a pin they’d probably burst everywhere. Like that scene in The Shining all over the Apple Prairie Mall food court.
“Oh, duh. Sorry, my blood sugar must be really low,” I said. That’s always Monique’s excuse when she gets ditzy or snippy. “I was thinking, um, french fries?”
“No, large,” I said quickly. I was starving. He grinned a little, which reminded me that the girls Kyle Bonham hung out with did not eat large fries. They’d probably cumulatively eaten half an order of fries in the last ten years, which was why they looked like miniature supermodels and I looked like the funny friend. “I like how the large container makes my hands look extra tiny and stunted. It helps me get perspective on life,” I added.
Oh dear god, someone take this shovel away from me so I can stop digging my own fricking grave.
He laughed though, shaking his head slightly. “You’re funny. Okay. One large fry is gonna be four thirty-six.”
I dug in my purse for the money. He counted out my change and went to grab the fries. I could feel my heart rate slowing back to “not having a coronary” speeds.
“There you go,” he said. “I think this is the right size for your hands,” he added, grabbing one of my tiny fingers and playfully lifting the whole arm up in the air.
His touch was like an electric shock tingling up my entire arm. I almost snatched it back; guys don’t usually go around grabbing my hands. Only guys like Kyle—guys who win state sports titles and homecoming king crowns—have the balls to do stuff like that in the first place. I hoped I hadn’t nervous sweated enough to pit out my shirt.
But somehow I managed to keep it together long enough for him to squint back and forth between my hand and the fry box, measuring the two against each other before finally nodding as though I’d passed muster.
“Yup, looks like a fit,” he said.
He dropped my hand. I tried to breathe again.
“HA.” I forced a laugh. Poorly. “I should go. I have to meet up with my mom.” Awesome, Rachel, add to your intrigue by reminding him you hang out with your mother.
“Enjoy the fries, Rachel from writing,” he said, grinning. “See you tomorrow.”
“Sure.” I gulped, nodding too many times, too fast. “See you around.”
I walked away as slowly as I could force myself to, which was just this side of a sprint.
Breathing hard, I plopped onto a bench near the fountain. That had been disastrous.
But at least I’d gotten my picture. That had been the point, right? To flit something goofy to Monique? I finished typing her handle, then—because of course I’m oh-so-witty the minute actual guys have disappeared—I typed in a hashtag.
Immediately, I felt a little twinge. What if he saw it? He’d know it was me.
But that wouldn’t happen. Kyle didn’t follow me—maybe ten people did. I flitted all the pictures in the game to Monique, I’d been doing it for months; no one had ever noticed them before. I think the most attention any of the pictures ever got was a single non-Mo luv, and that squirrel vest had been AWESOME. Why would anyone suddenly care about this one?
My phone pinged with the sound that meant I had a reflit.
I opened my feed to see what Mo had said.
@attackoftherach_face tonight’s brain food.
The picture I’d flitted was below. That sweet, goofy half grin lingering around his lips was too adorable. So much so that it had made me feel sassy enough to flit:
@Mo_than_you_know I’m digging what
they’re serving up at Burger Barn today.
God, I am such an idiot.