As for where I got my ridiculous idea to make a list of the things I wanted to do before my high school life officially ended, I blame that most annoying of God’s creatures: girls in love.
Made even more annoying when you realize that you’re the only one among your friends with no boyfriend, no romantic prospects, no experience, and no social life other than the people you see every day in class, at your house, and maybe the local supermarket and fruit-and-vegetable stand.
“He’s going to take me to Town Center after school today to try out that new cupcake shop,” Cassie was gushing over lunch, a few days before that disastrous night when my ill-fated list fell into Markus’ hands. We were eating together at a bench in semi-private area behind the main building. The “semi-private” part turned out to be crucial a little later on. “He said the cupcakes were so cute, they reminded him of me,” she went on, pulling her phone out. “Here, he sent me pictures from when he went there with his sister. See?”
She scrolled through the images, then blushed prettily while the rest of us cooed at the pics of her boyfriend at the cupcake shop—complete with handmade sign that said, wish you were here. ❤ you!
“He should’ve written your name on the sign,” I commented around a mouthful of meat bun. “So you’ll know he’s not sending this pic out to every girl in school.”
Cassie looked at me reproachfully. “Of course he’s not doing that. What a thing to say.”
“Sorry,” I muttered.
“She didn’t mean it, Cass. Sienna’s just a complete innocent about things like this,” Lynne piped up, patting Cassie on the shoulder and sending me an arch look. “And yeah, Brian should definitely take you to Town Center. I remember when Gian and I went there. We went to the department store, and he picked up this teddy bear and chased me around and around with it. The salesladies looked so angry.”
“Really? They didn’t kick you out?” I inquired politely, trying to make up for my earlier faux pas.
Lynne giggled. “Almost. Gian had to buy the teddy bear for me just to keep them from getting the guards to throw us out of the store. Serves him right.”
“Hmm. Must be nice to have your boyfriends around to kill time with. Me, I can’t wait to get out of here and go to college already,” Abby said, pushing up her glasses.
Cassie gasped at this bit of blasphemy. “Why? High school is such fun. My older sister says it’s better than college, because then it’s all about classes and papers and exams and stuff. I’m going to so much about high school, like going on field trips, texting secretly in class, playing hide-and-seek in the main building, sneaking into the haunted auditorium with your crush…”
“Sure, but high school is so—so small, isn’t it?” Abby countered. “Look at this place. This is it, our world. It’s what’s defined us for years. But there’s a whole lot more world out there and…don’t you guys want to go and explore it? Find out who we could be out there?”
Gulping down a mouthful of water, I nodded in agreement. Of my three friends, Abby was the one who talked the most sense to me. Cassie and Lynne, however, exchanged skeptical glances. “Meh, you’re just saying that because your boyfriend’s a college student, so of course you want to go to him already. No need to go deep with this, girl,” Lynne pointed out slyly.
Abby flushed. “Okay, there’s that, too,” she admitted, then sighed. “Jason and I haven’t gone on a date in a while. We’ve just been chatting online or texting each other, since he’s so busy with his classes and all. But he says he’s preparing a special graduation surprise for me,” she added with a shy smile.
The other girls emitted gleeful noises and launched into excited speculations over what this surprise could be. I sat there chewing my meat bun like a cow, feeling lost and, frankly, bored with the conversation.
Then Lynne turned to me and asked: “What do you think, Sienna?”
“Hmm?” I mumbled. “About what?”
“About how far Abby and Jason have gone. Weren’t you listening?”
“I was, but I just remembered the water bill’s late—wait, what?” I frowned in confusion. “What do you mean, how far Abby and Jason have gone?”
“It’s nothing,” Abby cut in frantically. “We were just talking about the surprise Jason planned for us, then suddenly these two started bringing up weird stuff like second base—”
“I’m talking about sex, okay?” Lynne nearly shouted, to Cassie’s raucous squealing. My mouth dropped open, and judging from the look on Abby’s face, she shared my heartfelt gratitude that nobody else was within earshot. “Doing the nasty! Bumping uglies! Or at least getting close enough to doing it, you know? We figured since Abby’s got the most mature boyfriend, she’s gone a lot further than we have, and we want know the details.”
“And maybe get a few tips, too,” Cassie added.
Abby buried her face in her hands. “I can’t believe you guys.” When Lynne and Cassie continued to press her, she threw up her hands and said: “We haven’t done it, okay? I mean, we—we’ve done some stuff and…and maybe up to third base…but Jason always stops there, saying he’ll wait for me to graduate from high school first before we do it.”
Lynne made a face. “Aw, he’s being a gentleman. That sucks.”
“Brian and I have only gotten up to kissing and…here,” Cassie admitted, patting her chest. Then she blushed again and giggled. “It feels good. Kind of ticklish. Kissing’s great, too.”
“Oh yeah, kissing’s fantastic,” Lynne agreed. “But you know, girls, there’s a lot more to it than kissing and going down to third base.”
“And how would you know about that?” Abby said suspiciously.
Lynne’s face took on the look of a well-fed cat. “Gian and I have already…you know,” she stage-whispered to us, and again, I sent up a prayer of thanks that nobody else could hear this unbelievable conversation. Lynne proceeded to narrate events—without going into too much detail, thank God—while Abby and Cassie listened in fascination, occasionally bobbing their heads in agreement and sharing their own experiences. I found myself completely at sea, just staring at my three friends who suddenly seemed like total strangers. A small feeling sprouted inside me, curling around my insides and making my chest ache.
Abby must have noticed how lost I’d seemed, because later she stopped me before I could rush out of our last class to go pick Ziggy up at his school so we could go buy the supplies he needed for a project he’d conveniently forgotten to tell me about until the day before deadline. We stood together near the window inside the empty classroom, overlooking the school’s front courtyard; I’d decided Ziggy could stand to wait a bit longer.
“Don’t take what Lynne and Cassie were saying seriously, okay?” Abby told me. “And I’m sorry about earlier. You really didn’t look like you were having fun, and I don’t blame you.”
The strange feeling tightened around my chest a little more. “Lynne practically called me a closet lesbian just because I’ve never had a boyfriend or a crush or even the slightest interest in any member of the opposite sex,” I grumbled.
Abby hesitated. “Are you a…?”
I rolled my eyes. “No, I’m not. I just think it’s kind of silly, being so caught up in a relationship like that. As if that’s what being in high school’s all about. Um, no offense,” I added, belatedly remembering that Abby was in a relationship herself.
She shook her head. “None taken.”
“Besides, I live with a bunch of guys, remember?” I continued. “I know what a boy looks, sounds, feels and smells like. And honestly? What it’s like is totally disgusting.”
“I just bet it is. Ew,” Abby replied, laughing and wrinkling her nose. “I just think that while Lynne and Cassie do seem kind of silly, that probably says more about you than about them.”
“No kidding,” I snorted. Below us in the courtyard, the Demolition Crew appeared along with their other classmates, and I watched with interest as Markus veered away from them, heading to where his girl of the day was waiting for him. Dante yelled something at him I couldn’t quite catch while Daniel hooted with laughter. He hollered something back, then offered his hand to the girl with a courtly bow, making her giggle. I chuckled a little myself. Honestly, Markus could be such a ham sometimes.
Then he glanced back at the building over his shoulder. When he spotted us at the window, he grinned and waved, prompting me to make exaggerated shooing motions at him, to which he responded by clutching his heart and pretending to collapse before staggering off with his girl.
“Are you sure you’re not interested in any member of the opposite sex?” Abby murmured.
I turned away from the window, picked my bag up from a nearby chair, and slung it over my shoulder. “Definitely,” I stated. “Besides, when would I ever have time for a boyfriend? Anyway, I have to go. I’ve got a brother to roast alive for waiting until the last minute to do a project.”
“Sienna, wait.” I paused in the doorway and looked back over my shoulder at Abby. “That’s not all I wanted to say,” she told me. “You know, Lynne and Cassie are right about one thing: You’re missing out on your high school experience. Remember, we’re never going to be seventeen again, or in high school again. This part of your life will never come again, so take the time to actually live it while you’re still here.”
I frowned at her. “What? Wait, weren’t you the one who said she couldn’t wait to get out of high school and go to college already?”
“Yeah, but I’ve got memories of high school that you don’t have, my friend,” Abby replied, pushing her glasses up.
“I’ve got plenty of high school memories,” I protested.
“Really? How many class field trips have you gone on?”
“That’s two less than I have.”
“That’s because the twins came down with the flu last year, and this year, Mama arrived home on the day of the field trip.” I didn’t need to tell her that the few weeks in a year that Mama could take a break from her job in Dubai and come home to us were sacred. And Mama coming home also meant that Dad would stay at home instead of putter around halfheartedly at one of Tito Henry’s hardware and construction supply shops in between launching his own business venture, failing at his business venture, and looking for another idea for a business venture. Mama coming home meant we got to be a normal family again; every moment that she was here was precious.
Abby must have thought about this, too, because she nodded in understanding. “Okay then. How many sleepovers have you been on, either at somebody’s house or here at school?”
I opened my mouth, thought about it some more, then answered grudgingly: “None. But that’s because I’m the only one at home who knows how to work a stove—”
“How many times have you come with us after school to check out some shop or café or to just hang out?”
“Abby, you know I have to be home by five at the latest.”
“How many times have you gone to cheer for our school team during intramural games?”
“How many post-fair bonfires have you gone to? How many school dances? Have you ever climbed up the fire escape to the rooftop to watch the sunset? And do you even know what it feels like to break some rule and not get caught?”
I squinted at her. “Do you?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied, giving me a mysterious smile. “But more importantly, you don’t. Now I know you’re busy taking care of your sibs and all, and somehow you still manage to keep your grades up and make it to the university of your choice, which makes you amazing. But we’ve got less than two months left here, Sienna. Go crazy for once in your life.”
Her words fed the feeling inside me until it grew into a bizarre mixture of restlessness, hunger and anxiety. And it wouldn’t go away, no matter what I did. I’d wake up in the morning and make breakfast, and the feeling would be right there, cracking eggs and washing rice with me. I’d watch my brothers and their friends in school or at home having fun and kidding around with one another, and it would be there, holding my hand. I’d be walking home alone from the fruit-and-vegetable stand or sorting laundry or restocking the fridge after one of the twins’ nightly raids, and it would trip me up from out of nowhere. It would catch me in its grip and refuse to let go…honestly, it was seriously starting to piss me off.
So one night, I came home earlier than usual, sat down at the dining table, and did as Abby said: I went a little crazy. I took a pen and a sheet of note paper, and wrote down the things I wanted to accomplish within the next month, although to be completely honest, the last two items were more of a secret fantasy of mine than a concrete, achievable goal. After all, I wasn’t pretty or popular or even around much of the time, which meant most of the boys in my class were only vaguely aware of me at best. As embarrassing as it was, it was also a relief to know that no boy would ever read my list and discover just how pathetic I really was.
Until Mustard started haunting me.
Until Markus got his hands on my list before I could destroy it.
Until he gave me that devil-smile of his and informed me that he was going to help me achieve my goals. All of my goals.
And now that I’d dipped my foot into the crazy pool, I was starting to learn just how easy it was to slip off the edge and belly-flop right into insanity.