I EXPECTED SEVERAL DIFFERENT SCENARIOS AFTER my little freak-out. Noah rolling his eyes and laughing at me. Noah making a smart-ass comment, driving me home, and dumping me at my door.
His actual response was not one of them.
His question hung in the air. Let him try what? I didn’t know how to answer because I didn’t understand what he was asking. But Noah stared at me, expectant, with the barest suggestion of a smile on his lips and I needed to do something.
I nodded. That seemed to be enough.
When Noah pulled into my driveway, he got out of the car and strode quickly to the passenger door to open it for me. I gave him a look, but he interrupted me before I had the chance to speak.
“I like doing it for you. Try to remember so I don’t have to sprint every time.”
Every time. I felt strange as we walked up the brick path to my front door. Something had shifted between us.
“I’m picking you up tomorrow morning,” Noah said, as he brushed a strand of hair from my face and tucked it behind my ear. His touch felt like home.
I blinked hard, and shook my head to clear it. “But it’s out of your way.”
“And Daniel has to drive to school anyway.”
Noah placed a finger on my lips. “Don’t. Don’t ask me why. It’s annoying. I want to. That’s it. That’s all. So let me.” Noah’s face was so close. So close.
Focus, Mara. “Everyone’s going to think that we’re together.”
“Let them,” he said as his eyes searched my face.
“But nothing. I want them to think that.”
I thought of everything that would imply. Because it was Noah, people wouldn’t just think that we were together, but that we were together, together.
“I’m a bad actress,” I said by way of explanation.
Noah skimmed his fingers down the line of my arm and lifted my hand to his mouth. His lips brushed over my knuckles, impossibly soft. He looked into my eyes and killed me.
“Then don’t act. See you at eight.” He let go of my hand and walked back to his car.
I stood on the doorstep, breathless as Noah drove away. I turned his words over in my mind. Let me try. I want them to think that. Don’t act.
Something was starting between us. But it would finish me if it ended. When it ended, which would be soon, if Jamie was to be believed. Dazed, I went into the house, leaned against the back of the door, and closed my eyes.
“Welcome back.” I heard the smile in Daniel’s voice, even though I couldn’t see it.
I tried to regain my equilibrium because my brother was in it deep, and I was not about to let it go just because my insides were mid-quiver. “You have some ‘splainin’ to do,” was all I managed to say.
“Guilty,” Daniel said, but he didn’t look it. “Did you have fun?”
I shook my head. “I can’t believe you did that to me.”
“Did. You. Have. Fun?”
“That’s. Not. The. Point,” I said back.
Daniel’s grin widened. “I like him.”
“What does that have to do with anything? How could you tell him, Daniel?
“Okay, hold on a second here. First of all, the only thing I told him was why we moved from Laurelton. There was an accident, your friends died, and we moved to start over. You don’t have the monopoly on that explanation, so relax.” I opened my mouth to protest but Daniel continued. “Second, he’s a good guy.”
I agreed with him, but didn’t want to. “Other people don’t think so,” I said instead.
“Other people are usually wrong.”
I glared at him. “Moving on. Tell me what happened. Leave nothing out.”
“After our first day of school, I went to discuss my independent music study with the teacher and Noah was there. He composes, by the way, and he’s really freaking good. Sophie told me she did a few open mic nights with him last year.”
I thought of little blond adorable Sophie, and felt a sudden urge to kick her in the shins and run away.
“Anyway, when he found out my name, he asked me about you.”
I rewound my thoughts. “But I didn’t meet him until our second day of school.”
Daniel shrugged. “He knew you somehow.”
I shook my head slowly. “Why lie, Daniel? Why pretend not to know each other this morning?”
“Because, I surmised—and correctly, I might add—that you would flip out. But really, Mara, you’re overreacting. You were barely mentioned in our conversation. We spent most of the time discussing the Kafka-Nietzsche nexus and the parodic sonnets in Don Quixote.”
“Don’t try to distract me with your smart talk. You shouldn’t have gone begging for friends for me. I’m not that pathetic.”
“That’s not what I did. But even if it was, have you exceeded your friend quota here in Miami already? Is there something I missed?”
I stiffened. “That’s a dick thing to say,” I said in a low voice.
“You’re right. It is. But you’re always insisting that everyone treat you normally, so answer the question. Have you made any other friends since we’ve been here?”
I gave him the death stare. “Yes, actually.”
“Who? I want a name.”
“The Ebola kid? I heard he’s a little unstable.”
“That was one incident.”
“Not what I’ve heard.”
I clenched my teeth. “I detest you, Daniel. I really do.”
“Love you too, sister. Good night.”
I went to my room and slammed the door.
When I awoke the next morning, I felt heavy, like I’d gotten too much sleep, but my head ached as though I hadn’t. I glanced at my clock. 7:48 a.m.
I swore and stumbled out of bed, rushing to put on clothes. But when I passed my desk, I stopped. A small white pill floated on top of a napkin. I closed my eyes and inhaled. I hated the thought of taking it—hated. But the art show debacle was scary, not to mention the bathtub incident last week. And I didn’t want to freak out in front of Noah again. I just wanted to be normal for him. For my family. For everyone.
Before I overthought it, I swallowed the pill and dashed out of my room. I collided with my father as he turned the corner, and sent the accordion file he’d been carrying flying. Papers scattered everywhere.
“Whoa, where’s the fire?” he said.
“Sorry—gotta go, late for school.”
He looked confused. “Daniel’s car’s not here. I didn’t think anyone was home.”
“A friend’s taking me,” I said as I bent to pick up the papers. I shuffled them and turned them over to my father.
“Thanks, honey. How’ve you been? I never see you anymore. Stupid trial.”
I bounced a little on my feet, eager to meet Noah before he got out of his car. “When is it?”
“Opening arguments in two weeks, with one week scheduled on the docket,” he said, and kissed my forehead. “We’ll talk before I leave for base camp.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Moving to a hotel for trial prep.”
“But don’t worry, we’ll talk before I leave. You go. Love you.”
“Love you, too.” I pecked him on the cheek and brushed past him into the foyer, slinging my bag over my shoulder. But when I flung open the front door, Noah was already there.
These were the things that added up to Noah that morning, from bottom to top:
Shoes: gray Chucks.
Pants: charcoal tweed.
Shirt: slim cut, untucked, thin and pinstriped dress shirt. Super skinny tie, knotted loose around his open collar, exposing the shadow of a screen-printed t-shirt beneath it.
Days unshaven: somewhere between three and five.
Eyes: blue and infinite.
Hair: a beautiful, beautiful mess.
“Morning,” he said, his voice warm and rich. God help me.
“Morning,” I managed to reply, squinting. From the sun, or from staring at him for too long. Flip a coin.
“You need sunglasses,” he said.
I rubbed my eyes. “I know.”
Suddenly, he crouched down.
“What are you—”
In my rush, I hadn’t tied my shoelaces.
Noah was now tying them for me. He looked up at me through his dark fringe of lashes and smiled.
The expression on his face melted me completely. I knew I had the goofiest grin plastered on my lips, and didn’t care.
“There,” he said as he finished tying the laces on my left shoe. “Now you won’t fall.”
When we pulled into the school parking lot, I began to sweat despite the blast of the air conditioner. Dark clouds had filled the sky during our drive, and a few splatters of rain hit the windshield, prompting teeming multitudes of students to bolt to the front gates. I was nervous—terrified, really—to walk into school with Noah. It was so public.
“Ready?” he asked, with mock seriousness.
“Not really,” I admitted.
Noah looked confused. “What’s wrong?”
“Look at them,” I said, indicating the hordes. “I just—everyone’s going to be talking about it,” I finished.
He half-smiled. “Mara. They’re already talking about it.”
That didn’t make me feel any better. I chewed on my lower lip. “This is different,” I said. “This is putting everything out there. On purpose. By choice.”
And then Noah said just about the only thing that could make me feel better. “I won’t leave you. I’ll be there. All day.”
He said it like he meant it. I believed him. No one seemed to care what Noah did at Croyden, so it was not a stretch to imagine him sitting in on my classes. But I’d die if it came to that.
Noah grabbed his blazer from the backseat, shrugged it on, opened my door, and then there we were, standing side-by-side as every stray eye turned in our direction. Panic constricted my throat. I looked at Noah to gauge his reaction. He looked—happy. He liked it.
“You’re getting off on this,” I said, incredulous.
He arched an eyebrow at me. “I like being beside you. And I like everyone seeing us together.” He placed an arm around my shoulders, drawing me closer to him, and my anxiety dissolved. Somewhat.
As we approached the gate, I noticed some guys loitering by their cars parked near the entrance. They all had the wide-eyed cud-chewing look in common as they turned to look at us.
“Dude!” A guy named Parker shouted to Noah as he jogged in our direction. Noah cocked an eyebrow at him.
Parker’s eyes met mine for the first time since I’d arrived at Croyden. “ ‘Sup?”
Did people really say that? “Hey,” I returned.
“So you guys are like—?”
Noah glared at him. “Go away, Parker.”
“Sure, sure. Hey, um, Kent just wanted to know if we’re still on for tomorrow night?”
Noah half-turned his head to look at me and said, “Not anymore.”
Parker looked at me pointedly. “That blows.”
Noah rubbed the heel of his palm into his eye. “Are we finished?”
Parker smirked. “Yeah, yeah. See you guys later,” he said, winking at me as he left.
“He seems … special,” I said, while Parker went to rejoin his pack.
“He isn’t,” Noah said.
I laughed until a voice from behind cut it off.
“I’d hit that.”
I kept walking.
“I’d hit it harder,” said someone else. Blood whooshed in my ears but I didn’t look back.
“I’d hit that so hard whoever pulled me out would become the King of England.”
Noah was no longer by my side when I turned. He had Kent from Algebra pinned against the car.
“I should injure you considerably,” he said in a low voice.
“Dude, chill.” Kent was completely calm.
“Noah,” I heard myself say. “It’s not worth it.”
Noah’s eyes narrowed, but upon hearing my voice, he released Kent, who straightened his shirt and brushed the front of his khakis.
“Get fucked, Kent,” Noah said as he turned away.
The idiot laughed. “Oh, I will.”
Noah whirled around, and I heard the unmistakable impact of knuckles meeting face. Kent was on the concrete, his hands clutching his nose.
When he started to get up, Noah said, “I wouldn’t. I’m barely above kicking the shit out of you on the ground. Barely.”
“You broke my nose!” Blood streamed down Kent’s shirt and a crowd formed a small circle around the three of us.
A teacher parted the throng and called out, “Principal’s office NOW, Shaw.”
Noah ignored him and walked over to me, inordinately calm. He placed his good hand on the small of my back and my legs threatened to dissolve. The bell rang, and I looked at Noah as he leaned in and brushed his lips against my ear.
He whispered into my hair, “It was worth it.”