She had a brief—extremely brief—impression of shifting blobs of pale yellow rising in the air, sparkling in the light, and beyond them, a pair of alarmed blue eyes behind black-rimmed glasses.
Then the coldness hit her. It hit everywhere. A tsunami of tangy sweetness, although as she discovered shortly later, it wasn’t actually a tsunami, just a couple of tall paper cups of iced lemonade poured directly down her front.
It even splashed into her face when one paper cup rocketed upward for some reason, causing her to rear back and blink madly at the stinging in her eyes. Reflex made one hand to fly up to her face and wipe the offending liquid off. Her arm loosened its grip around the paper bag she held against her chest, and she felt the now sopping wet bag go slack as its contents spilled out of a hole in its bottom.
“Oh, God,” a voice choked. It was followed by the sound of several boys going from shocked silence, to snickering, to howls of laughter in three seconds flat.
She opened her eyes and stared at the trio of boys who were leaning against one another and clutching their stomachs. Before humiliation could engulf her in its fiery grip, she noticed that they weren’t actually laughing at her. Instead, she followed the direction they were pointing at and looked down at her feet, where another boy was on his hands and knees gathering up the lemons that had burst out of the paper bag and gone rolling off in all directions. He hobbled away to chase one that had traveled across the hallway, pinballing into several people and a couple of shopping carts in the process.
He hurried back, holding several lemons in his arms, and stood before her, looking agonized. “I, uh, think I got them all. I’m sorry, I—look, wait here.”
He rushed off again, only to come back with a plastic bag from one of the supermarket cashiers. “Here. This’ll hold them,” he said, handing her the plastic bag that now contained her lemons. “I’m so sorry about this, miss. Are you okay? God, what am I saying? Of course you’re not okay. I’m really, really sorry.”
As if to echo the sentiment, one of the boys cried, “Oh, man, here we have it. Keno striiiikes again, folks!”
“Dude, did you really just try to juggle that lemonade like it was a soccer ball?”
“Yeah, if only Coach were here to see your sweet, sweet moves.”
At that, the boys laughed even harder. The boy named Keno threw them an evil look over his shoulder as he produced a handkerchief from his pocket and held it out to her. When she made no move to take it from him, he hesitated, then raised a hand to wipe her face himself.
This jolted her to action, and she raised both hands as if to ward him off. “Oh no, you don’t have to. I’m okay. Really.”
“Yeah, dude, you’ve done enough already,” one of his friends said.
She and Keno looked down at the yellow stain spreading rapidly across the front of her uniform blouse and skirt, both of them mentally ranking the situation on a scale of “okay” to “disaster” and apparently coming to the same conclusion. “Really, it’s fine. I can just, um, wash this off in the bathroom,” she said with much less conviction than before.
Keno was already shaking his head. “No, miss, I’ve got a better idea. Will you dumbasses shut up and help? Give me my bag, will you?”
One of the boys passed a sports bag over to him, and he crouched down and dug through it until he found what he was looking for. “Here,” he said as he handed her a wad of white cloth. “You can wear this, right? So you won’t have to go home in that wet blouse.”
She shook out the cloth, which turned out to be his own white, button-down uniform shirt, the green logo on the front pocket declaring him a student of St. Anthony Academy, the nearby private school for boys. “Don’t worry, it’s clean. At least, it’s a hell of lot cleaner than that mess you’re wearing,” he said when he noticed her reluctance, then cringed a little when he realized what he’d said. “Which is, yeah, totally my fault. I mean, uh…”
She glanced down again at her uniform and sighed. “All right. I’ll go and get changed.”
Keno and the other boys were still there where she’d left them, still hovering around the lemonade stall, when she emerged from the supermarket restroom, wearing his shirt in place of her blouse. It was a surprisingly loose fit; she hadn’t thought he was that much bigger than her. Then again, in all the confusion, she hadn’t really gotten a good enough look at him to assess his size relative to her. Or anything else about him, really.
Oh, and another surprise: His shirt smelled…not bad. Boy sweat and soap and paper and freshly cut grass. It was a nice smell, actually. Almost citrusy, and kind of soothing. Definitely better than the way her younger brother smelled nowadays.
She’d tried her best to repair the damage, washing out the strands of hair that were starting to stiffen in clumps and wringing out her skirt. Her shoes and socks were also soaked and getting stickier by the minute, but there was nothing she could do about that at the moment. Luckily, her school bag had managed to escape the worst of the impromptu shower. And really now, she thought, there are worse things to get doused with in the middle of a supermarket while on a mission to stalk your crush at his school.
Like…she scrunched her face up in thought…beer or something. She couldn’t stand the smell of beer. Or soy sauce. Wouldn’t that be a nightmare to wash out? All dark and crusty and smelling like the fried tofu her older sister liked so much. Of course, there was the question of why anyone would be wandering around the supermarket holding two or three tall plastic cups of soy sauce, but then who was she to judge?
Her eyes met Keno’s while she was still several feet away, and she self-consciously combed her fingers through her damp, shoulder-length hair. Then she caught herself and dropped her hand. Really now, what was the use? She’d already done the best she could under the circumstances, and she didn’t have all that much to work with to begin with. Oh well. No choice now but to go back to Sam and inform her that today’s stalking mission had come to a premature end.
As she drew closer, Keno pushed his glasses up his nose and looked her over approvingly. “That’s good. It fits you. And your skirt looks nearly dried out already.”
“Yes. I used the hand drier in the restroom. It got so hot that I almost missed the feeling of iced lemonade all over me,” she said, smoothing down the hem of his shirt over her skirt, the bag of lemons rustling on her arm. “Thank you for lending me your shirt. Um…”
His shoulders tensed as he appeared to brace himself. At the same time his friends, who were apparently buying new cups of lemonade to replace the ones that had been spilled, turned to him and said: “Okay, we’ve got the drinks. Hurry up and let her yell at you already, dude. We need to get these to the rest of the prancing ladies in A Squad.”
Keno’s left eye twitched, and he adjusted his glasses again in an unsuccessful attempt to hide his mortified expression. “I’m really sorry for crashing into you like that and spilling drinks all over you, miss. Like they said, you can go ahead and yell at me all you want.”
“Why?” He blinked. “Because you’re mad at me for spilling drinks all over you?”
She shook her head. “No, not that. Why lemonade? You guys are from the St. Anthony junior varsity soccer team, aren’t you? So why not sports drinks? There’re lots here in the supermarket.”
Before he could answer, another one of his friends spoke up: “It’s his idea of pissing off A Squad, miss. He’s kinda suicidal like that.”
“It’s not just that,” Keno said quickly, then gave her a small, embarrassed smile. “I happen to like lemonade.”
“Yeah, yeah. That, too. Look, miss, have you forgiven him yet? We really gotta go.”
She ignored the other boys in favor of looking her fill of this particular boy. He was several inches taller than her. Gosh, how did she miss that? And he had straight, dark hair, and round cheeks for somebody so lean, and eyes that weren’t blue after all. More like blue green. No, teal. That was the word. His glasses made him look older, or just right for his age, she decided. Without them, and with those chubby cheeks of his, he would probably be mistaken for a fifth-grader.
A fifth-grader who was tall for his age, and with a surprisingly deep voice and the reflexes of an over-caffeinated kitten. Oh dear. Was she even making sense?
“So, uh, have you?” he asked.
“Forgiven me yet,” he said patiently.
“Dude, screw this, we’re going ahead.”
“Yeah. And we’ll tell them everything was your fault.”
They watched his friends walk away, with Keno’s mouth hanging open and his hand reaching out as if he was about to call out for them not to leave him but realized how futile it was. “Your friends are leaving,” she pointed out rather unnecessarily. “Shouldn’t you be going with them?”
He turned back to her and said urgently: “I won’t go until you tell me. Are you still mad at me and how do I make it up to you?”
“Oh, that? Well, you can smile, for a start.” When he looked taken aback, she smiled at him to demonstrate how it was done. “You know what? You don’t look half as bad when you smile. And I’m not mad at you or anything.”
“Half as bad—you mean I look entirely bad when I’m not smiling?” he said, looking as if he didn’t know whether to be confused or irritated with her. She nodded to herself. Hmm, yes, it was an expression she saw often enough, usually on the faces of people who spent any length of time around her.
“Never mind that,” she said. “I’m saying I’ve already forgiven you. And I’m not mad.”
“Well, why the hell not?”
She smiled again. “Because you spilled lemonade on me.”
He gaped at her.
“And I happen to like lemonade, too,” she went on happily. “I love lemons. I love the way they smell, how bright and yellow they are, and how they look like cute, fat little footballs. Don’t you think so?”
“Ah, yeah,” he said weakly.
“So I thought to myself, it could’ve been so much worse, you know? At least now, I smell like lemons, my favorite thing in the world.”
He stared at her some more.
“So don’t worry about it, okay? And you need to get back to your teammates.”
Suddenly, he laughed, turning aside and covering his mouth with his fist. “Okay, okay, I understand. Oh, and here.” He brought his other hand up and opened it, revealing a lemon, one of the escapees from her bag. “It’d rolled into a corner.”
She took the lemon, gave it a bit of thought, then handed it back to him. “You can have this.”
“Huh? What’ll I do with this?”
“Make lemonade with it. To make up for the lemonade that got spilled,” she said brightly. “And now I have to go. And so do you.”
He pocketed the lemon with a grin. “Yeah, I think I’ll do that. Make lemonade. Thanks, then. And bye.”
He stopped and looked at her over his shoulder.
“How will I return your shirt to you?” she asked.
He grinned again. “Just come to the fence beside our soccer field during practice as usual. I’ll find you.”
“Okay, I will.” Beaming, she waved goodbye.
She stopped and looked at him.
“What’s your name?”
“Gwennie,” she replied.
“That’s what I heard.”
They exchanged grins, then Keno spun on his heel and sprinted off, his sports bag bouncing on his back. Gwennie took a deep breath and headed out the supermarket at a more sedate pace, then skipped the rest of the way until she reached the small café where Sam sat waiting for her, nursing an iced mocha frappe and scanning the street intently. She stood up when she caught sight of Gwennie, nearly overturning her chair in the process.
“What took you so long?” she demanded. Then her gaze fell upon the shirt Gwennie was now wearing—specifically on the green patch on its front pocket—and her eyes bulged. “And w-w-why are you wearing a St. Anthony uniform shirt?”
“I’m sorry for making you wait. I had a little accident,” Gwennie said, then proceeded to explain what happened back at the supermarket. By the time she was done, Sam had settled back in her chair and was sipping her half-melted frappe with a calculating expression.
“Hmm. So you’re saying this guy Keno just so happens to be a member of the St. Anthony Academy junior varsity soccer team. And you knew that how?”
“Well, one of them had a soccer ball in a kind of net, and I know the varsity team practices for much longer than the JV team. So I just kind of, um, said it out loud and they didn’t tell me I was wrong, so…” Gwennie finished with a little shrug.
Sam gave her a look of respect. “Sometimes, Gwennie, you do surprise me,” she said, to which Gwennie replied with a wide, pleased smile. “So anyway, he plays the same sport in the same school as Jayden Lascano, the prince of your dreams,” Sam went on. “Okay, fine, so Jayden is the star striker of the varsity team, but who cares? They’re bound to know each other. Anyway, this guy Keno, who is all of those very important things, spilled lemonade all over you then gave you his shirt to wear?”
Gwennie winced. “It was an accident, really. And he was so apologetic about it afterwards.”
“Forget that,” Sam said, waving her hand impatiently. “Don’t you see? He’s given you the perfect excuse to drop by the St. Anthony soccer field and talk to the team. Tell them you’re just here to return this guy’s shirt. Heck, you can walk right up to Jayden himself and introduce yourself to him. We’ve seen enough to know that the varsity and JV teams practice at the same time. God, it’s perfect!” she exclaimed, eyes sparkling. “Thank you, Keno. We couldn’t have worked out a better plan than this on our own.”
Gwennie looked down as she absently rolled one of the lemons against the table top. “I don’t know, Sam. I don’t think I’ll be able to walk up to Jayden and talk to him. Actually talk to him. You know me. You know what I’m like. My mind’ll go blank and I’ll start babbling stupid things and he’ll think I’m a total idiot and avoid me forever. What am I going to? I can’t do this alone.”
Sam squeezed her hand, lemon and all. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll go with you. How about that?”
“Yes. Yes, please,” Gwennie said gratefully. “Thank you, Sam.”
“Great. Excellent. So it’s decided then.”
Sam gave her a teasing grin. “Oh, nothing major, so you can stop looking so worried. Just that finally, after a whole month of doing nothing but lurk outside that soccer field like a couple of perverts, we’re about to make some real progress. I can’t wait to tell Alyssa and the others. They’ll probably scream the roof down, I swear.”
“Hmm, yes.” Gwennie swallowed against the sudden wave of nervous. “Um, w-when do you think is a good time for me to give Keno’s shirt back?”
“Why wait?” Sam said breezily. “We go tomorrow, Gwennie-girl.”