Hoisting her schoolbag onto her shoulder, Gwennie hopped off the jeepney and onto the sidewalk, her shoes splashing through rain puddles with cheery plish-plish noises. The rains had stopped several minutes ago—lucky for her, since she’d forgotten to bring her umbrella. Then again, she rather liked walking in the rain. Those pinpoints of silvery coolness on her skin, the mint-crisp smell of the air… Ah, but she loved after-rain moments like these even more, when the clouds were a slow-moving stampede of dirty sheep leaving behind a field of pure blue, and the rain puddles were gleaming mirrors on the darkened street.
She drew in a breath, wishing that she was just here to enjoy the afternoon. Wishing she hadn’t promised Sam that she’d go to St. Anthony and introduce herself to Jayden Lascano, with bonus points if she managed to ask him to be her Facebook friend and an entire slice of lemon cheese cake if she also managed to get his phone number. All on the pretext of returning Keno’s shirt. She tried not to panic all over again at the thought of going on this high-level mission alone, especially since Sam had assured her that she’d be with her. Of course, it wasn’t Sam’s fault that her parents made her come home early for a family dinner, but still.
“Come on, Gwennie-girl, you have to do this,” Sam had said urgently during her initial panic attack upon learning that she was on her own this time. “Look, Felice and Dana have already messaged their crushes, and Meg’s going on a date with Alyssa’s cousin. You can still catch up if you try. I know you can.”
Gwennie looked at her best friend with watery eyes. “Can’t I have a crush on Kevin like you do? He’s so much easier to talk to. And he’s in just in the other section, so he’s much easier to find, too.”
“We-ell, I suppose you can,” Sam said doubtfully.
“No, Gwen, you can’t.” This was from Jo Ann, who had settled in the chair beside Gwennie, taking advantage of the break afforded by their teacher being called away momentarily. “See, this is how it works: You pick one boy that you like, and you’re going to try and make him your boyfriend within the school term. Kevin is already Sam’s crush, and stealing another girl’s target is sooo against the rules. Besides, you were the one who picked Jayden in that photo Alyssa sent us. You can’t flip-flop between guys. That’s what girls like Daisy do, and you know what everyone says about her.”
Gwennie glanced over at the tall, well-built girl sitting alone in the other corner of the room and scrawling through her phone, apparently oblivious to the noise and chatter around her. She knew what everybody said about Daisy, and about why she always disappeared right after class or even in the middle of the day, only to return hours later if at all. She also knew that Daisy always seemed to be alone.
She bit her lip and looked away. No, she didn’t want to be like Daisy.
“‘Can I have a crush on Kevin like you do?’” Jo Ann giggled. “Honestly, Gwen, I don’t think you understand how a crush works.”
“Look, you’re not going to be like Dai—like her, okay?” Sam said, rolling her eyes. “Remember what Alyssa says: if you work hard and give it your one hundred percent, then you can do anything. Not doing anything at all when you could have is for losers. Besides, you’ve already got a lead in. Now’s the time to press your advantage.”
“What lead? What do you mean, advantage?” Jo Ann wanted to know.
Gwennie shot Sam an imploring look. Last night, she’d flooded Sam’s inbox with pleas to keep Keno’s identity a secret for now, although she couldn’t quite explain why. It was just some weird feeling she had. She didn’t want anyone else to know about him just yet. Sam had been understandably bewildered but agreed in the end, so now all she said was: “Oh, some guy spilled lemonade all over her yesterday and let her borrow his uniform shirt. He turned out to be a student at St. Anthony, and he, er, knows people from the soccer team. She’s supposed to return his shirt to him today, and she’s going to ask him to introduce her to Jayden while she’s at it. Isn’t that right?” she added meaningfully to Gwennie, who looked down and nodded.
“Oh, really? Cute, is he? What’s his name?” Jo Ann asked.
“I don’t know,” Gwennie mumbled.
“What don’t you know? Whether he’s cute or not, or what his name is?”
“Well, he’s cute, I guess.” Gwennie pictured Keno in her mind, and decided that she wasn’t lying about that. He was cute. Especially when he smiled. Even more when he laughed.
“And, well, um…”
“She didn’t get his name,” Sam cut in, to Gwennie’s relief.
Jo Ann burst out laughing. “Seriously? Typical Gwennie. So how on earth are you going to find him then?”
“They’ve agreed to meet up at—at the school’s front gate,” Sam improvised. “If she’s with him, she’ll be able to enter the school, and he can help her look for Jayden. Right, Gwennie?”
“Yes, that’s right.” Gwennie sent her a grateful smile.
“So you’re doing it?”
Gwennie looked from one expectant face to the other, and caved in. “Yes,” she said with a sigh. “I need to return the shirt to…this boy, anyway. He might need it.”
“Oooh, good luck to you, Gwen,” Jo Ann said. “We’ve got to tell Alyssa about this. She’ll be so happy for you.”
Alyssa had indeed been happy to hear about it. In fact, she’d even smiled at Gwennie and ruffled her hair, telling her to text or call her if she needed help, since she, Alyssa, knew people at St. Anthony. She also made Gwennie swear to tell everyone what happened later in the group chat. It was the most number of words Alyssa had spoken to her in the entire week. Thrilled at this development, Gwennie had beamed and vowed that she would, and Sam had looked so proud she was nearly scraping the ceiling. It was a big deal, gaining Alyssa’s approval. Very few things did, after all. When you were one of the school’s honor students, a virtuoso violinist who won in an international competition, girlfriend to a popular teen model, and the most beautiful girl in the school to boot, you tended to have very high standards.
Gwennie summoned the memory of Alyssa’s sweet smile to give herself courage, then straightened her shoulders and quickened her steps, heading for the bus stop just outside the chain-link fence bordering the St. Anthony Academy sports field. She and Sam had used that bus stop as a base of operations during their stalking missions, peeking in between the gaps in the billboards with a pair of toy binoculars, trying to get a closer look at Jayden Lascano as the members of the soccer team ran around the field during practice sessions. Sam had given her the binoculars before they went their separate ways, along with a grin and a whispered “not that you’re going to need them today.”
The binoculars were stuffed into her skirt pocket now, forming an awkward lump that chafed her thigh with every step. Gwennie knew she wouldn’t be using them today, not because she didn’t need any help spotting Jayden—she’d been watching him long enough now that she could tell him apart from all the other darting figures dressed in green and white, even without the binoculars—but because while spying on a hot guy with a pair of binoculars was hilarious and fun when you were doing it with your best friend, when you were doing it all by yourself it was just creepy and pathetic.
Over the years, the St. Anthony Academy varsity soccer team had gained a reputation for its consistently strong performances in regional and national intramurals. It was the team to beat, the yardstick other high school varsity teams measured themselves up against. It was easy to see why. Even though the rain had turned the field into a gigantic mud pit, the varsity team was still hard at work, totally uncaring of the fact that they looked like a bunch of athletically inclined swamp monsters. They’d be at it until well-past eight or even nine, but sometimes they took short breaks, and Jayden would drift over to the benches, gulp down water or a sports drink, and wipe himself down with a small towel. That would likely be the best time for her to try and talk to him.
In fact, there he was now, dribbling the ball across the field and shooting it past the goalkeeper. Wow, he is good, Gwennie thought. She hadn’t realized how good he was at first, until Sam, who was a serious soccer fan, clued her into the nuances of the game. His teammate said something that made Jayden throw his head back and laugh, and she could see his teeth gleaming white in the distance, contrasting nicely against all the mud.
This time, though, her gaze drifted to the smaller field located much closer to the fence, at an angle from the bus stop. There, the members of the JV team practiced their drills, rolling balls forward, backward and side to side around squares marked by orange cones. They were every bit as mud-caked as the varsity team members, but Gwennie couldn’t help noticing how different their energy levels were compared to the varsity team. The JV team members were much more relaxed, even lackadaisical, about their drills, and they tended to laugh more and rib one another in the middle of drills, stop or veer away from the squares they were making and take shortcuts as much as they could, while the assistant coach just watched them stoically from the side. Looking at him, Gwennie finally understood what the phrase “dead inside” meant.
And there he was. Keno. He wasn’t laughing and chattering quite as much as his teammates but only because he seemed preoccupied, craning his neck to scan the street every now and then. She walked a short distance away from the bus stop, careful to stay on the sidewalk or the stony outer edge of the grassy field, to get a better view so she could observe him better. She thought his movements with the ball were quick and confident, even graceful, like a dancer. Or they would’ve been, if he wasn’t so distracted and half-hearted about it. But then, she was hardly an expert in soccer performance—that was Sam’s territory—or maybe this was just an off-day for him. And really now, it wasn’t as if it was any business of hers, was it?
When he caught sight of her, he abandoned the drill altogether, scooping up his ball with his foot and tucking it under his arm, then heading over toward the fence, a wide smile spreading across his face. He’d only taken a few steps though when he slipped on a patch of mud and dropped the ball as he flailed his arms to keep from falling on his butt. When he recovered both his balance and the ball, he silenced his teammates’ raucous laughter by spinning around and hurling the ball at the worst offender in a smooth, over-arm motion, hitting him right in the gut and causing him to curl up in a groaning heap.
Gwennie bit her lips, but the giggles bubbled up anyway. The embarrassed flush on Keno’s face darkened to scarlet and his grin turned sheepish, one hand coming up to straighten his glasses. “Hey,” he said.
“It’s Gwennie, right?”
“Yes.” She nodded solemnly. “And you’re Keno.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m Keno.” There was a pause, then he put his hand on his forehead, closed his eyes and groaned. “Please tell me I didn’t sound as dumb as I think I did.”
She burst out laughing. She couldn’t help it. But instead of being offended, Keno laughed as well. “Yes, but I don’t mind at all. I sound dumb plenty of times myself,” she confessed, wiping at her eyes with the back of her fingers.
“No, you don’t.”
She lowered her hand and looked at him in surprise, and he gave her a crooked smile. “Why do your glasses look weird?” she asked.
“These?” He touched his glasses, barely batting an eyelash at her off-tangent question. “These are prescription sports goggles. I’m almost legally blind without my glasses, which makes it hard for me to play soccer, and these won’t shatter and blind me if a ball smacks me in the head.”
“Oh. That makes sense.” Her thoughts seemed to dry up then, and she looked down at her feet, wondering what to say next. She shifted her hold on the straps of the gift bag she was carrying, reminding her of her mission. “Um, I’m here to return your shirt,” she said, lifting the bag to show him and praying he wouldn’t suggest that she just toss it over the fence, which would then force her to have to ask him to invite her in, which would in turn force her to explain to him why exactly she needed to infiltrate his school.
Keno glanced down at the bag. “Thanks. Uh, listen, if you don’t mind, could you maybe wait—”
“Hey, Keno! The sooner you help out here, the sooner you can leave and take care of your visitor.”
They both looked in the direction of the field, where the rest of the JV team appeared to have finished their drills and were in the process of clearing the field of balls and equipment. “Yeah, I’ll be right there,” Keno yelled turned back to Gwen. “So it looks like our practice is done. Are you—do you need to go anywhere right after this or…?” When Gwennie shook her head, he brightened. “Great! Then if you don’t mind waiting while I get cleaned up, I want to treat you to a drink or something.”
Gwennie’s heart leaped. He’s not going to send me away, she thought in amazement. I’ve got a chance to make this work after all. “Okay. What kind of drink?”
She stared at him, his teal eyes twinkling through his mud-speckled goggles. “Is it lemonade? It has to be lemonade, I just know it,” she said, clapping her hands merrily.
“Correcct, Miss Gwennie,” he replied with a grin. “I want to prove to you that I can give you lemonade without trying to drown you in it. You don’t have to stay out there, by the way. You can wait for me here at one of the benches beside the field.”
He gave her directions to the school gate closest to the athletic field. He met her there, still in his muddied glory, and escorted her to one of the benches beside the soccer field where the varsity team continued to practice, before heading off to the school gym to shower. As she sat waiting for him, Gwennie could barely keep from squirming from a combination of relief and excitement. She was so close to her goal—so close she could actually hear Jayden’s words clearly whenever he spoke. She pulled her phone out from and took pictures of the soccer field as proof of her accomplishment. She couldn’t wait to share these with Sam and Alyssa and the others.
No, wait, she hadn’t completed her mission yet. She still had to go up to Jayden and ask if she could be his Facebook friend and get his phone number as well. Just then, the team took another break, and to her mingled shock and terror, Jayden himself came trotting up to the bench beside hers and picked up a water bottle.
She shot to her feet as though she’d been electrocuted, and her sudden movement caught his attention. He lowered the water bottle and gave her a questioning look. “Can I help you?”
“Yes. Hello. Thank you for your help.” Gwennie heard the words firing out of her mouth like pellets from a BB gun gone mad, and wanted to smack herself. She sounded like a complete and utter ninny. No, she could do this. What was it Alyssa said? Work hard and give it your one hundred percent. Yes, she could do that. She would do that. She would make Alyssa and Sam proud.
When Jayden’s expression began crossing over from questioning to slightly freaked out, Gwennie gripped her hands together and closed her eyes. “I’m Gwennie from Northwood, and I need to ask you a favor,” she squeaked.
“Okay. I’m Jayden from St. Anthony, obviously. Nice to meet you, Gwennie from Northwood. What favor is this?” Jayden asked. She could hear the humor in his voice, but it didn’t sound like he was laughing at her. In fact, he sounded kind, almost brotherly. It helped her regain a bit of confidence, and she dared to open her eyes again.
“I-if it’s okay with you, may I—um, may I send you a friend request on Facebook?” she quavered.
Jayden blinked, then chuckled. “What, that’s it? Sure, go ahead. Just search for Jayden Lascano. Or you can look for me in the St. Anthony varsity Facebook page. So it’s cool? All right, I have go,” he said when the coach blew his whistle, signaling the resumption of practice. “Take care going home, Gwennie from Northwood.”
She watched him go, feeling dazed and so gobsmacked at how easy the mission turned out to be that she barely noticed that she’d failed to get his phone number. She did it. Alyssa was right. She actually did it, all on her own, without Sam to help her. And to top it all off, Jayden turned out to be as nice as he was hot, and thanks to him, she now had some real progress to report to the others that night.
“Hey, was that Jayden?”
She turned and found Keno approaching her, dressed in a T-shirt and his uniform slacks, his still-damp hair neatly combed, his backpack and sports bag slung on each shoulder. He’d changed his sports goggles for his normal glasses, and he pushed them up his nose as his gaze shifted from the soccer field to Gwennie.
“Jayden,” Gwennie echoed. “Yes, it was.”
“What did he talk to you about?”
She opened her mouth, and in the next moment, she found herself lying. “He wanted to know who I was and what I was doing here in your school, that’s all.”
Now why on earth did I say that?
“Hmm.” Keno shrugged, dismissing the subject, then smiled down at Gwennie. “Thanks for waiting. Shall we go? I know a place that serves great lemonade near here.”
“Not the supermarket?” she asked innocently as they walked down the street. When he held his hand out to her, she surrendered her school bag with some surprise to him, and he slung it easily on his shoulder, as if he wasn’t carrying two other bags already.
“Hell no,” he snorted. “The stall there sells a cheap, watery kind of lemonade, which is all those doofuses on the JV team’s A Squad are good for. But there’s this other place that makes these tall-as-skyscraper glasses of iced lemonade that they mix with mint or strawberry or whatever flavor you want. It’s fantastic, I tell you.” He glanced down at her and noticed her expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m just feeling hurt.” She shook her head mournfully. “I can’t believe you poured cheap lemonade all over me.”
He looked at her, noticed the smile twitching in the corners of her mouth, and laughed. “Yeah, well, don’t ask me to pour this fancy, expensive lemonade all over you. I’m sorry, but if you want to take a lemonade bath here, you’re on your own.”
he took her to a cozy café that was nearly hidden behind a fast food restaurant’s sandwich board. Just as he’d said, the café offered a veritable rainbow of lemonade varieties, plus a plethora of teas and fruit smoothies. When she expressed surprise that a boy like him would know about that café, explaining that if she’d asked her younger brother to go with her to a place like this, he would’ve jumped out the nearest window and run for his life, Keno flushed with embarrassment. “To be honest, I always just come here alone,” he confessed. “You’re the first person I’ve ever brought here.”
Her own face grew warm. “Oh. Thank you,” she mumbled, dropping her gaze.
“Don’t thank me, Miss Gwennie.” She looked up at his teasing tone, and found him smiling warmly at her. “Thank lemonade. And lemons in general.”
She beamed. “See? That’s why I love lemons. They even make great good luck charms.”
They sat in that café, sipping at the gigantic glasses of lemonade, and talked. She asked him about his classes at St. Anthony, about his friends and his hobbies, and about his interest in soccer. He told her that he’d always loved soccer, ever since he was a kid, and he’d begged his parents to let him enter St. Anthony precisely because their soccer team was the best of the best. Only it turned out he wasn’t exactly “best of the best” material. He answered her questions easily enough, but she couldn’t help but detect a reticence about him, as if he was picking his way carefully through the conversation. Then he inadvertently turned the tables on her when he asked her about her life in Northwood High School, causing her to panic for a moment at the thought that he’d overheard her conversation with Jayden after all.
“It’s your uniform,” he explained when she asked him how he knew she was from Northwood. “My twin sister goes to Northwood. She’s probably in the same class as you.”
“Twin sister? You have a twin sister?” she asked in amazement.
“Yeah. And before you ask—because everybody asks this sooner or later—all that mystical connection between twins thing? It’s total crap when it comes to us,” he said with a grimace. “To be honest, if my parents hadn’t told us from the beginning that we were born from the same mother eleven minutes apart, I would’ve grown up believing I was adopted.”
“Oh. I guess you two don’t get along, huh?” she said sympathetically. “What’s her name?”
“Alyssa,” he replied, sending another ripple of shock through her. “She’s this really talented, really accomplished person, and I won’t be surprised if she’s the most popular girl in your school. So you can imagine my confusion at the fact that we’re twins,” he added, his mouth twisting wryly.
“Alyssa,” she murmured. “Oh dear.”
“Why? You know her? Well, of course you do, judging by the look on your face.”
“Alyssa’s my friend,” she said in a tiny voice, her fingers worrying a wet paper napkin.
Keno’s gaze sharpened. “Really? My sister and I don’t talk much, but I do know her friends. Dana, Felice and Meg, at least. They hang out at our house sometimes.”
He’d just named the three girls who’d always been closest to Alyssa, probably since the dawn of time. “What about Jo Ann?” she asked.
“Yeah, I think I’ve heard Jo Ann’s name once or twice.”
“What about Sam?”
He frowned. “Sam? Can’t say that I have.”
“What about—” she swallowed. “What about Gwennie? Or Gwen? Or she might have called me by my full name, Guinevere, but then maybe not because she once said it sounded too grand and dignified for me…”
Her voice trailed off at the look on Keno’s face. “Look, like I said, I don’t really talk to Alyssa much, so I know close to nothing about her social life. She probably talks a lot more to you, and if she does then I’m pretty sure she considers you a good friend.”
She nodded glumly. “You’re probably right.”
“Hey, Miss Gwennie.” She looked up into his warm teal eyes. “How about some lemon meringue—whoa! Shoot!”
She scrabbled for his half-empty glass of lemonade, which he’d accidentally knocked over when he stood up to order again. She caught it before it could topple into her lap, but since he’d also made a grab for it, he ended up covering both her hands with his. The coldness of the glass on one side met the warmth of his hands on the other side, which probably explained the mini-electrical storm she felt everywhere his skin touched hers.
Her startled gaze met his, and they blushed in unison. He pulled his hands back and thrust them into his pockets, as though he couldn’t trust them to remain where they were. “Sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I’m sorry about—” she said at the same time.
They stopped and looked at each other again, then they both laughed. “God, sorry about this,” he groaned. “I was about to spill lemonade on you a second time.”
“Oh, that’s because lemons can’t help liking me. They keep trying to be with me all the time,” she said lightly.
He gave her a small smile. “Well, I guess I can understand that.”
She blushed again, which caused him to blush as well and push his glasses up his nose. “Um, I was going to say you don’t have to order any pastries,” she told him. “Here.”
With a puzzled look, he opened the gift bag she passed across the table to him. Inside was his uniform shirt, freshly washed, dried and pressed. But underneath that…
“Wow, what’re these?” he asked, lifting up a clear plastic box, which she’d tied up with yellow ribbon and decorated with tiny paper lemons. Inside were a dozen pale yellow disks covered with white frosting.
“Glazed lemon cookies,” she explained. “Um, I’m sorry if I made too much. You can give them away if you don’t want them.”
“You made these?” He looked over at her in wonder.
She nodded. “I say plenty of dumb things, and I’m not at all popular or smart or special in any way, but I do know I’m good with my hands,” she said shyly, tucking her hair behind her ear.
He gave her a strange look, then busied himself with opening the box and taking a bite out of one of the cookies. A moment later, he’d polished off half of the box’s contents. “You’re nuts if you think I’m giving any of these away,” he declared around a mouthful of cookie, making her giggle. He ate a couple more, then regarded her thoughtfully. “I wonder, if I give you a bunch of lemons, would you make me more of these cookies?”
She giggled again. “Oh no, you don’t have to give me lemons. I still have some from the batch I bought yesterday. And there’re plenty more of those cookies at home. I baked two batches last night.”
Keno leaned forward across the table, his expression intent. “Tomorrow then. Please? We can meet at the McDonalds near your school—”
She shook her head. For some reason, that same odd instinct was telling her that she needed to keep Keno far away from Northwood High School for now. “No, not there. Um, how about the supermarket where we met yesterday? We can meet after your practice and I can give you your cookies then.”
“How much are you selling—”
“No.” She shook her head again, then softened her tone with a smile. “We’re friends, aren’t we? That and seeing you so happy while you’re eating my cookies are enough for me.”
He stared at her for a moment. Then he yanked his glasses off, leaned back in his chair and covered his face with both hands. “I’m in serious trouble, aren’t I?” he muttered to himself, and nothing she could do could make him explain that mysterious statement.
Later that night, after she’d sent her friend request to Jayden, made her report to their group chat, uploaded the pictures she took of Jayden and the St. Anthony varsity team, and accepted the congratulations and teasing comments from Alyssa, Sam, Jo Ann and the others, she lay awake in bed wondering why, out of all the amazing things that had happened today that began and ended with Jayden accepting her friend request, it wasn’t Jayden she was thinking of but Keno.
Keno and his own Facebook friend request. And the hour they’d spent chatting away online. And the fact that in their chat window, he’d named her Guinevere.
READ PART 3.