“Wow, I can’t believe you’re still here.”
Abby stood over me, holding a tray with a pitcher of orange juice and four glasses, an impish smile on her face. “Well, believe it,” I sniffed, refusing to take the bait. “Someone’s got to sort through this mess for something worthwhile to show in the exhibit. Look at all this. I can’t believe how much stuff you three accumulated in just four years.”
I gestured at the heap of photos, greeting cards, brochures, invitations, tickets, souvenir programs, little toys, accessories and sundry other items sitting on the floor in front of me, which I was sorting into two smaller piles—one for the class exhibit to be shown during the graduation ball and the commencement exercises, and the other to be put back into the boxes and bags they came from. The four of us were crowded into Abby’s bedroom, with Lynne and Cassie sitting at Abby’s computer giggling as they browsed through our classmates’ social media sites for photos to be included in the exhibit. We’d finished working on a group project earlier, and before that, we’d gone out to the mall on the pretext of buying supplies for the project and ended up going window-shopping for dresses, shoes and accessories for the grad ball, then hanging out at Starbucks for a couple of hours before going back to Abby’s place to spend the night. By all accounts, going shopping at a mall, chatting at a café, and spending the night at a friend’s house was not an unusual way for high school girls to spend a Saturday, but it was a new experience for me.
Oh, and another new thing for me? Lying about which friend’s house I was spending the night at.
Setting the tray on her bedside table, Abby sank down on the floor beside me, propped her elbows on her knees, and watched me over the rims of her glasses. A wave of heat crept up my neck as her stare burned a hole through me, and after a while I gave up attempting to ignore her. “What? Why are you looking at me like that?” I groused.
“Mm-mm.” Abby shook her head. “I’m just trying to remember the last time you had a sleepover here. Was it back in fourth grade or fifth?”
“I…don’t remember either. Fifth, maybe?” I held up a theatrical poster for a stage play to show her. “When was this? I don’t remember watching this.”
“You wouldn’t. That was back in junior year. They cut afternoon class short just so we could all go watch it, but you didn’t go. Something about a PTA meeting or conference?”
“Junior year? What did—oh, that must’ve been the day they issued Ziggy’s grades at school. I had to go talk to his adviser and Social Studies teacher about his grades because Dad couldn’t go.” Frowning, I stared down at the poster, then placed it on the for-exhibit pile and picked up a photo of Abby, Lynne, Cassie and several other classmates of ours at an amusement park. “I didn’t know you guys went to Enchanted Kingdom. Francis, Ethan and Gary are here, so this must’ve been—wow, back in our sophomore year.”
Abby craned her neck to look at the photograph. “Ah, yes, that one. It was Francis’ birthday that day, and he invited almost a dozen of us to Enchanted Kingdom to celebrate.”
Cassie tossed cheerfully over her shoulder: “That was a super time, even though Ethan threw up after that ride with the whirling swings.”
Abby laughed. “Yeah, poor guy. Lucky for him there was a trashcan nearby, but what a waste of all those hotdogs he ate.”
“And Gary screamed like a girl the entire time during the Space Shuttle ride. You remember?” Lynne added with a grin.
As the three traded reminiscences about that day at Enchanted Kingdom, a host of emotions chased through me. Why hadn’t I gone with them? Why hadn’t I been invited? I hadn’t realized I’d asked the question out loud until Lynne answered: “You were invited, girl. Gary had a crush on you back then, so of course his buddy Francis invited the girl he likes. He was so disappointed that you couldn’t come. I’ve forgotten why you couldn’t, though.”
I racked my brain until the reason came to me: Mama was coming home the next day, and Dad said I had to make sure the house was spotless when she arrived. “I’ve forgotten, too,” I lied as I placed the photo with other for-exhibit items, most of which I had neither memory of nor involvement in. “Don’t ask me to caption any of that, okay?” I added with a sigh.
“Don’t feel bad, Sienna.” Abby patted me comfortingly on the shoulder, and I gave her a grateful smile until she added slyly: “After all, you’re making up for lost time tonight.”
As if on cue, both Lynne and Cassie swiveled around in their chairs to look at me, avid expressions on their faces. “Ohhh yeeeaaah,” Lynne purred throatily. “Markus is a god in more ways than one. Remind me to shake his hand when he shows up here. He deserves it for unlocking our Sienna’s innocent, virginal heart and unleashing her inner slut.”
“Wait, hold on, that’s not how it—”
“Markus, Markus, Markus!” Lynne chanted, causing me to choke on my protest, then squealed with laughter when I hid my face behind a photograph and glared at her over its edge. “Oh my God, look at you! It’s like every time you hear his name, you glow like a traffic light. Markus, Markus, Markus! See?”
Abby giggled. “Like Pavlov’s dog, only more romantic.”
“You mean sluttier.” Lynne cackled.
“Shut up, you witch!” I grabbed one of Abby’s throw pillows and hurled it at Lynne, although I couldn’t help laughing, too. I had no idea sleepovers can be this much fun, I thought.
Cassie sighed. “I still can’t believe it. I’d actually given up hope that you’d ever notice how hot he’s become. And all this time, he’s been right under your nose. I mean, really, what took you so long?”
“Well, I saw this coming a mile away.” Abby pushed her glasses up and grinned at my surprised look. “I’m not kidding. I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen between the two of you since last year at least. Call it fate or whatever, but Sienna, I think he was meant to find your list.”
Yes, at some point during the past week, I finally broke down and told my friends about my secret deal with Markus. Well, I told Abby first, confessing everything except for my encounters with a little ghost-cat, partly because I needed her help in backing up my cover story that I was spending that night at her place to sort through potential exhibit material, and partly because I desperately needed someone to talk to about the crazy, bewildering tide of emotions that Markus had been stirring up inside me. As for Cassie and Lynne, they figured it out soon enough, and after prizing the entire story out of me—again, minus the fact that Mustard was haunting me for some reason—they quickly threw in their support for our experiment, even suggesting that we turn my cover story into a real girls-day-out and sleepover at Abby’s place, with the understanding, of course, that I’d be spending the second half of the sleepover with someone else.
Then again, it was no surprise that my friends managed to sniff out that something was going on. I lay the blame squarely at Markus’ feet. Our ghost-hunting expedition seemed to have served as a kind of turning point for him, because ever since then, he’d turned the full force of his charm on me, and I could feel myself crumbling underneath his onslaught.
Oh, he still abided by my wish to keep our deal a secret, and to be fair, he did try not to do anything obvious when other people were around. The problem was, his definition of “obvious” was a little different from mine. For one thing, just as I’d begun to get used to the extra warmth in his smile and the way our gazes seemed to keep finding each other, he decided to add a new dimension to things by texting me at odd times of the day—occasionally sweet and often weirdly random messages that always made me smile somehow.
The first message came late Sunday night, just as I was drifting off to sleep. hi, S. u need xtra cash?
Puzzled, I’d replied: no, bt wats dis abt?
I kno wat Uncle Fred’s speech 2moro wil b bout: discipline. he gave me n earful bout it ovr lnch.
I bet he did ,bt wat does dis have 2 do w getting cash?
go place bets w yor frnds n collect yor riches aftr flag ceremony. I make yor lyf ea$y, ye$? 😀
I’d laughed out loud, taken off guard. Thank goodness Ziggy was already asleep. I will not. go 2 slp alredi, dummy. 🙂
gud nyt, S.*
True enough, Principal Del Mundo’s speech during flag ceremony was all about the virtue of discipline and how students of this esteemed institution must embody this quality in their lives. I glanced over my shoulder toward the back of the assembly where Markus was standing—he was late, as usual—and met a pair of laughing gray eyes. He winked at me and I faced forward abruptly, blushing furiously yet at the same time trying not to laugh.
Later, he texted again: morning, S.* so how much did u collect frm d betting pool?
no betting pool, I texted back. ppl wud kno I hav acces 2 insider info.
nuts, 4gt bout dat. 😦
r u serious? stop txtn me alredi. we’re n d midl of class.
yu’re ryt. put d fone down, ms francisco. bad student, bad. :p
wat? dat’s it, I’m turning my fone off.
no! u can’t leave me! I’ll turn 2 stone frm boredom! aaaah! it’s 2 late! stoooone!
I shook my head and turned off my phone, pressing my lips together to hide my grin. And when I turned my phone on again later, he’d sent another message—a photo of a tree branch right beside the window of his classroom, where a pretty bird with gray and cream plumage and a black tail was perched.
His accompanying message was: saw dis lil guy picking a fite w a cat. he’s pretty, funny & badass. kind of lyk u. 🙂
I smiled down at my phone. badass maybe. funny sure. pretty? no way. :p
watch it or I’ll hav 2 call u out 4 insulting my princess. 😡
lol, wat princess? & hu r u sposd 2 be? Sr Galahad?
don’t u kno? I’m yor knight, S. say d wrd & I’m yors.*
When school ended, I hurried out of class as usual, intending to buy ingredients for dinner. And there, leaning against the wall just outside the school gates with his backpack dangling at his side, was Markus. I slowed down when I saw him, wondering if he was waiting for some girl to take on an after-school date, and, on the flipside, why I felt so bothered about that. But when he caught sight of me, his whole face lit up, and he immediately pushed off the wall and headed straight toward me. “Hi, Ate Sienna,” he said.
It was a testament to how much things had changed between us that his calling me Ate caused me to shoot him a puzzled look. Then I realized we were still surrounded by students from school, who were all watching us curiously. Or rather, they were all watching Markus, since word had spread that he’d dropped all his old girlfriends because his wandering heart had been ensnared by one girl in particular, and the entire school was on tenterhooks as to who that girl could be. According to the rumors, the likeliest candidates were either Samantha, the hottest girl in the junior class whom he’d been seen chatting with at the cafeteria, or some other hot girl from the posh, all-girls’ school in the neighboring town. But as he fell into step beside me, the curious looks turned dismissive. After all, I didn’t count as a girl, let alone as a girlfriend-candidate for Markus. I was just the Demolition Crew’s big sister.
That was how I would’ve seen it myself, if I hadn’t caught the warmth in his smile and the knowing light in his eyes. And in my head, I could almost hear his voice telling me, Say the word and I’m yours.
He accompanied me on all my errands—to the supermarket to buy fish, to the nearby fruit and vegetable stand, to the neighbor’s to ask about the revised schedule for garbage collection. He even carried the bags for me and everything. Then we went home, and he actually sat down at the dining table with me to study. Voluntarily. Without me nagging him. And it was a good thing, too, because after I’d gotten over my shock, I discovered he had a battery of long quizzes to get through during the week as a kind of practice for the upcoming finals.
“Aw, seriously? This is boring.” He pouted as I drew up a study schedule for him, though I wondered how much of his sulk was real since his eyes were bright with amusement.
I rolled up his study schedule and bopped him on the head with it. “Sure, it’s boring, but it’s important. Now, pay attention. Since your first long quiz is in Social Studies, which happens to be your strongest subject, I suggest you just do a quick review of the chapters covered. After that, we’ll focus on Math.”
He pulled his textbook closer, while I settled down to finish my own homework. But after a few minutes spent flipping through the pages of his book unenthusiastically, he folded his arm on the table, propped his chin on his hand, and simply stared at me, which in turn spelled disaster for my own ability to concentrate. Sweat beaded on my forehead as I fought to ignore the feeling of his eyes on me, but when the symbols of the equation I was trying to solve stubbornly refused to make sense, I lowered my pen and sighed. “What, Markus?”
He gave me a slow smile. “I’ve got an idea.”
“An idea for what?”
“For how to make this study session both fun and productive.”
I shot him an exasperated look. “It’s a study session. It’s already productive. And as for making it fun—”
My words ended in an airless squeak when he took my hand and began pressing lingering kisses on each of my fingertips, his gunmetal gaze holding mine. My mouth went cotton-dry, my pulse drummed in my ears, and my breathing turned shallow until I wondered if I was about to start hyperventilating.
He kissed the back of my hand then smiled again. “I was talking about making progress on your list.”
“My list?” I croaked as I struggled to think over the incredibly distracting sensation of his lips skimming idly back and forth across my knuckles. A kiss on the hand. Another item on the list checked off. “Now isn’t the time for—honestly, we’ve got more important things to—”
He turned my hand and kissed the center of my palm. “Then pull away from me, Sienna,” he said, challenge ringing in his quiet voice.
I shuddered as the tip of his tongue traced a warm, wet line across my palm, and I knew I couldn’t have pulled my hand away even if I’d wanted to. I closed my eyes against the satisfaction glinting in his eyes. “What—what’s your idea?” I stuttered instead.
I felt rather than saw his triumphant grin. “I need some kind of incentive to study, and you’ve got your curiosity to satisfy. So how about a kiss for every five minutes we spend studying?”
My eyes shot open. “Five? What kind of studying can you do in five minutes?”
“Fine. Seven minutes.”
“Come on, twenty’s way too long,” he complained. “Ten minutes.”
“Ten minutes still won’t cut it. Eighteen.”
We finally decided on fifteen minutes, and I brought our egg-timer over so we could time ourselves. To my surprise, he was true to his word. For the next fifteen minutes, he focused on his textbook, his eyes moving quickly over the page, which confirmed my suspicion that Markus was actually pretty smart, just totally unmotivated. If anything, I was the one who needed to exert twice the effort to focus on my homework, what with my hand cradled in his on the tabletop the entire time. And when the egg-timer rang, signaling the end to our first fifteen minutes, I jumped in my chair, a blush already climbing high on my face.
Markus pushed his book away. “Break time,” he said with a crooked grin. “So, tell me, princess. Where would you like to be kissed?”
“D-do I have to be the one to tell you that?” I exclaimed as my face flamed even more.
“Yeah, because I want you to know you’re in control. I won’t go any further than you want me to,” he answered in all seriousness.
“Oh.” My heart made that funny thump again that made my chest ache. In an attempt to stall for time, I asked: “By the way, what’s with the asterisk?”
“In your text messages. Sometimes you put an asterisk in them. What does it mean?”
He blinked, then smiled almost shyly. Leaning over, he lifted my face with a finger underneath my chin, and kissed my cheek with a tenderness that made my chest ache even more. “It means that,” he said, drawing back.
I stared up at him, and his expression grew solemn. Electrifyingly aware of what I was about to do, I licked my lips so that his gaze lowered to my mouth, then leaned forward myself.
But before our lips could make contact, he moved backward an inch and closed his eyes. “W-wait, Sienna, before we—there’s something I need to tell you,” he said as a deep flush suffused his features. “Actually, I—”
The doorbell rang, jolting us both and cutting off whatever it was he was about to say. It also brought the awareness of time crashing down on me. “Oh my God, I haven’t started dinner yet,” I gasped, slamming my workbook shut and stuffing it into my bag, then rushing to the kitchen.
“I’ll go get the door,” he muttered. He came in a few minutes later with Arianne and Shelly, and I pulled my head out of the refrigerator where I’d been cooling my heated face in the chilly air, ready to act as if nothing fishier than a study session had been going on. The good news was, the upcoming quizzes and the study schedule I drew up for him lent credence to the excuse that Markus had come home with me so I could tutor him. The bad news was, Arianne, aided and abetted by Shelly, saw it as her chance and seated herself beside Markus on the pretext of helping him study, refusing to let him get up to help me with the cooking, thinking—quite rightly—that he was only using it as an excuse to weasel out of studying. I watched the two of them from the corner of my eye, and believe me, I’d never before chopped garlic, onions, tomatoes and Chinese cabbage with such ruthless efficiency in my life.
Later that night, just as I was going to bed, Markus texted again. iz it ok f I study agen w u tom? I’m more motivated wen I’m w u. wonder y. 😉
I buried my face in my pillow to keep Ziggy from seeing the expression on my face. I jst bet u r. :p of cors u cn study w me. jst make sure u behave, I texted back.
w u? no promises. meet u aftr skul. gud nyt, S.*
The next few days followed the same pattern. Markus would text me first thing in the morning, at odd times during the day, and at night before I fell asleep—quirky observations about the little things going on around him, off-the-wall ideas, sly jokes, or photos of cute, pretty or funny scenes. His texts often included an asterisk somewhere. So now, every time our eyes met, the air between us grew thick with conversations only the two of us shared.
And he’d be waiting for me every afternoon after school, although after the second day, I told him to wait for me at the nearest 7-11 to keep the speculations about us at a minimum. I thought he’d grow tired of spending his afternoons with me and my endless duties—this was the guy who used to take a different girl out on a date almost every day of the week, after all—but if anything, he settled comfortably into my routine with remarkable speed. In fact, on Thursday, he went off on his own volition to the supermarket to buy the groceries I needed while I stood in line at a pay center to pay the bills, and was so genuinely, boyishly proud of himself for not forgetting any item on the list that I didn’t have the heart to tell him he’d bought cornstarch instead of flour and condensed milk instead of cream. He’d also surprised me by turning out to be decently skilled in the kitchen, not to mention eager to learn and in possession of a creative flair that even I didn’t have, when I decided to test his newfound commitment to domesticity by upgrading his chores to helping me with the cooking. That I’d done that to shorten the time he spent at Arianne’s side—the girls had also taken to coming over earlier so they could study with Markus—and consequently lengthen the time he spent at my side, well, that was something I decided was best kept to myself.
He’d also bought me a new pack of caramel pudding cups, admonishing my brothers to keep their paws off of my private supply or they’d answer to him. And once, when we got back to our classroom after lunch, I found a single, long-stemmed, red and white carnation tucked in between the pages of my binder. Nobody seemed to have a clue as to how the carnation got there, but when I texted him about it, he said he’d pilfered it from the elaborate bouquet one of the administrative clerks had gotten as a birthday gift. I’d have believed him, too, if we hadn’t been passing by the administrative offices the moment the bouquet was being delivered, and had seen that it consisted of a dozen pink roses, with not a single carnation in sight.
It was after the carnation incident that Cassie and Lynne figured out that Markus and I had gone from a surrogate big sister/adopted kid brother relationship to something else entirely. Abby had known since Tuesday afternoon, when I caved in to the need to talk to someone so I could depressurize the pent-up emotions following our near-kiss. Just in time, too, because Markus texted moments later, asking me to keep my Saturday night all the way to Sunday morning free. It was so we could accomplish the second item on my list, he said. Don’t ask how, just make sure I was free, and he’d take care of everything else.
Which was how I ended up telling Dad and my brothers that I was having a sleepover at Abby’s house, and how I ended up staying awake nearly all of Friday night cooking enough food to keep my family from starving until I got back on Sunday. And how I ended up having a fantastic time with my girlfriends in the process—something I never thought I’d be able to do while I was still in high school. I guess that old aphorism was right: where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Abby’s right, I thought now as I straightened the pile of memories meant for the exhibit and placed them lovingly in a box. I’m making up for the things I missed out on tonight. It can’t make up for everything I missed, but for once—just this once—I get to do something just because I want to, not for anyone’s sake but mine.
My phone beeped, and I picked it and read the message. Then I looked up at my friends in a panic. “He’ll be here in thirty minutes!”
“Holy moly, that doesn’t leave us much time.” Lynne stood up and started barking out orders. “Abby, get her showered and prepped, pronto. Cassie, prepare the outfit selections.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Cassie executed a snappy salute, while Abby, who was escorting me to the bathroom, murmured wryly, “And here I thought this was my house.”
After a whirlwind of scrubbing, shampooing, conditioning, lotion-slathering, hairstyling, outfit-picking and careful makeup application, I found myself dressed in a light blue sleeveless hoodie (mine), a black skirt that came down only to mid-thigh (Lynne’s), and sneakers, with a pair of Cassie’s faux-turquoise clip-on earrings on my ears. My hair, which we’d gotten cut and styled earlier at the mall, drifted down to my shoulders in sexy, layered waves, with streaks of honey blond curving down on either side of my face, which I thought matched the gold streaks in Markus’ black hair. Abby gave me a bottle of perfume that smelled invitingly feminine with an underlying hint of spice, which she said was a trade-off for the lipsticks and makeup I’d given her, Lynne and Cassie—yes, I finally found a use for all the makeup Mama kept dumping on me. We all stepped back and studied my reflection in the mirror.
I took a deep, fortifying breath. “Well, I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
My friends broke into smiles and giggles as they hugged me. “We’d better go. Markus has been waiting downstairs with Mom long enough,” Abby said. “Who knows what she’s been filling his ears with all this time?”
“Go on, girl,” Lynne told me as Cassie handed me my backpack. “Go down there and get that sizzling hot beast to kiss you until neither of you can think straight.”
“Oh, believe me, I will.” I shouldered my backpack and gave myself one last look in the mirror, my expression reflecting the determination I felt. One way or another, I was going to get kissed before the night was through, and Markus would just have to deal with it.