nOAH’S LIPS PRESSED LIGHTLY ON THE SKIN of my cheek and lingered there. I was on fire. By the time I opened my eyes and my breathing returned to normal, Noah wasn’t in front of me. He hung casually from the archway in the locker nook, waiting for me to get my things for Art.
The bell rang.
I still stood there. I still felt the imprint of his lips on my cheek. I still stared like an idiot. Noah’s smile spread into a smirk.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and mustered up what dignity I had left before walking right past him, careful to avoid the rain slanting under the arches. I was glad Art was next. I needed to decompress, to watch my stress level as Dr. Maillard had said. And Noah was impossible to ignore. When we stood in front of my classroom, I told him I’d meet him later.
Noah’s forehead creased as other students walked past us. “But I have a study period.”
“So, go study.”
“But I want to watch you draw.”
I answered him by closing my eyes and rubbing my forehead. He was impossible.
“You don’t want me there?” he asked. I opened my eyes. Noah looked crestfallen and adorable.
“You’re distracting,” I said truthfully.
“I won’t be. I promise,” Noah said. “I’ll get some crayons and draw quietly. Alone. In a corner.”
I couldn’t help my smile and Noah saw his opening; he brushed right past me into the classroom. I calmly walked to a table at the far end of the room. Noah’s eyes followed me as I sat at a stool and withdrew my graphite and charcoal.
I ignored him and went to my happy place. I opened my sketchbook, quickly flipping past the pages filled with Noah, as the substitute cleared her throat before speaking.
“Hi, guys! I’m Ms. Adams. Mrs. Gallo had a family emergency so I’m going to be your sub for the day.” With her short bangs and glasses, she looked twelve years old. And sounded it.
When Ms. Adams took attendance and called out the name of an absent classmate, Noah’s hand shot up. I watched him cautiously. After she finished roll call, Noah stood, completely unself-conscious as heads followed his progress to the front of the room.
“Um—” Ms. Adams checked her clipboard. “Ibrahim Hassin?”
Noah nodded. I died.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Noah wore a bemused expression. “Didn’t Mrs. Gallo tell you?” he asked her. “We’re supposed to start working on live models today.”
No, I was being tortured.
“Oh, umm. I didn’t—”
“It’s true,” a girl in a cheerleading uniform piped up. Brittany, I think. “N—Ibrahim’s supposed to go first. Mrs. Gallo said.” A chorus of nodding and murmuring supported Brittany’s assertion.
Ms. Adams looked baffled and a bit helpless. “Uh, okay, I guess. Do you guys know what to do?”
Noah flashed her a brilliant smile as he dragged a stool to the center of the room. “Definitely,” he said. He sat down, and I looked at my blank page, feeling the pressure of his eyes on me the entire time.
“Um, wait—” the sub said, a note of desperation in her voice.
My eyes flitted up to the front of the classroom. Noah was in the process of unbuttoning his shirt. Sweet Jesus.
“I’m really not comfortable with—”
He pulled his tie loose. My female classmates tittered.
“Hot. So hot.”
He lifted the hem of his T-shirt up. Good-bye, dignity. If Noah heard the girls, he made no indication. He caught my stare and shot me a sly smile.
“M-Mr. Hassin, please put your clothes back on,” Ms. Adams stammered.
Noah paused, letting everyone enjoy the view a moment longer, then shrugged back into his T-shirt, then his dress shirt, redoing all of the buttons incorrectly and leaving the cuffs undone.
Ms. Adams exhaled audibly. “Okay, guys, get to work.”
Noah’s eyes held my face. I swallowed hard. The juxtaposition of him sitting in a room full of people while staring at no one but me was overwhelming. Something shifted inside of me at the intimacy of us, eyes locked amid the scraping of twenty graphite pencils on paper.
I shaded his face out of nothingness. I smudged the slope of his neck and darkened his delinquent mouth, while the lights accented the right angle of his jaw against the cloudy sky outside. I did not hear the bell. I did not hear the other students rise and leave the room. I did not even notice that Noah no longer sat at the stool.
I felt fingers whisper on my back. “Hey,” Noah said. His voice was very soft.
“Hey,” I answered. I remained hunched protectively over the page but half-turned to meet his stare.
I couldn’t deny him and I didn’t reply. I shifted out of the way so he could see.
I heard his intake of breath. Neither of us spoke for a long time. Then, “Is that what I look like?” Noah’s expression was unreadable.
“It is to me.”
Noah didn’t speak.
“It’s just how I saw you in that moment,” I said.
Noah was still silent. I shifted uncomfortably. “If you looked at everyone else’s drawings, they’d be completely different,” I added.
Noah still stared.
“It’s not that bad,” I said, as I moved to close the sketchbook.
Noah stopped me. “No,” he said in a low voice, barely perceptible.
He was still staring at it, but he looked—distant. I closed the book and slipped it in my bag. When we left the classroom, his hand braceleted my wrist.
“May I have it?” he asked.
I arched an eyebrow.
“Oh,” I said. “Sure.”
“Thank you,” he said, a smile flirting with his mouth. “Would it be greedy to ask for one of you?”
“A self-portrait?” I asked. Noah smiled an answer. “I haven’t done one in forever,” I said.
“So it’s about time, then.”
I contemplated the idea. I’d have to draw myself without a mirror, now that I saw dead people in them these days. I shrugged noncommittally in Noah’s general direction and focused on the drips of rain that fell from the thatched roof of the tiki hut above us.
I heard a low buzzing from Noah’s pocket. He withdrew his phone and arched his eyebrow at it.
“Mmm,” he murmured, still staring at the phone. “It’s your brother.”
“Daniel? What does he want?”
“Joseph, actually,” Noah said, texting something back. “And to offer a stock tip.”
I have the strangest family.
Noah shoved his phone back in his pocket. “Let’s eat in the dining hall,” he said out of nowhere.
“I haven’t exactly been—wait, what?” He looked bemused.
“If you want to go, we can go.”
He raised an eyebrow. “That was easier than I expected. My body must have addled your good sense.”
I sighed. “Why do you insist on making me hate you?”
“I’m not making you hate me. I’m making you love me.”
Damn him for being right.
“So you’re giving in?” he asked. “Just like that?”
I started walking. “How much worse could it be after everything else today?”
Noah stopped. “Worse?”
“Having everyone stare and wonder what sort of hijinks your vagina’s been up to isn’t as thrilling as one might imagine.”
“I knew it,” Noah said simply. He still had my hand. It felt tiny and warm in his. “I knew this would happen,” he said again.
I pushed my hair back from my forehead. “I can take it.”
“But you shouldn’t have to,” Noah said, his nostrils flaring. “I wanted to show them you were different. That’s why—Christ,” Noah said under his breath. “That’s why everything. Because you are different,” he said to himself. A shadow darkened his face and he was silent as he stared at me. Studied me. I was lost, but didn’t have time to ask what he was talking about before his expression changed. He withdrew his hand from mine. “If you’re getting hell for this—”
Without thinking, I took his hand back. “Then I’ll put on my big-girl panties and deal.” I indicated the cafeteria. “Shall we?”
Noah didn’t speak the rest of the way, and I mulled over what I’d said and what it meant. People would think I was a slut. They likely already did. And even though Noah was different—seemed different—from the person Jamie had warned me about, that didn’t mean our thing wouldn’t be over tomorrow. Was it worth it? Noah’s reputation didn’t seem to ruffle Daniel, and I thought—hoped—that Jamie and I would stay friends anyway. And for now, there was Noah.
I decided that was enough.
We were still holding hands when we arrived at the cafeteria. As he opened the door for me, I finally understood why Noah called it the dining hall. The ceilings were chapel high and arches spanned the length of the space, housing floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The stark white of the walls contrasted with the burnished walnut floors. Nothing could have been further from the image the word “cafeteria” normally conjures.
“Any seating preferences?” Noah asked.
My eyes scanned the bustling room, filled with uniformed Croyden students. “You’re kidding, right?”
Noah led me through the hall by the hand, and eyes turned up and followed us as we passed. He caught the eye of someone he knew in the far back and waved, and the person waved back.
It was Daniel. His eyes were wide with surprise and the table went silent as we wove through the chairs to meet him.
“Oh my God, if it isn’t my baby sister. Here, in this very cafeteria!”
“Shut up.” I sat down beside Noah and took out my lunch, too self-conscious to meet the eyes of the rest of the seniors assembled at the table.
“I see you’ve brought surly Mara out to play. Thanks for that, Noah.”
Noah raised his hands defensively.
Daniel cleared his throat. “So, Mara.” I looked up from my sandwich. “This is everyone,” he continued. “Everyone, this is my sister Mara.”
I mustered up some courage and looked around the table. I recognized Sophie but no one else. Noah slid into a chair across from my brother and I sat next to him, across from Sophie.
“Hey,” I said to her.
“Hey,” she answered, smiling mid-chew. She swallowed and introduced me to the rest of their group. Noah and my brother chatted away, Daniel’s friends were incredibly nice, and after only a few minutes, Sophie had me laughing so hard I almost cried. When I caught my breath, Noah caught my eyes, took my hand under the table, and smiled. I smiled back.
I was happy. I wanted more than anything for it to last.