Redwood Academy

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Redwood Academy
Redding, California
Erin Hemmelgarn
2008

Part 1
The Academy -Late Spring, Early Summer-

Chapter 1 Noah—Maple Bluff, Wisconsin

I

sat back on the pillows propped against my headboard and stared at the blank notepad resting on my knees. I fingered the pencil in my right hand, and when a chill passed down my spine, I looked down at my arm. My eyes caught. My fingers had always been long and slim, but now you could see the bones and veins on the back of my hand, and my wrists were too skinny. My baggy jeans had become even more baggy on my long legs, and my t-shirts all seemed too big now. I took a deep breath. Calm down, Noah. Go eat something. You're getting cold because your body's tired. Okay. Easy enough. I swung my legs off the bed and stood up, grabbing my iPod off my nightstand and slipping it into my pocket as I did so. The headphones hung down my chest and wobbled with the motion. Down the empty hallway, past all the family pictures hanging on the wall, minus quite a few that had been there before, bony feet padding on the cream shag carpet. It was comfortingly warm under my toes, a soft sensation that was strangely calming. Once in the kitchen, I opened the fridge and bent over to stare into it. With hopeless eyes, I searched for something I could make myself eat. Leftover pot roast? My mind asked me. Nah, I told it. Too fatty. But it's really good. Too fatty, I insisted. This argument with my inner good sense continued over practically everything in the fridge and cabinets, from ramen noodles to pop tarts. Finally I returned to the fridge and started pushing things aside, hoping to find something that had escaped my attention before. At last I uncovered a small container of Yoplait Light, Boston cream pie flavor. My mind raised its eyebrows questioningly. Okay, I thought. Yogurt is good. Yogurt is excellent. Dairy requirement--there you go, Dr. Koratzt. Protein, too. I can do yogurt. I walked to the other side of the kitchen and did an amazing act of concentration and balance, changing the song on my iPod with my thumb, holding the yogurt in the three fingers not occupied with the MP3 player. Then I stepped back, balanced on one foot, and pulled on the knob of the cutlery drawer with the other foot, then grabbed a smooth silver spoon and held it between my teeth as I walked back to my room. It was dim in there; the lights were off and the blinds were closed—you could barely see any of the color in my room, the brown bean bag in the corner in front of the portable DVD player that hung on the wall in its little canvas case. You couldn’t see the blue, red, brown and cream striped designer duvet cover on my bed, with its matching pillows—it just looked like lots of lumps, since I hadn’t yet made my bed yet. There was no way to tell what the clothes laying, discarded, on the floor looked like, whether they were khakis or jeans, thermals or button-ups. There was no way to distinguish my left shoe from my right, or each individual page of sucky, uninspired lyrics from another. I collapsed backwards onto the pillows and flannel sheets, crossing my legs and pushing my feet underneath the rumpled covers to keep them warm. Slowly, so as to not splatter yogurt everywhere, I peeled the metallic blue lid off the top of the container and pushed the spoon into the creamy white substance. Hesitantly, I put it in my mouth, then pulled the spoon back out and started moving the yogurt around with my tongue. Almost immediately my gag reflex activated, and the food started feeling heavy, like glue, in my mouth. I clashed my teeth together, though yogurt needs no chewing, and finally choked it down, swallowing with much difficulty. A small sensation of pride swelled in my chest. Good job, Noah, my mind said to me. Now eat the rest. Instead, I put the yogurt back on my nightstand and picked up the notepad again. I glared at the paper, bit my lip. The inspiration wasn't coming, and I only had a week before my entry form was due. I already nearly had a spot in, because I'd gone last year, and they liked me--if I turned in the form a little late, they'd still consider me, but... Last year. Last year, there'd been another with me. Last year inspiration had come

freely, like a river. Last year, I hadn't been-"NOAH!" The front door slammed, followed by the click of my mother's high heels across the hardwood-floored entryway. "Hi, Mom," I said resignedly. She appeared at my doorway. "How're you feeling?" I lowered an eyebrow. "Fine?" "Have you eaten anything?" "Mom..." "Have you eaten anything?" "Um..." "Noah..." Her voice was sad, and worried, and she sounded like she was about to start crying. "Noah, honey, I just don't want you to end up like...like..." "Like her?" "Noah, you know I didn't mean it that way." "No, I know exactly what you meant! You meant that you don't want me going overboard, like her, didn't you! You meant that Dr. Koratzt wants me to do this, Dr. Koratzt wants me to do that. But guess what? I can take care of myself!" I took a deep breath for the second time that afternoon, and shook my head, sending my curls scattering over my forehead. Then I looked up at my mom again. Tears were welling up in the corners of her gray eyes, and her cheeks were drawn. I calmed myself quickly and raised the container like a glass of champagne. "Yeah. I got some yogurt. I'm covered." She nodded quickly, and then disappeared. I turned back to my notepad, but a second later she reappeared. "Remember, you're going to the clinic today. Five o'clock." "Yeah. Whatever." After she left, a memory surfaced, and I dropped my head into my hands, shaking violently. She was laughing, gray eyes crinkled up in the corners, sleek brown hair pulled into a long French braid. She danced over to me, held out her hand. "Come on, Noah! Dance with me!" Her radiant smile was visible even in the dim light of the hotel ballroom, and I shook my head, declining. She pouted. "You're my twin brother! You have to dance at least once!" I finally agreed, and she pulled me out to the center of the dance floor and locked her hands behind my neck, while I put my hands on her waist. We circled for the entire slow song, and she smiled and talked the whole time. Next thing I knew, she was coming into my bedroom at night, freezing even with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. "Noah," she would say. "Noah, I'm really cold." And I would hold up my blanket and she would climb into bed with me, curling herself up so that she was touching me as much as possible. I would clench my teeth against the freezing temperature of her skin--it was like ice--and wrap my arms around her, feeling how tiny she was, wondering how I couldn't have noticed how much smaller she was than me. Finally she would fall asleep, warm at last, and it would happen every night. Breathing hard, I picked up my pencil and began to scribble on the yellow notepad, scrawling out words and reading them out loud to hold my concentration. "This…fragile body...holds no answers...Words that she could...never find...And now she's gone ahead...and left...me...It all rushes...back to mind..." The inspiration was back. I didn't know how, I didn't know why, but it was back, and I was going to take advantage of it.

Chapter 2 Olivia—Los Angeles, California

T

he sounds of the electric violin echoed both up against the train station walls and in my ears, sounds streaming out of the amp speakers next to my foot. It was a fast-paced melody, weaving in and out of the harmonies created by my quickly tapping foot on the amp pedal. It felt good, to finally get away and just be able to play, for hours and hours and hours, play until I felt better, and I was making money too. I glanced down at the violin case by my feet. The base was half-full of dollar bills, twenty bucks by my estimate. That was good, for forty-five minutes' work. Really good. Today sucked. Everyone was talking about me. Everyone hated me. Even my best friends had abandoned me. I'd been alone for all six hours. When I got home, I'd stopped long enough to grab my amp and then had left for the station. I kept playing. My arm was getting a little tired, but I ignored it, switching over to a modernized version of Bach's 5th. People soon gathered around me to listen, and I smiled, leaning into the chin rest and letting my blond hair hang into my face. After the Bach, I started playing a composition of my own, something fast-paced and happy. It was a beautiful piece—at least I thought so. With a quick glance during a rest in the song, I found that my case was nearly full. I wouldn’t have to play much longer. The song’s tempo changed, getting faster and faster until my fingers were moving like lightning. People around me started dropping their jaws. They thought it was so amazing that some people could play so well, especially on an instrument as “complicated” as a violin. People didn’t know that when you truly had talent, you didn’t care how much work it took to play the instrument. As my tutor always said, “Good players work until they can play it right. Great players practice until they can’t play it WRONG.” The piece finished with a flourish. People dropped more money into my violin case and began to disperse, and I bent down to begin packing up. Loosen the bow, slip it in its sleeve. Polish the violin, put it in the case. Count money. Zip up case. Grab amp and speakers. Leave. It wasn’t until halfway down the street that it really hit me. I’d made over a hundred dollars, this afternoon alone. I was good. I was really good. I really knew what I wanted—I wanted to play violin, no matter how long it took or how many nasty rumors got spread about be behind my back. I didn’t care. I was going to figure out how to make it happen—how to make a career out of this. Somehow. “Excuse me, miss?” I turned, instinctively clutching at my violin case. A tall man, dressed in a dark, imposing-looking suit, stood right behind me, holding something glossy and brightly colored. It looked like a brochure. “Excuse me,” he repeated. “But I observed your violin performance, and I must say, you are extremely talented for your age.” I knew this. But when dealing with snotty adults like this guy, it was usually best to be modest. “Thank you,” I half-gushed. “I’m a representative for the Redwood Academy for the Musical Arts,” the guy continued, his tone filled with self-importance. “We run a summer program at our facilities, a little north from here.” Academy for the musical arts? That sounded intriguing. But where would I scrape together the funds? I got a decent income from playing on the streets, but that probably would pay for about half an hour at this academy thing. As though reading my mind, Suit Guy said, “We offer free ride scholarships for those with extreme talent. If you qualify, you’ll get full room and board, not to mention food at the cafeteria on campus for the entire summer. You’ll have to apply, but after seeing you play just now, I think chances are pretty good that you’ll get a scholarship.” Well, that sounded nice.

“Here,” Suit Guy said, shoving the brochure (yup, I was right) into my violin case-less hand. “Just read that, and if it seems like something you’d like to do, scholarship you’d like to do, scholarship applications details are on the back page.” I looked on the back page. There was huge list of qualifications that a scholarship application had to meet. How could I make this? More importantly, where would I find the time? When I looked up, Suit Guy was gone. I looked around. No sign of him. I turned and continued down the street, back towards my house. That was enough excitement for one day. Back in my tiny bedroom on 7th Street, I sat on my bed, leaning back against the yellow polka-dotted pillows, making myself comfortable. Mom was at work, slaving away to support the family at her job at the local craft store; Jennika, my eight-year-old sister, was at her friend Leila’s house; and my older brother Rob was also at work, probably grumbling good-naturedly at the fact that he had to give up a quarter of his wages to help Mom out. Lucky for me, I could make money doing something I loved, hanging out at the station listening to my fingers make beautiful music, but lately Mom had come to despise scrapbooking paper, and Rob often complained he never wanted to see Justin Timberlake’s latest music video ever again. So here I was, alone in the house, feet hanging off of my too-short bed, violin sitting on the bed next to me, a glossy brochure in my lap. Just staring at the cover. There were two translucent bars of color on the top and bottom, overlapping each other, one purple and one blue-black. In between the bars was a photo of a beautiful white building, surrounded by wrought-iron gates twelve feet tall. There were towers and solid glass windows, gardens covered in freshly blooming, dew-coated flowers. You could see mountains and forest in the distance, and the sky was the pale, icy blue color of a spring morning, not a cloud in the sky. On the top bar, in white lettering, were the words “Redwood Academy for the Musical Arts,” and on the bottom, “Summer of 2008—preparing your student for the future.” It wasn’t, to my surprise, one of those dinky tri-fold brochures that didn’t contain information. This was an actual booklet, with an actual table of contents and an actual line of staples down the middle. The first page explained the history of the Academy, which I just skimmed over quickly before eagerly turning the page. On the left hand side, underneath the heading “Introduction”, was a photo of a beautiful girl in a sparkly pink tank top and bleached jeans, her auburn hair in intricate knots all over her head, mouth open, hand splayed on her stomach. In her free hand she held a microphone, and her eyes were closed, as if she was holding an extremely high note. Behind her, out of the spotlight, was an attractive guy with spiked black hair streaked with blond, grinning at her and playing an electric guitar. Further on out into the darkness was a drummer in ripped jeans and a baggy Aeropostale t-shirt, head in mid-flip, and a Chinese keyboardist, biting her lip and leaning to one side, grooving to the beat. On the opposite page was the introduction: At the Redwood Academy for the Musical Arts, one of our most popular programs is the Summer Musical Clinic. This program lasts three months long and is very exclusive, only accepting the best students in the country. Our prestigious school offers many classes during this time, including, but not limited to: musical theory, vocal lessons, instruction in musical writing, individual instrumental/vocal coaching, and others. Students will be assigned dorms with other students, two to a room, and are offered full food needs in the cafeteria. At the end of each summer, there is a show in which students can display their skills. Some students will be invited back for the next summer without having to apply, and others need to apply every year. Full ride scholarships are available, but are not easy to meet. To discuss

financial aid with a representative of RAMA, see numbers on the back. Opposite page: Vocalist Kylie Hoffman, guitarist Liam Wallace, drummer Seth Keagan, and keyboardist Da-Xia Williams. Kylie now attends RAMA full-time because of the scholarship earned by their song, “Walk Away”, covering Kelly Clarkson. Da-Xia and Liam have been invited back indefinitely (no longer having to apply). Seth no longer attends RAMA because he graduated and received a scholarship to an Ivy League school. I flipped through the rest of the booklet, merely scanning titles and looking at pictures. There were so many students that RAMA was proud of—Noah and Faith Pearson, twins, Noah a talented lyricist and Faith a budding soprano; there was another picture of Da-Xia and Liam, Liam’s fingers on the guitar strings so fast that the photo was blurred; an African-American girl, Paige, scribbling a complicated score on a piece of blank sheet music while sitting atop a grand piano; a stocky boy named Jacob, playing violin with a skinny girl (Megan) on a cello; everyone was so beautiful and photo-finished, polished smiles and straight teeth and—I ran my tongue over the roof of my mouth—not a retainer in sight. Finally, on the back page, I braced myself for the list of scholarship requirements. There it was, what I’d been saving for last, forcing myself not to look at it until I’d looked at the rest of the booklet. It was long, it was hard—excellent grades, musical talent, and improvisation skills were only some of them, others including extra hours of classes and practice once you got in, and having to bring your own bedding. At the very bottom was a website where registration forms and pre-paid envelopes could be printed out. I rushed into the kitchen, turned on our old IBM PC, and got to work.

Chapter 3 Liam—London, England

S

o, I was thinking that maybe, um, we could, you know…” Da-Xia stopped. “I don’t know how to describe it! I have this thing, in my head, and I can’t play it, and I can’t talk about it, it’s just stuck!” “Da-chan, chill out. There’s still a month until Redwood starts. We can work on it then.” I looked in the mirror, phone squeezed between one broad, bare shoulder and my ear. My hair was a mess. Careful not to get any on the brand-new slider phone, I pumped gel into one hand and began to spike it, smoothing sections up, fading from black to gold. “I know, Li-san, it’s just…I really want to win, so that we can get the scholarship… Look, I’m sorry.” “Da-Xia.” “Yeah?” I crinkled my eyebrows. She could be so annoying sometimes, all perky, and happy and Chinese. I glared at her, all the way in Tucson, from my bathroom in London. “Shut the heck up.” “Rephrase and redirect, Liam.” I hated the way she said my name like it was a fruit—lime, with a slight western accent, instead of Lee-am, or even Lee-um, like you were supposed to. Still, she was right. And she was my best friend. Even if she was annoying. And she was good at acting like she was a counselor. I sighed. “Da-Xia, I wish you would stop talking because you’re stressing yourself out and it is irritating me.” “I’m sorry, Liam” (Lime, I thought sarcastically) “I’m sorry that my goals irritate you. What do you propose we do?” Rolling my brown eyes while still staring at myself in the mirror, I responded, “I propose we get off the phone because me Mum’s getting sick of me using the long-distance minutes on my cell phone, and then I suggest that you go down to the nearest deli and get a turkey sandwich and a peanut butter cookie, and maybe a Coke, and then sit down on a sunny sidewalk (which shouldn’t be too hard to find) and eat it, and then perhaps you could come back home and call me back and then I’ll come up with something else for you to do.” “Cool. Talk to you later, Liam.” (Lime.) “Bye, Da-chan.” I punched the end button on my phone with my thumb, and then slid the top portion shut. Dropping it on the towel crumpled on the floor, I opened a drawer and found a t-shirt and pulled it on, before realizing it was backwards and taking it off to start again. It was an old shirt, one I hadn’t worn for a long time—rusty orange, with a pink handprint on the left shoulder. I wondered when I’d gotten it. Oh right. Corinne bought it for me for my birthday last year. She was butthole if I’d ever seen one. Always mouthing off, always late for our dates, and then she left me for that lame football (soccer, as the American Corinne called it) player Tyson. I shook my head and wore it anyway, reached into the glass dish on the counter for my wristbands (Mum was always coming in to get something or other while I showered and put them in the bowl), snapping the leather bands around each wrist, then the green hemp one around my left, the Livestrong bracelet, and finally the slim necklace chain, wound around three times. I looked out the window. Raining, as usual. I was so ready to be in L.A. again, balmy American weather, bright and shiny…Redwood Music Academy, just waiting for me. Down on the ground floor of the apartment, I tied my blue and red striped scarf, shrugged my gray wool coat over top of it, and grabbed the umbrella, just in case it got too wet, then left.

Three hours later, I found myself in a quiet music store somewhere on the south side of the Thames, scanning the shelves for something good to play. Or buy. This store seemed to have nothing. I couldn’t see why so many people were in here; everything was boring, boring, boring, pop, boring, stupid, angsty…ooh. That one was good. I picked the booklet up, slowly wandered over to the back of the store, where the instruments were, and picked up a nice-looking acoustic guitar, black with a paua-shell front that sparkled brilliantly in the lights. My regular guitar, at home, was kind of like this, except the front piece was a patchwork of different woods and surfaces. Very chic. Very Londoner. In fact, it screamed Londoner—which was why I bought it before my first summer at Redwood. I put the booklet on a free stand and perched on the stool, resting the guitar over my knee and starting to play. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t ever played this song before—I’d heard it on the radio, knew what it sounded like—I could sight read it. The chords were smooth and quiet, a half-time pace. I cleared my throat, finished the intro, and began to sing. It made me smile to see everyone look up to see who’d disturbed the quiet. “Wandering the streets in a world underneath it all. Nothing seems to be—nothing tastes as sweet as what I…can’t…have…” An old lady, in the nearest corner, smiled at me and turned back to her browsing, and I grinned wider, strumming harder as I moved into the chorus. “Oh, I’m gonna muster every ounce of confidence I have—and cannonball into the water. I’m gonna muster every ounce of confidence I have—for you I will. You always want what you can’t have, but I’ve got to try. I’m gonna muster every ounce of confidence I have— for you…I…will…” The song slowed down again, and now the chords were coming from memory. “Forgive me if I st-stutter from all of the clutter in my head…’Cos I could fall asleep in those eyes…like a waterbed.” A young girl in a khaki anorak jacket and pink Wellingtons had come over and was standing a few feet away from me, head cocked, just watching. I started into the chorus again, sang just to her, and not to anyone else, just to please this six-year-old who wanted to hear good music. When I got to the part that said “for you I will”, her eyes widened and she pointed at her chest, mouthing the word “me?”. I nodded and mouthed, “You,” and she grinned. When the song was over, I heard a deep, grumpy voice from the back room. “WALLACE!” the owner of the shop said loudly. Still smiling, I put the guitar back and strolled to the warehouse in the back, and came face to face with the potbelly of Mr. Atkins. “Yes sir.” “How many times have I asked you now?” “Six, sir.” I shoved my hands into the pockets of my peacoat. “And why won’t you give me a straight answer, Wallace?” “Would you like one now?” “Yes, Wallace.” “Because the only time I have is during the summer, and during the summer I go to L.A. for the musical arts school.” Mr. Atkins had been asking me for the last two months, every time I came in, to start working for him, just to play, all day long, which I would have loved to do, if it had been any other store and any other man and any other situation. “Wallace, you do not know how much customer activity increase I get during the summer, people hoping you’ll be here to play. Don’t think I don’t notice—you’re a people person.” “You have no idea, Mr. Atkins,” I replied, shaking my head, you have no idea how untrue that is. My argument done for this time in, I left the warehouse and went to find something else to play for the little girl. Maybe some ABBA. A hard rock guitar solo started blasting out from my cell phone—something that made me smile, because I’d recorded it. It was me playing at Redwood, and a few seconds into it there was an outburst of Chinese (Da-Xia), a noise of exasperation from me, and then the guitar stopped and Da-Xia burst into some Chopin piece, all classical and lame. Not that I didn’t appreciate the genius of Chopin—I appreciated all great music—but that didn’t mean I

liked it.

Coke.”

“’Lo?” I answered lazily. “I’m finishing my Coke as we speak.” “Wha’…?” “I went to the deli, and I got the sandwich, and the cookie, and now I’m finishing my

I groaned inwardly. Sometimes Da-Xia took things too literally. “Da-chan…” “What? You told me to go get lunch and then call you back!” Breathe in, breathe out. Rephrase and redirect. “Go play video games or something. Chill out time until Redwood starts, Da-chan. Okay? Don’t call me anymore, you’re stressing me out.” “Okay. See you in a month, Liam.” Lime. “Okay.” “Bye!” “Au revoir.” I hung up the phone for the second time that day, and went back home for a cup of coffee and the comfort of my own bed.

Chapter 4 Peyton—Durham, North Carolina
Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh. Therehewas therehewas. He was walking towards me, all blue eyes and toned arms, spiked blond hair and perfect, brand-name clothes. What should I say? Should I even say anything? Should I let him know I still wanted to be friends? Should I let him know I didn’t hold any grudges (I kind of did)? What do I do what do I say oops dang he’s gone. And it was true. Trevor had passed me by then, without even a second glance in my direction to say, hey there’s my ex, hi how are you. He was gone, on to his next class (English), and I was still lingering in the bustling hallway, feeling slightly stunned. I made a snap decision. I couldn’t go to home ec. I didn’t want to make pizza, much less eat it, and even less did I want to associate with Trevor’s sister Emily. No, I’d skip class. I headed back up to my locker, pretended to frantically be looking for a nonexistent piece of overdue homework until the tardy bell rang and all the monitoring teachers retreated back into their classrooms. This was old hat for me—not that I was a rebel, just that I was smart enough to be able to afford skipping a few periods a month to do whatever I wanted. This wasn’t something I wanted to do, though. It was something I desperately needed to do. The ache in my chest grew every time I thought of his big blue eyes or the way he’d kiss me softly goodnight. Mr. Perfect, Trevor McFadden. Good grades, good body, good at sports, hung out with all the right people. Perfect boyfriend for the perfect girl—Peyton Colemyer, with her coiffed hair and her beautiful smile and sweet attitude and gorgeous singing voice, Peyton Colemyer of the impeccable manners and SAT vocabulary, Ms. Perfect, best match for the best boy, perfect complement to his complementariness. And then… I checked to make sure there were no more stray teachers, shoved all my binders in haphazardly on top of my backpack, rather than neatly on their shelf (Take that, Perfect Peyton!). And then I turned on my heel (perfect brown ballet flats, skimmed by perfect khaki pants) and ran (perfectly) down the hall, and collapsed against the automatic sink, breathing hard. I’d been sitting there for maybe a minute and a half when the sensor realized that I was, in fact, there, and decided to squirt a stream of ice cold water at the small of my back (ah, perfect opportunity). “Oh, cr--!” I jumped away before too much dribbled down the back of my pants, and then quickly pumped out a length of scratchy paper towel to dry myself off with. I decided maybe the sink wasn’t such a good place to sit. So I retreated inside the actual bathroom, away from the open visibility of the hallway (the school board went crazy and decided that high school students weren’t to be trusted with mirrors, so they put them in this alcove in the hallway), and leaned against the wall, trying to calm myself. I hummed songs, sang them in my head, ran through choir pieces out loud, sang scales. I loved the trilling melody of the new solo I’d just gotten—it fit my mezzo-soprano voice perfectly, it was effortless, it just came naturally. Distractedly, I brought up my right hand and drummed my fingers to the rhythm of the song, keeping echoing time against the—what was I drumming against? Oh. It was one of those feminine hygiene dispensers that are in all public bathrooms, the ones nobody ever buys anything from because (a) they have no money, or (b) they’re afraid the FHP is somehow poisoned and is going to kill their reproductive systems if they use them. Ooh, yeast infection, scary. I absentmindedly fiddled with the knob on the front of it (Sanitary Napkin! The sticker

announced cheerfully in green and yellow letters, like the biggest nerd of all, calling them what they’re really called and not the slang term), jiggled it back and forth. Soon I got bored of that one and reached around to the one on the other side (Tampons, it said, much less perkily, perhaps because it had nothing fancy to call them, in faded pink font), and began to jiggle that one, too, while I quietly sang an old Leann Rimes song under my breath, Needless to say, I was in a crazy reverie and nearly jumped out of my skin when the dispenser clattered inside and out, into the little metal tray that nobody wants to reach into because it’s absolutely disgusting, rolled a plastic-wrapped cylinder, all shiny pink and white paper. Ha-ha! My mind said. Somebody does buy these things! I took it as a sign I needed to get out of here. In the back of my high school, behind the lunch room, there was a long, stone bench, carved on the seats of which were several hundred (something) lions. The lions were all painted blue, and I softly traced the outline of the one nearest my hand as I sat, breathing in the heavy, humid May air of my quiet North Carolina suburb. Deep breathing, my mother always said, promotes health and general well-being, as well as self-awareness. True! Inner Perfect Peyton (IPP) said, while Little Rebel Child grumbled, Stupid yoga classes. After a while the bench got really uncomfortable. The stone was cold, even though it was May (and seventy-five degrees), and I hadn’t thought to grab my jacket, so I moved to the lawn across the bus lane, and lay on my back, staring up at the sky. It was solid, unclouded blue. Like Trevor’s eyes. It was…he was…beautiful. At first, I’d just thought he was plain, boring, but I’d grown to love every single feature. I closed my eyes against the pain of the color, let my head fall to the side, and remembered. Our mothers were in a book club together—one that liked to read books from two genres: stories about poor, orphaned children/single mothers/heartbroken social workers that ended with them finding good homes/adoptive parents/boyfriends; or sappy romance novels that all seemed to have the same plotline, which involved a twenty-something woman who (insert predicament here—usually something like sick baby, lack of money, going to see family for Christmas) whose car broke down in the middle of nowhere, a handsome man who (insert more macho predicament here, like a failing business, or a lonely truck driver) that ends up driving/towing her to the nearest gas station/ car repair place and then they fall in love. A book club that had an annual barbeque around the time that school started each year. At the beginning of my freshman year, the start of Trevor’s sophomore, I’d gone to the barbeque, all decked out in my short denim shorts and sunny yellow baby doll tank and matching ballet flats. My mother had dragged me over to be introduced to her book club friends, who cooed over me and said things like “Look how much you’ve grown!” Tanya McFadden, Trevor’s mother, had arrived late, due to her Jell-O not having set up enough, and she came with her perfect blond husband and perfect blond son to introduce to everyone. Trevor was already towering over his mother and quickly gaining on his father at age sixteen, and Tanya had almost immediately magically picked up on the chemistry. “Peyton,” she’d said cheerfully, “Trevor, I think, is about your age! I think there’s a volleyball somewhere over there—you can get away from us old harpies!” A twitter of giggling and hand-flapping had followed, and Trevor and I had raised our eyebrows doubtfully at each other, wondering whether to stay within the safe zone of our mothers’ vision, go sit in on our fathers’ sports discussions, or simply leave and get somewhere we wouldn’t be totally ignored/embarrassed/bored. We chose the latter. We never actually found the volleyball. After a while, we’d given up, and kicked off our shoes, sitting next to each other and burying our feet in the sand of the volleyball pit, worming our toes up and down to dig even deeper. By the time he actually said anything, I was up to my ankles in coarse sand and the shock of hearing his abnormally deep (at least, it was abnormal for me—all the boys in my “group” were still slightly squeaky) voice jerked my

feet out and sent several pounds of sand into the air. “Your name’s Payden, right?” I’d looked over at him—his eyebrows were crinkled in that same endearing way, and his Adam’s Apple was too prominent, or so I’d thought, though later I’d come to find that particular feature very attractive, and it was pulsing slightly. “Pey-ton,” I corrected him, making sure he caught the sharp T sound, and then added, “Trevor?” “Yeah.” There was silence for a few more minutes. “Do you go to the school football games?” he asked. “Usually. My best friend’s brother is a running back.” “Oh!” he exclaimed, the joy in his face clearly illustrating that this, finally, was something he could say more than a few words about. “You mean Jason Parks!” “No—Ryan Patterson, his sister is Leah?” “Oh, yeah. Ryan. I think he might even be a better back than Jason, you know.” He looked at me out of the corner of his eyes. “Are you kidding me?” I sputtered. “Yeah,” he said, obviously relieved he didn’t have to support the bluff anymore. “It’s okay; even Leah thinks he’s not that good.” “Leah’s a nice girl.” He was going into girls now. Great. “Yeah. I’ve been best friends with her since fifth grade. She knows more about me than I’d like for her to.” I grinned. “Same with me and my friend Max—he knows who I have a crush on even before I do most of the time.” “Oh really?” I said coyly, turning my head to look at him. He’s hot! Little Rebel Child said in my subconscious. No, my sensible side, who I would come to know as Inner Perfect Peyton, corrected. He is simply good-looking. He had nice blue eyes, summery and warm, with long lashes, and good teeth, with just a retainer on, and okay hair, flopping all over the place with half a dozen cowlicks. “Yeah,” he replied slowly. “Like, half the time he can even tell how the relationship’s gonna turn out. He’s amazing.” “Who have you actually gone out with?” Little Rebel Child was saying, Ooh! Prospective boyfriend! What is his type, so I can appear more attractive, by not being it? Perfect Peyton said, sorry, Rebel, probably off-limits. It would be bad bad bad if things ended messily. “Um, let’s see who you would know, um…Anna Johnson, Briony Davis, actually, one summer, your friend Leah…” He blushed. “No way! When?” “Couple years back.” I thought hard, and then it clicked. “Oh, right! You were summer camp fling boy! Um, not to be mean or degrading or anything but she couldn’t even remember your name by the time she got home. She told me you were Thomas.” “Well, she had bad breath.” “She forgot her toothbrush!” “She could have borrowed somebody’s!” “That’s disgusting!” Our voices were raising—mothers were starting to look at us strangely. “I do it all the time!” I was getting nervous—from the last three sentences, this conversation could be taken a totally different (and wrong) way, so I whispered, “Toothbrushes go in people’s mouths!” “They spend the rest of their time in water! You can clean them!” “Whatever.” I ended the argument, and the mothers turned back to their book discussions. Trevor and I sat there, not saying anything, for a long while. The next time I looked up, he’d moved to sit right next to me, our knees almost touching. Before I could react, he

reached up with the hand farthest away from me and put it on my jaw, holding me in place. I stared unflinchingly into his eyes. “You know you’re really, really, beautiful, right?” He said softly. Very softly. Almost inaudible. I didn’t know what to say to that. Yes? That would sound cocky. No? That would sound self-demeaning. Thank you? That would be weird. Before I could say anything, however, he took my right hand in his left, leaned in close, and put his mouth against mine, very gently, very sweetly, closing his lips just once to deepen it a tiny bit, and then he pulled away. “Really beautiful.” At this point in time, Little Rebel Child decided to throw some random tidbit of information into my stream of consciousness. Hey, she said, he’s got nice ears. Which, of course, made me look. Which made me look away from his eyes. Which he took as frigidness. He did have nice ears, though. “I’m sorry,” he said, and started to scoot backwards. “No.” It came out of my mouth before I could stop it, and he looked back at me, mouth drawn slightly taut. He raised his eyebrows, questioning. “You don’t have to be sorry. I didn’t mind. It was nice, actually.” He moved back, closer to me this time, the outsides of our thighs touching, knees bent at the same angles so they touched, too. “Good,” he said quietly. “Do you—would you mind—can I—again?” I nodded slightly, just the tiniest movement of my chin, and he cupped the side of my face again, and angled his head to the side, obviously very experienced at this, and kissed me for the second time that side, and this time it was far better, and longer, and deeper, and he turned his head several times, and it was just like in the movies, his mouth moving against mine. When he finally stopped, and moved his head back, the sound of all the mothers “aww”ing reached our ears through the blood rushing to our faces, and his cheeks reddened slightly. He put his left hand behind him, leaned back, and hoisted himself up before offering his other hand to me. “Come on,” he said down to me. “Let’s go somewhere else—maybe down to the creek?” I glanced over at my mother, who was still watching us, along with Tanya, and I raised my eyebrows quickly, before Trevor could see, and she nodded just a bit, as if to say, Yes, he’s a safe boy, go ahead, go have fun. So I took his hand. And we ran. We ran down to the creek, and splashed barefoot in the freezing water, hand in hand, had a water fight, and he kissed me several more times, mostly standing in the middle of the stream, so seconds later we’d fall on our butts laughing. Soon one of the dads came down to find us, and by this time we were sitting on a rock, letting the warm setting sun dry us off, just talking, and he came to tell us that the buffalo wings were almost done grilling and to be back at the park in five minutes or we wouldn’t get any food. Then the balding man left in all his flannel-shirted glory, and we busted out laughing before Trevor took my hand to pull me up again and we ran some more, passing the man on the way, still laughing hysterically, to arrive at the park out gasping for breath. Later on, after school started, Trevor called me one night, and that was the beginning. We were officially an item, not just a one-night summer fling. I must have dozed off, because the bell for the end of the period woke me up with a start, and I quickly scrambled to my feet, brushing blades of grass off of my clothes and hair —Perfect Peyton had come back with a vengeance while my eyes were closed, and now she was taking over. I felt a little better after my sleep—at least, my body felt less heavy, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to curl up in a corner and die. Pre-calc was next; that was good, something logical, and orderly, something I was good at and couldn’t mess up on. So I walked back across the bus lane, back across the basketball court, over the bench, and back inside, back to my locker to get my things.

Back to real life. When I got home, my mother was waiting just inside the garage door. I screamed shrilly and jumped into the air, dropping my purse, backpack, and keys. She had her hands on her hips, looking all suburban-housewife in her flowered skirt, pedicured feet, pink cardigan, and perfect hair. But she wasn’t looking like a nice suburban housewife at the moment. In fact, she looked like a very, very, angry suburban housewife. I bent to pick up my things, avoiding eye contact. “Peyton Marie Colemyer.” “What?” “I got a call from the school office today. They said you were at all your classes except for Family and Consumer Sciences.” Little Rebel Child threw another random tidbit in—pulling the memory of my sarcastic remark at the sticker on the feminine hygiene machine, for calling things by their real names and not the slang term. “Yeah, I skipped it.” “Why?” “Because I felt like it. I didn’t want to go.” Something must have shown in my voice, because my mom dropped her fists from her hips and bent down on one knee, taking the stuff I’d managed to gather up out of my arms and wrapping me up in a giant hug, the mommy kind you see in TV shows. “Oh, honey, is this about Trevor?” I bit my lip, nodding, trying to keep the tears in, but it didn’t work too well, so my eyes started dripping on her perfect sweater. “Oh, baby, oh, baby…” she shushed me, rubbed my back, and just held me on the kitchen linoleum (Suburbia stereotype! LRC screamed, jumping in fright with her giant combat boots flying into the air. IPP shushed her from her vantage point on a high-backed chair, dressed in a white and blue flowered sundress). Finally she held me at arm’s length. “Pey,” she said. “I think you need to get away this summer.” “What, just me?” I wiped my eyes, and kept wiping, scraping flakes of mascara off my cheeks. “Yes, just you. Listen, there’s this musical arts academy in Los Angeles, and it lasts all summer. It’ll be perfect for you just to relax and sing—get over Trevor and maybe meet someone new.” “Mom, the only boys there will be insane synthesizer machine geeks.” “No, no, look—“ she got up, walked quickly over to the counter, and brought over a thin booklet, and started paging through it. “Look at this one here—oh, he’s got a nose ring, but right here, he’s a guitarist, and this one, his name’s Keith Fischer, he’s a vocalist…Toby Watson, he plays oboe…” “Mom.” “No, really, Peyton. I’ve already registered you. You leave the day after school ends.” “Mom!” “Peyton, I’m not going to hear anymore. You’re going to L.A.”

Chapter 5 Noah—Madison, Wisconsin

I

stood in the airport terminal in Madison, backpack slung over my shoulder. It was too heavy, which I supposed wasn’t such a good sign. “Okay, Noah, here’s fifty dollars, just in case, and here’s an orange juice, yes, it’s sugar-free, do you have Dr. Koratzt’s number on your phone?” “Speed dial five.” “Good, good, you have your—“ “Paige, dear, why don’t you let him just leave?” My dad came up behind my mother, coffee in hand, and put his other arm around her shoulder, passing the cardboard cup to her as he did so. I grinned widely at him, mouthing a “thank you”. He nodded softly. “Okay, sorry. Have a good time, now, honey, okay?” “Yeah, Mom. I will. I always do.” She leaned forward and kissed my cheek, and acting like a normal teenage boy, I wrinkled my face. Dad let go of Mom and clasped his arms tightly around my shoulders, then held me at arm’s length. He looked me up at down, and I knew what he saw—I could see it in his eyes. Mom had made me wear my off-white waffle print thermal shirt, something rather formfitting, and my nice brown corduroy pants. The shirt made me look even skinnier—you could almost see each rib through the fabric, and the fact that I was exhausted probably wasn’t helping, making my cheeks look gaunt and my already prominent cheekbones stick out. What I saw in his face was the disappointment, the hurt that this was something I’d done to myself. That I would probably never be the son he’d always wanted, the son that could go outside and shoot hoops or play football every night, the one that participated in school sports. He was disappointed that I didn’t want to go out to steakhouses with him on special occasions, that I just wanted to sit in my room and write lyrics. “Noah.” He was speaking very quietly, while my mom went to look at departure times on the board behind us. “Yeah?” I looked into his hazel eyes. “Can you do me a favor?” “Sure.” I shrugged. “Good. Find yourself a pretty girl and bring back a picture.” Right then, I made myself a promise. I knew what would make him even more proud. “Dad, I’ll do better. I’ll find myself a girl…and I’ll come back better. Don’t tell Mom.” “Noah, you don’t have to, do it at your own pace—“ “No, I want to. Dad, it’s been too long. I need to get over this. I don’t know how I’ll do it, but I will.” I blinked at him; he was taking me seriously, so I put on my most solemn face and stared into his eyes, not making any expression. “Good man. I’m proud of you, Noah. Whatever you do. Remember that.” He hugged me again, patting me on the back, just as Mom jogged back up. “Okay. They should be boarding any time now. We’re going to go. You can handle yourself, right?” “Yeah, Mom.” “Good. I love you, Noah. Don’t forget to call.” “I won’t. I love you too.” It was just like any other year when I went to Redwood. It was so normal, it all came naturally. But this time, I stood in the middle of the terminal hallway, watching my parents leave: my tall, stocky father, who looked just like me, with brown hair and big hands, dressed in his regular plaid button-up shirt and khaki pants and dress shoes, and Mom, who was smaller, but still very intimidating, with curly hair and almond-shaped gray eyes, in long herringbone slacks, sensible “Working Woman” shoes, and a lavender cable-knit sweater. Her hair bounced as she walked, and at one point she turned, over her arm and Dad’s, whose

hand she was holding, to wave at me and smile. I smiled wanly and waved back, and she blew a kiss, which she very well knew I wouldn’t return. “Calling all first-class passengers for flight 206 to Chicago, Illinois, connecting to Los Angeles. Calling all first-class passengers for flight 206 to L.A.,” the intercom lady’s voice was cool and calm, strangely soothing right now, and I turned to walk towards my jet way to get in line. “Sweetie? Can I get you anything to eat or drink?” I looked up to see an AfricanAmerican fight attendant in a pink shirt and gray skirt and jacket leaning over to me, alone in my row, sitting in the window seat. Nobody wanted to sit next to skinny emo boy. “No, thanks. I’m set.” I knew full well that I could not make myself eat anything they offered on this airplane. Which was why I had a lunch bag with several containers of yogurt and a couple mayonnaise/mustard/ketchup/anything else-free pastrami sandwiches in my backpack. Plus a giant bottle of orange juice. “Are you sure?” Her face was kindly, her long skinny braids hanging down out of her ponytail and over her shoulders. For some reason, I desperately wanted to get something from her, just to stop the worry in her face. “Yeah. I’m fine.” I resisted the impulse, knowing I would be wasting my parents’ money. “Okay,” she said slowly, in a motherly tone, and I could tell she knew something was horribly wrong with me. If only she knew. When she wheeled her cart away, I reached down into my backpack and pulled out half a pastrami sandwich (on quickly-dissolves-in-your-system-totally-empty-calories white bread). I stared at it for a little while, unable to make myself take a bite. So I pulled down the tray from the back of seat in front of me, centered the sandwich on it, and settled my hands in my lap for a second, staring at it some more, before reaching up, carefully taking off the top piece of bread, and peeling the pastrami off of it. I slowly, haltingly, took a very small bite of the lunch meat, and then methodically arranging it back on the bread, layering it just so, making it perfect. Then I put the top piece of bread back on, slid the sandwich back into its Ziploc bag, and put it in my backpack. On my way back up, I happened to glance over at the family sitting in the seats across the aisle. It was a younger couple; a man with glasses and a receding hairline, a woman who looked kind of quiet and mousy, and a small girl whose blue eyes were bugging out like she’d never seen someone skinny eat pastrami before. She probably hadn’t. She probably didn’t even know what pastrami was. I raised my eyebrows as far as they would go and twitched them, once, a face I knew people found really intimidating. The family looked away, chastened. I settled back into my rough tweed airline chair and looked around for something to do. It was then that I noticed that above my head was a TV screen, which was quietly announcing in blue letters that the movie would be starting soon. I picked up the headphones and put them on over my ears, feeling and hearing the buzzing static in their noise-cancellation earcaps. While I waited, I looked out the window at the passing landscape, and was so entranced by the patchwork of fields and housing developments and areas of towering city that I forgot that I had been going to watch the movie. It wasn’t until an hour later that I remembered, and when I looked up at the TV screen, I was greeted cheerfully by a hugely pregnant Ellen Page, an actress I was fairly familiar with. My brain balked. I knew the movie was Juno; I recognized it from its previews, and I knew that she was only pregnant, but my brain was going into terror mode, screaming, Fat! Fat! Fat! I shut my eyes, pulled off the headphones, and put my forehead against the cold glass of the window, breathing heavily. Soon I fell asleep, and then I dreamed.

It was white. That was the first thing I noticed. Everything was white, blank, like an empty slate. I walked forward, feeling that there was something under my feet; I just couldn’t see it. The only thing I could see was myself, my feet in their non-athletic sneakers going forward, back, my arms, swinging as I walked. “Noah!” I heard a voice behind me and turned, to see Faith, with her long curly hair, smiling impishly as she ran toward me. The places where her bare feet touched the ground lost their whiteness and turned to a dark red color, lined with black, like the marble tiles on our kitchen floor. Faith took my hands and swung me around in a circle. “I love that you’re going back to Redwood! That makes me so happy!” She gushed, smiling widely. She was wearing a flouncy pink dress, all floaty chiffon and crinkly ruffles, one-shouldered with a large pink rose on the strap. Then she seemed to really look at me for the first time. Her face darkened and took on a worried expression. “Noah,” she said. “You’re really sick. You need to stop.” “Faith, I can’t stop. It’s too hard.” “No it’s not. I could have stopped…but I didn’t realize it until it was too late. Noah, you need to make yourself better. If not by yourself, then find someone to help you.” “Faith, I—“ “I have to leave now, Noah. I love you.” She stepped backward after hugging me tightly, and her face went all blurry, getting fuzzy around the edges. Then she changed. She was no longer the overly skinny girl I knew as my twin sister, but was a girl I’d never seen before, with dark green eyes and collarbone-length auburn hair. Her skin was olive, tanned lightly enough so that it was a nice golden color, but not so tan that her hair looked weird. She was wearing a striped tank top under a thin white three-quarter sleeve cardigan that hung unbuttoned from her body with a pair of dark jeans and white Vans. Something was scribbled on the heel of them, but I was too tall to see what, and she was petite and curvy. She wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous like Faith, but she was beautiful. Her eyes were kind of sad and puppylike, but within them was a fire that said she was stronger than ever. She looked at me, narrowing her eyes like she was trying to recognize me. She looked like Jane in the old Disney Tarzan movie when she was drawing Tarzan on the chalkboard. With one hesitant hand, she reached out and touched my cheek, running her thumb down the side of my nose and then over my lips. Then she took my hand and pulled me along with her. As she ran, a wave of color streamed out from behind her, showing me that I was in a long hall tiled like my kitchen at home. It was set up like the Great Hall in all the Harry Potter movies—studded with cream stone pillars, with a slightly raised dais on the far end. We crossed the hall, though it was huge, in a matter of seconds, and she sat on the steps up to the dais, her legs crossed Indian-style, and then pulled on my wrist to make me sit down next to her. I sat cross-legged too, facing her, and was suddenly filled from the inside out with an inexplicable happiness like I’d never felt before. I felt warm and fuzzy, and I was almost buzzing with joy. Everything felt right, around this girl; she was perfect, and beautiful, and she was helping, in a way that no one had ever helped me before. She was making everything better. I instantly fell in love with her. She smiled at me, angling her head to the side. The only problem was that she hadn’t talked. I was sure that if she would only say something, everything would be even better. How to make her talk? I put my hand on the side of her face, gently, softly, and leaned in, because I wanted to kiss her, and maybe, just maybe, it would make her talk. She leaned in too, and her lips were almost touching mine when she smiled a Mona Lisa smile, all cryptic-like, and very softly said, “Noah.” And then she was gone. No smoke, no blurring like with Faith, no slow fading out.

She was just gone. And then I woke up. The window was so cold. It was getting dark, up here, five miles in the sky. I looked at my watch. The familiar details of it calmed my beating heart—I was still surprised about that dream. The watch was a Rolex I’d gotten for my last birthday. It was silver, and slender, with smooth links that interlocked to form a flexible band of thin chevrons. The face was white, with simple green dashes instead of numbers. In the center, next to the fulcrum of the hands, was a small box that showed the date. As I watched, the second hand slid over the twelve and the dial turned to say ‘12’ instead of ‘11’. I put my forehead back against the window. The lights on the wings of the plane blinked soundlessly red and green and white, illuminating small patches of the huge expanse of flat cloud some hundred feet below us. The moon hung in the sky, full and round, and the stars twinkled cheerfully. I quickly got too cold to stand it anymore. A quick glance behind me told me that the attendants had already come around with blankets—the little girl in the row behind mine was curled up under a red fleece one—so I leaned down to get my sweatshirt out of my backpack. I wrestled with the thick red fabric, pulling it out from under all my notebooks with great difficulty. Finally it came loose, and I sat back in my chair to pull it on. When my head poked through the neck of the hoodie, a face was looking at me. “Hi.” It was a girl, with a round, pale face. She looked about my age, maybe younger, and had shoulder-length brown hair with choppy bangs in the front. Her eyes were large and brown, framed by dark lashes. I scrambled backwards a little, and she chuckled, then sat back in her seat (the one next to me). “Where did you come from?” I asked breathlessly. “I got on at the transfer in Detroit. You were asleep when I got on. This was the only seat open.” A thoughtful expression passed over her face. “You looked really happy. Good dream?” “Yeah. I guess. Don’t get those too much anymore.” I could see her eyes move up and down my body. Then she made eye contact once again, and it was like she could see into my brain, like she was looking at every memory I had of Faith. “Yeah…me neither. I’m Cole. Most people call me Coco though.” “Noah,” I said, still a little freaked out. I turned in my seat to face her and brought my feet up on the cushion, then pulled the cuffs of my hoodie over my hands. She did the same, leaning back against the armrest of the aisle seat and tucking her bare feet together. Coco was wearing a pair of sweatpants in a violent shade of chartreuse and a long-sleeved, fitted white cotton t-shirt. She seemed warm enough, unlike me. Probably because she had a healthy weight and I didn’t. “So. Where are you headed?” she asked. “Um…Redwood Music Academy, in L.A. Staying all summer for the music program.” “Oh, really? I have a cousin who goes there full-time, her name’s Amelia? My mom wanted me to sign up for the summer program but I’m not really into the music thing. What do you do?” “I’m a lyricist and composer. My twin sister Faith used to sing my songs, but she… doesn’t go there anymore.” Coco nodded sagely. Man, this girl was good. She had this way of instantly picking up on things unspoken, figuring out the underlying meaning in everything. I was sure that somehow she knew that I was anorexic, that Faith was gone, that there was something wrong about me, and it wasn’t just the eating disorder. “I’m going to stay with my friend Lyndree for a couple weeks. Nothing special, just hanging out. Do you guys get any off days at Redwood?” “Yeah, weekends and most afternoons if we don’t have stuff going on.” “Cool, maybe I’ll see you around some.” “Yeah, maybe.” I reached down into my backpack, actually going for my notebook, but

ended up feeling something rough and crackly underneath my searching fingers. I pulled it out to see what it was. When I saw, I groaned out loud. Cole, who had been kind of zoning out, taking the hint that I didn’t really want to talk anymore, turned around suddenly. “What?” “Mom keeps packing me food,” I said disgustedly. Cole laughed, a high, clear, ringing sound. “Why is that so bad?” She asked me. “Because I don’t want food!” She laughed again. “Lemme see it,” and reaches out, her thin fingers waggling. I hand it over and she holds the top of the sack open, spreading her fingers out wide to increase the light that flowed inside. “Well,” she says. “I wish my mom packed me food like this.” Suddenly, I’m curious. I lean over. “What’s in there? I didn’t bother looking.” Coco smiles and starts pulling things out. “Look at this! Sandwiches, brownies, chips, yogurt (that’s always good), Vitamin water,” she adds, raising her eyebrows in that way that suggests that is the most important thing in the world. “How does she fit all this crap in here at once? Jeez, she must be magic or something. Can I have your brownie, if you don’t want it?” “Help yourself,” I say, smiling slightly. Nobody I know would sit next to a total stranger on a three-hour flight, much less ask for their food. “Excellent,” she says primly and loads everything neatly back into the paper bag, leaving out the slightly squashed brownie, wrapped up in its sheet of plastic wrap. She stows the sack lunch back in my backpack and then carefully peels the plastic away from the brownie, breaking into small pieces that she picks up one by one and chews slowly. “This is really good brownie,” she says after a minute. “Mom probably made them. She’s a good cook.” “No offense, but she kind of sounds like a mom off a TV show.” “None taken. She is. Think Kirsten off the O.C. crossed with Viola’s mom off She’s the Man. Debutantes and everything, and she’s president of the homeowner’s association for our subdivision.” “So was your sister a debutante?” Coco finishes the brownie and smoothes out the plastic wrap, then carefully folds it precisely in half and half and half again, until it’s a crinkly opaque pad about an inch square. This she tucks inside her empty plastic cup that looks like it once held cranberry juice. After she’s finished this ritual, she returns to her former position, curled up on the seat facing me. “Yeah. Faith was like the perfect daughter for Mom. She loved the whole girly-girl business, totally went along with it.” “And what exactly is a debutante?” “Um, the precise definition is a teenage girl’s formal debut into society as being eligible for dating and such. In the old days it meant guys could start courting you. Now basically it’s an excuse for rich moms to buy fancy dresses and throw big parties.” “So there’s just a big dance and banquet and the girls get escorted by the guys?” “Pretty much.” “So tell me about Faith’s.” She starts fiddling with the drawstring on her pants and I’m momentarily distracted by the intricate knots she’s tying in it and then untying even though she’s not looking at it. Then I shake my head and look away, figuring it’s not the best place for her to catch me looking, however innocent my intentions. “So she was lead debutante, so she was first, and her escort was her boyfriend at the time, Tony—“ “Did she have a lot of boyfriends?” “You have no idea. So, Tony, and she had this gorgeous white dress, I even wrote a song about it that night, and my dad brought her out on the stage, and Tony comes up and bows to him and takes Faith’s arm, and they go out and stand on the dance floor. And then all the other girls get brought out, and meet up on the dance floor, and music starts and they all waltz a lot and everybody has to watch until they’re done before they can eat.”

“Were you anybody’s escort?” “Yeah, but technically I was a white knight—I was just there because the girl didn’t have an escort to speak of.” “So there was no girlfriend to escort?” Coco pulls a thin section of hair out from the base of her neck, just behind and below her ear, and starts absentmindedly braiding it. “Not at the time. I wasn’t that good with the ladies before…” She finished braiding (fastest braider I’ve ever seen) and twists the bottom of the braid, then flips her hair back behind her shoulders. I can still see the braid a little, and it’s only then I notice that one of the strands in the braid is dyed bright turquoise, the same shade as her pants. It must have taken a lot of practice to get to be able to braid it like that without looking. “Before what?” “Nothing.” “Well, I can tell it’s not nothing. If it’s not too personal, will you please tell me?” I stop and think for a moment. This girl—I barely know her, and yet she is almost exactly like me, with her finicky mannerisms and her slightly perfectionist temperament…And for some reason I trust her. Usually I never let my guard down…not even with Faith, when she was here, much less with my friends or any of my girlfriends, not with my parents. And here comes a girl who is taking down my wall, brick by brick, and much to my astonishment, I’m helping her. I ask the first question. “Do you mind if I start at the beginning? It’s kind of a long story?” Coco smiles wanly and nudges the side of my foot with her toes. “I like long stories,” she says quietly, and so I start talking. “…and then, you know, she started getting more popular. All the guys liked her more, even if it was only superficial, but I’d always been the kind of outcast kid with the Jewfro. And so I started with it too. “I probably should have seen it coming. Faith got sick—she felt like she had the flu all the time, she was always cold. The second week of it, she started coming into my room after my parents had gone to sleep, and she’d sleep in my bed right up next to me. I didn’t really think anything of it, but then it got worse…and then she died. Just, one day, started feeling faint, passed out, and she was in a coma for a day or two before she just…slipped away. And then the doctors did her biopsy or whatever, and they told my parents. It was anorexia. At least, you know, she didn’t get to that stage where she looked like I do, all gaunt—she was just built naturally small, and her body couldn’t take the starvation. So I finally saw what I’d done to myself, but by then it was too late to stop. “All the girls liked me—I’d become one of the most attractive guys in the school, I looked like an athlete. And then over the winter break, it got worse, and when I got back to school, I was like this.” I reached over to the tray and grabbed my orange juice, taking a long, deep swig. I was parched. I’d been talking for over an hour. Coco was a good listener—she hadn’t fallen asleep, hadn’t made any faces, hadn’t interrupted. “So…what now?” she says after a long moment. She drums her fingers on her flat stomach nervously. We’ve both shifted positions while I was talking, and I’m stretched out with my feet tucked in between the two seats in front of us. Coco’s doing the same thing, and her feet are intertwined with mine. I’ve long since taken off my shoes, so it’s my brown socks next to her tan skin. “Well, I’m getting treatment, but it’s more habit than anything now. I just can’t make myself eat more than a little. That’s kind of why Mom packed me so much food—she’s trying to make me eat.” I sigh and shrug. “But I promised my Dad at the airport that I’d come back better and with a girlfriend, so I guess I better learn.” Coco pats my hand comfortingly. “Well…it’s good to set goals for yourself, I guess. There’s nothing like the looming prospect of a broken promise to your parents to get you moving. I know from experience.” “Tell me about it,” I say, swinging my head from side to side. We sit in silence for a

long moment, and when I next look down Coco’s hand is still curled gently around mine. I stare at her surreptitiously out of the corner of my eye for a second. Never in my entire life would I have believed that at age sixteen I would be sitting on an airplane from my small suburban town of Maple Bluff, Wisconsin, to the grand old city of L.A., holding hands with a girl I’d met exactly an hour and a half before. A few minutes later, Coco takes a deep, sort of shuddering breath, snuggles down a little in her seat, rests her head on my shoulder, and, hugging our clasped hands to her chest, falls asleep. A weird, gentle sort of instinct comes over me, so I reach over with my other hand and stroke her hair softly. And then, knowing there’s just a little bit of the flight left, I turn to look out the window at the still-dark sky. It’s about 4:00 in the morning in L.A., meaning it’s seven in Wisconsin. A thin stripe of grayish-yellow-pink in the eastern sky shows that morning isn’t that far away, but meanwhile, the airplane banks over a thick sheet of cloud cover, carving its way ever onward toward the beckoning radio signals of LAX.

Chapter 6 Olivia—Los Angeles, California

S

taring at my open, empty suitcase, I feel strangely empty. Kind of like the suitcase, actually. Knowing that I was finally going to get to go to this schmancy music camp, I should probably be feeling all happy and bouncy and generally like any other beachy California girl. But it felt weird—this was something I had finally won for myself. I’d never won anything before. You know, except for maybe first seat in orchestra at school, which doesn’t really count. I look down at the packing list. It looks so much less cool than it did on the computer at the library, because I’m not stupid enough to spend fifty cents printing in color. So instead of the pretty blue and purple bars on the top of the page, they’re gray and black. And not glossy like the brochure at all. I know I don’t really need to look at it again, because I’ve practically committed it to memory, but now, I realize again that I’m at Redwood for three months, so I go down to the basement and grab Rob’s suitcase off the shelf. Back upstairs, I cross to my closet and start pulling things off hangers. I lay out a clean pair of wide-leg khaki pants, my favorite red ballet flats, and a fancy shirt—deep purple-blue with a red and white ribbon sash and poet sleeves and a scoop neck—to wear tomorrow, and then just chuck shirts over my shoulder and onto my bed, just grabbing anything that I own that I deem worthy to wear in front of other people richer than me. I know I don’t exactly need a different outfit for each of the ninety days, I tell myself that these are people that probably will do that exact thing, so I want to repeat things as little as possible. After that, I go through and fold all the shirts, sorting them by color so I can figure out what shoes I need to bring, and then pack those, and pants, and hair stuff, and toiletries, avoiding the last bit on the packing list as much as possible, because it’s been bugging me. In a tiny block on the bottom of the page, in fancy type:

For the Banquets, Dances, and Concerts:
• • • • Formal clothes (dress, tuxedo; there are three banquets) Formal shoes (no sneakers or flip-flops) Skirts or dress pants (there is a dance every other weekend) Comfortable dress shoes for the dances (flats are strongly suggested for girls) Girls: Black skirt, white button-up shirt, black shoes, and black cardigan or sweater vest Boys: Black pants, white button-up shirt, and black shoes



These were not really things I owned. True, I had one or two skirts nice enough to wear to a dance, but no dress pants besides my khakis, no black skirt, no white button-up, much less a fancy dress or a black sweater. And this meant I had to go to the mall, the choice hang-out of all the other girls at my school, to go shopping, and furthermore, to finally face the music (no pun intended) of the last few weeks of school. I had dreaded the coming of this day for weeks and weeks. Figuring I’d rather face the mall than not go to Redwood, I gather up my money from the past two weeks of playing at the station (some six hundred dollars) and stuff it in my wallet, grab my purse, and drop in to Rob’s room. My older brother is sitting on his bed, homework from summer school spread out in front of him. I love him and all, but Rob is not the brightest bulb in the box, but he’s too

stubborn to accept help from me. He doesn’t really fit on his bed that well anymore, too tall to be comfortable, but he doesn’t complain. “Hey, Rob?” I say softly, leaning all my weight on the doorframe. He looks up, his longish spiky white blond hair swaying with the sudden motion. “Hey, Liv. What’s up?” “Um, I was wondering, can I borrow your car?” I shift my jaw to one side and tap the fingers of my left hand against the wall. I’m using all the techniques I’ve learned over the years of getting what I want: be quiet, don’t go inside the room unless he asks you, use subconscious body language to insert ideas into his mind…the list goes on and on. “What for?” he crinkles his eyebrows. “I gotta go to the mall.” “Liv, are you sure that’s a good idea?” Rob knows about the rumors as much as anyone in the school. He also knows they’re not true, but like me, Rob was never one of the really popular crowd, so no one believed him except for his close group of friends, none of which are very influential at our high school. “No, not at all,” I say nervously, and then shrug. “But there’s stuff I need for Redwood and I have to check in tomorrow, so I need it now.” “Um, yeah, sure. Keys are right there.” He points at the hook on the wall by the door and goes back to work. A smile suddenly spreading across my face, I snatch them off the hook, blow Rob a kiss, and say, “Thanks much! Any ideas for dinner?” “You pick. It’s your last night at home for the rest of the summer.” “Okay. Love you, see you later!” “Bye, Liv.” And with my mission accomplished, I grab the dinner money off the counter and head out into the driveway. After several attempts at starting up Rob’s old Toyota, it finally revs to life and I peel out of the driveway and into the streets of L.A. My first real challenge is to find a parking spot. Once I do, and I get inside the mall itself, my brain kind of remembers its way around, and I figure my best bet is to start with the fancy stuff, since that will be harder to find. So I head upstairs to Penney’s and wander around, eventually making my way into the formal area of it. After fifteen minutes of looking and trying on two dresses, I decide there’s nothing there. I leave the store, and once out in the main hallway, locate a small sign with a map and scan it for stores that sound promising. Almost immediately I spot the label that names a bridal store at the other end of the mall, and I start walking, knowing that often those kinds of places sell prom stuff and bridesmaids dresses too. Trying not to look weird, I just meander around. I haven’t been at the mall for a long time, for two reasons. One, I already had thought about today—all the girls from school went there. And two, the mall usually doesn’t have stores that I can afford to shop at, so usually I just go to places like Ross and Marshall’s, sometimes Target and Old Navy. As I walk, I scan the signs above stores to store mentally places that I should look. I figure that after I buy all the stuff I need, I can hit some of the other stores to get some extra clothes. Once inside the bridal store, I’m standing in the foyer, trying to decide where to look first, when a friendly-looking girl, who looks about twelve (why is she working here?) hurries up to me. “Hello, miss, can I help you?” “Um, yeah, can you tell me where, like, prom dresses are?” “Sure! Follow me,” she chirps. She begins to walk off briskly in her khaki pants and black polo shirt, and as I follow her through a maze of racks of voluminous white wedding dresses, I feel very out of place in my white bubble-hem shorts and navy blue lace-trimmed camisole, and my bronze sandals, slapping against my feet, sound very loud in the quiet store. The girl leaves me in the middle of a large section of brightly colored dresses, and

feeling I should probably get started, I walk to the nearest rack and start pushing dresses aside, browsing. After I found one or two I wanted to try on, I saw two thin, pretty girls in miniskirts and fancy tops cross the floor and start browsing the other side of my rack. “So, guess who I saw just a minute ago?” The blonde says in the nasal tone that somehow all of the popular crowd gets at some point during their lives, the one that somehow makes every statement sound like a question. I can never remember what it’s called, but it’s so common that there is actually a name for it. “Ooh, who?” The girl with long, silky black hair says, and I recognize her from her voice as Laney Britson—she was in my drama class, and absolutely loathes me because I got the part of Galinda in our school’s production of Wicked and she didn’t get Elphaba. “Olivia Scott.” “Really!” I have always hated girls who gossip like middle-aged mothers on TV shows. I quietly listen as I grab a dress that’s light brown, with pickups in the skirt and a cream-colored sash. “Yeah. You want to know what I heard about her?” “Always.” “That at the end of freshman year, she got pregnant and had an abortion before anyone found out.” Laney does a sort of stage gasp, and I have to resist the temptation to do so as well. This rumor’s new. I listen more closely to find out who the father of my aborted baby is. “Who with?” Laney breathes, leaning more closely to the other girl. “Shayne, tell me!” Now I recognize the other girl—Shayne Darien, one of Laney’s close friends. “You can’t say anything,” Shayne says, and there is the ruffle of a high taffeta collar as Laney nods vigorously. “Okay…” She takes a deep breath. “Joshua Lorenzo.” As a reflex, I crinkle my eyebrows and my head jerks back in surprise. I offer up a silent prayer of gratitude to the gods of popularity that while they may have made their mindless followers tell everyone I’m a slut, they at least had the decency to make me a slut with their High Priest. Joshua is one of the hottest boys in our school, and while he’s a little shallow for my taste, I can still appreciate good looks when I see them. “No!” Laney gasps, and through a tiny gap between dresses, I see Shayne grin smugly and nod once. Soon the topic of me is dropped, so it’s safe for me to slip away and find another shop girl to ask for a fitting room. I locate the checkout desk, the three dresses bundled in my arms, and ask for someone to open one for me. Rather than coming out from behind the desk, the girl at the counter points the way to the fitting rooms and then, as I walk away, picks up a phone and pages someone on an intercom. When I get to the fitting room, there is an assistant waiting for me, and she takes my dresses from me to hang up inside the stall. “So what’s the occasion?” she asks casually. “I’m going to the Redwood Academy, so I need a dress for the banquet.” “Oh, really? My niece went there last summer.” The assistant looks at the brown dress. “This would be perfect for last one.” “Only that one?” I ask nervously. “Well, yes, that’s the one you wear your most formal dress to. You need two other less fancy ones to wear to the first two.” I’m getting nervous. They didn’t say anything about that on the packing list. “Well, I’ll just try on that brown one then.” “Okay. You get into that, and I’m going to go get a few more color options from the back, and we’ll see which you like best.” Once inside the fitting room, I pull off my tank top and shorts and slip into the satin ball gown. Even before I zip it up, I can tell it’s going to fit me like a glove. Turning in front of the mirror, I admire the dress from every angle. The sash on it is tied in a fish-loop bow, and the skirt has a bunch of pick-ups all over, like Belle’s dress in Beauty and the Beast. Just then there is a knock on the slatted door, and I turn the handle quickly to let the assistant in. She smiles and heads over to the hooks, hanging up the dresses, all the same

one I’m wearing but in a vibrant apple red, jet black, a pale buttery yellow, shiny blue the color of a pool, and a deep burgundy. The assistant looks me up and down. “That dress is beautiful on you, but the latte isn’t really your color. Here, try it in canary.” She unzips me and hands me the yellow dress in one swift motion, then backs up and stands in the corner. Before the rumors, once I went with my friend Briony to a bridal store while her sister picked out a wedding dress, and from that I know that assistants at these types of stores are shameless. They will stand there and stare you down, even when you’re in just your bra and panties. And they won’t leave. So I strip down and pull the dress on. After each one, she looks me up and down before handing the next one over. Finally, just the red is left, and I can tell she’s been saving it for last because she knows it’s the best. When I get it on, I have to admit that it is really gorgeous on me. “Do you like it?” the assistant, whose name is Mary, I’ve learned, says quietly. “It’s beautiful.” “Let’s go out and see it in the big mirrors, okay?” I take a deep breath and put my shoulders back, and she leads me out of the fitting room and up onto the platform that they put brides-to-be on when they fit their dresses. Tall mirrors surround us on most sides, and I stand there, holding very still, staring at myself, while Mary bustles around and sticks pins in me. “Now, because of the price of the dress, we can fit this for you free of charge. Plus, it fits you so well already there’s not much else to do.” “What do you mean, because of the price of the dress?” “Well, it’s almost two hundred dollars. Granted, that’s not our most expensive by far, but it is up there.” “Oh.” “Is that a problem?” Mary asks, looking up at me as if she would leave me right then, full of pins and without someone to unzip me if it was. “No. Not at all.” “Good.” She finishes and stands back. “What do you think?” I don’t say anything. Laney and Shayne have appeared in the mirror behind me and are staring up at me. I hold my ground and turn around, putting on a big, shiny smile. “Hi, Shayne. Hey, Laney.” “Hi, Olivia,” they gush simultaneously, and step up onto the platform by me, touching the fabric of the gown reverently. “Wow, this is beautiful.” “Thanks,” I reply, somewhat shyly. I’m a good actress. I can pretend I don’t hate them as much as they hate me for about three seconds. Laney reaches up and pulls the rubber band out of my low ponytail, letting my waistlength blonde hair cascade down over my shoulders. “Wow.” She says frankly, looking straight into my eyes. “That is positively gorgeous.” She may loathe me for everything I represent, but I can tell when someone is being sincere. And this is one of those times. “Thank you.” “Yeah,” Shayne adds. “But where are you going that you need a dress like that?” “Redwood Academy. For the summer banquets.” “You got into Redwood? For what?” Shayne’s appalled that I’m that talented. “Um, violin.” “Fancy.” “I guess. So you think it’s good?” I twirl a little, my hands in the air. “It’s fabulous.” Shayne smiles genuinely. “So you.” For a minute it’s like old times. At the beginning of sophomore year, Shayne and I weren’t exactly friends, but we talked, and we liked each other well enough. “Well, that settles it then. Thanks for your help. Mary?” I call out, and the assistant emerges from the racks a few feet away. “So you’ll be taking this one?” she asks. “Yeah, but can you have the fitting done in like, two hours?” “Yes, as a matter of fact we can. Our seamstress’s shift starts in about five minutes,

actually. So she can get that done first thing.” “Thank you. So do I pay now?” I’m unfamiliar with the process. “Yes. And then you pick it up, shall we say, about one?” “Okay.” I step down from the platform and go into the fitting room quickly before Mary can follow me in, and put my street clothes back on. I’m in a rush to get the rest of my shopping done, because I know that within seconds of my departure from the bridal store, Shayne and Laney will be trash-talking me again. I leave the fitting room, give the cashier my hundredand-ninety-one dollars and eighty-six cents, and get out into the main mall before I can change my mind. The rest of the shopping goes smoothly. By the time 1:00 PM rolls around, I’ve found three new knee-length skirts, two other banquet dresses (both for under a hundred dollars), a black cardigan and skirt, two new pairs of shoes, dress pants, and several nice-looking tops from the kind of stores upper-middle class teens shop at. I go to pick up my dress, try it on one last time, and gather it up in its white mesh garment bag that’s nearly as tall as I am. I head out to Rob’s car and unlock the door in a feat of balance that has never been attempted by mankind before. Once the dress is hanging on the hook above one of the backseat doors, I take a moment to organize myself and minimize my baggage. After a good deal of rearranging, I’m down to two bags, both the largest size each store carried. Wincing at my diminished wallet thickness, I start the ignition and drive home. I realize as I pull into the driveway that I had planned to go grocery shopping, but then realize that it’s probably for the best, because the combination of Rob’s old car, L.A.’s seasoned criminals, and my five hundred dollar shopping spree is probably not a good one. I lug all my stuff inside, set it on my bed, and go back out into the kitchen and order Chinese takeout from the little hole-in-the-wall place down the street. While I’m waiting, I decide to go finish packing. When I open the door to my bedroom, Jennika is standing there over the half-unzipped garment bag, gazing longingly at my beautiful red dress. “Liv…” she breathes. “Why did you buy this?” Her tone is one both of reverence and envy. Since Jenn was a baby, we’ve never had enough money to afford buying things like fancy dresses. And though Jenn put on a front that made her appear like she fit in with the hard-core girls at her school, tough and rough, at heart she was just like me—quiet, graceful, and old-fashioned. And secretly, she had always wanted to dress up for no reason. “Because I had to.” I wish that I had had enough money to buy Jenn a pretty dress today. Maybe for her birthday. I look down at my eight-year-old sister. Her friend’s mom had corn rowed her hair across the top of her head, and the rest of it was a mass of white-blond ringlets pulled into a messy ponytail. Jenn looks like me in every way except for the fact that my hair was pinstraight, and hers was extremely curly. “Will you show me?” Jenn asks. “And the others, too?” Normally I would be mad that she went into my bedroom and looked at my stuff without asking, but she looks so sad that I can’t resist. “Okay. I’ll show you.” For the third time that day, I strip down to my underwear and slip on the red ball gown. It fits even better with the tailoring they did earlier, and I twirl a little to show it off. Jenn smiles. “That looks really pretty, Olivia,” she says quietly. Then she brightens. “Will you show me everything you got? Can we have a fashion show?” I’m slightly dismayed to have to refuse her. “Jenn, I can show you the dresses, but that’s it, because I have to finish packing as soon as we’re done with dinner.” “Oh. What’s for dinner?” “I ordered Chinese.” “What’d you get?” Jenn is a bit happier now—like me, anything Asian is her favorite food, so any night when we can get Chinese is a good night for her. “Um…orange chicken, chow mein, fried rice, spicy beef, all the good stuff. Egg rolls.” Jenn hugs me. “Today is a good day.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it is. Ready to see the next dress?” “Yep.” She back up and watches while I put on both of my less fancy dresses. The first is cut like a tank top, knee-length chiffon in a pale gold, almost cream, with a pleated satin belt in the same color. It swishes pleasantly against my knees. “I like this one a lot,” Jenn remarks. “It makes you look like an angel. Cos you’re all gold.” I smile and move onto the next dress. It’s strapless, in olive green taffeta, and when the light hits it it turns blue and gold. It has a bubble hem and a ruched waist. Jenn wrinkles her lip. “You look like a cupcake.” When I laugh, shake my head, and kneel down for her to unzip me, she says, “No, really you do. But a pretty cupcake.” Once I’m dressed again, the Chinese still isn’t here, so as I pack all of my clothes, Jenn puts together outfits for me. She has an unerring eye for perfection—every outfit she chooses is ten times better than it would have been if I had picked it. I guess it comes from spending most of her time at her friends’ houses; they all have older sisters who study magazines religiously. As a result, Jenn knows all the laws of mixing prints and contrasting colors. Soon the doorbell rings, and we race to the front door, pay the delivery man, and dish out food for Mom, which go into Tupperware containers, and for Rob, which goes on a plate and is ceremoniously brought to his room, so that me and Jenn can eat right out of the cartons, which is one of our favorite things to do. While the food cools down, we hook my stereo up to my iPod (a week’s worth of station playing to buy) and blast some music while we strip my bedding. After that, we eat while we jump on my bare mattress, singing at the top of our lungs —Jennika with perfect pitch, me off-key on purpose, just to bug her, and my last night at home is spent in the pleasant company of my siblings, dancing, eating, jumping around, singing, watching movies, and just being friends. Because somebody once said it, and they said it best: “At the end of the day, when it comes down to it, all we really want is to be close to somebody. So we pick and choose who we want to remain close to, and once we've chosen those people, we tend to stick close by. No matter how much we hurt them, the people that are still with you at the end of the day those are the ones worth keeping.” You may choose your friends, but they might leave you— but you’re stuck with your family. So you better make it work.

Chapter 7 Peyton—Raleigh, North Carolina; Los Angeles, California; Redding, California

“B

ye, Mom. I love you. I’ll call every once in a while, okay?” I hug my mom quickly at the security gate, and swing my Lesportsac by Stella McCartney onto the conveyor belt. That, and the matching purse, suitcases, and garment bags were my birthday present last year, and now the security guard looks enviously at the purse and backpack as she loads them through the x-ray machine. “Bye, Peyton. Dad will come to pick you up in August, okay?” “Yeah. Bye.” I wave as I walk through the metal detector without a hitch and gather my ballet flats and bags on the other side. Up the escalator and onto the main fairway, I glance at my cell phone and check the time. Half an hour until my flight starts boarding, so I stop at the souvenir shop and pick up a couple issues of InStyle and a Milky Way Midnight to have for the flight. After a long wait at the gate, the flight attendant comes on the intercom and call for the first-class boarders. I walk down the jetway briskly and settle down in my wide plush seat. Even before the plane begins to taxi down the runway, I’m in my favorite airplane position and I’m asleep. Five hours later, I wake up when the airplane shudders with the impact of landing on the runway. And so begins the day I’ve been half-dreading and half-looking forward to for the last few weeks. Yes, I’m looking forward to all the singing and the contests and the dances— but I’m also nervous. I’m scared I’m going to be comparing every boy I meet to Trevor—and nobody compares to Trevor. Nobody is as perfect, as polished, as funny yet quirky and unique as he is. Inner Perfect Peyton smiles and says, Yes, but difference is good. Little Rebel Child, however, counters with No! Stay the same! Don’t change! Be difficult and never trust another boy again! I ignore both of them and gather up my things so I can get off this airplane and into my dorm room at Redwood. I’m anxious to meet my roommate and get my class schedule. Right now IPP is kind of in charge—get everything done, then you can have fun and mess around. Next I go to baggage claim and get one of those trolleys because I have tons of stuff. Soon the bags start coming out of my flight’s carousel, so I watch for my pink, blue, and lavender flowered luggage. It’s unique, so it’s easy to spot, and before long I have both my suitcases and garment bags, along with my purse and backpack. When I turn around, a tall man in a dark suit is standing a few feet away, holding a sign in a clear plastic sleeve embellished with the Redwood Academy logo:

Noah Pearson Peyton Colemyer
I walk up to him, lugging my trolley, and stop right in front. He’s about two feet taller than me, and looks younger up close, with shaggy golden-blonde hair and brown eyes. “I’m Peyton Colemyer,” I say authoritatively, and he nods quickly, once, before returning his gaze to the crowd, sweeping back and forth. I try to look where he’s looking, and spot the boy the moment he does. Obviously this Noah person has been to Redwood before, or at least he’s talked to this guy before he went to get his luggage, because the man spots him and beckons. I can’t really see him long enough through the bustling crowd to get a good look at

him until he’s standing right in front of me. He looks far more tired than I am—a quick look at his luggage tags tell me he’s from Wisconsin, meaning his flight had to leave two hours after mine, around twelve-thirty in the morning. It may still be dark outside, but I’m rested at least, and looking a lot better than he is. He’s taller than me, though not by as much as the suit guy, with broad shoulders and big hands. He’s fairly good-looking: pale skin with blue undertones, a light brown Jewfro, cropped to look like Adam Brody’s, and dark gray, expressive eyes. A red hoodie is slung over his arm, and a green plaid OGIO backpack across his shoulders. But for all the good looks, something looks wrong with him, for some reason. I can’t place my finger on it though, but something is definitely off. Noah looks at me for a long, long time. A second later, still staring, he says, “Noah Pearson,” somewhat distractedly, to Suit Guy and blinks. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the suit guy flip over his sign and it now reads “Liam Wallace, Nia Watkins”. Noah soon tears his gaze away from me, but I can see that he doesn’t want to. In a couple minutes, a girl and a boy join us, talking animatedly to each other in British accents. The girl is tall and slim, with a long auburn braid swinging down her back and a violin case dangling from her fingertips. The boy is tall, lanky, and as pale as Noah, but his hair is jet-black, gelled into sharp spikes, the tips dyed bright blond. His brown eyes sparkle excitedly, and as he gets closer I can hear him tell his story about a little girl in a music shop he played his guitar for. “…And so then I was like ‘for you I will,’ and she points at herself and she’s all, ‘for me?’ and I nod and she looks fit to be tied, she’s so happy, I mean, seriously…” he trails off, and Nia, the girl, laughs and says, “Sweet.” Liam grins and tugs on the collar of his gray canvas army jacket, which is studded all over with buckles and zippers and distressed parts. He’s also wearing blue jeans and a wifebeater t-shirt, which you can see through, but not in a sickly way like Noah—in a I’m-sohot-and-I-know-it way, but it doesn’t come off cocky, just sort of sexy. His clothing contrasts sharply with Nia’s, who is wearing pinstriped brown trousers and a cream-colored cardigan over a pink tank top. He’s punk while she’s polished. Liam comes right up to me. “Liam Wallace,” he says, and his voice changes from grinning to serious and dark. “Don’t say it like lime.” “Um, Peyton Colemyer. What?” I shake his offered hand, and as the suit guy piles everyone else’s stuff onto my trolley and then a second one, he effortlessly slides my hand through his elbow and suddenly he’s escorting me out the airport doors behind suit guy. “Americans tend to say the name Liam like ‘Ly-am’, and then they try to say it with a sort of Scottish accent, which makes the real version sound like ‘Leem’, but they just end up saying ‘Lime’. It gets annoying. So it’s ‘Lee-um’.” “Got it.” “Good. Now we can be friends. What’s your talent?” He courteously shortens his stride for me so I can keep up with him better. “I sing. You play guitar?” “Yep. It’s a personal favorite pastime for me. And also, Redwood’s a getaway.” His smile is sort of wistful. I examine his face for a minute before answering. “From what?” “Me mum. Me da. Me ex. Me therapist. Me apartment. Need I go on with the me’s?” “No. It’s kind of a getaway for me too. But, just from a breakup. Nothing worse than that.” “Ooh, you’ve got it good.” He chuckles mirthlessly, and suddenly we’re standing in front of a sleek black limousine parked on the curb. He opens the door for me like a chauffeur, and slips his arm out from mine. I climb into the car and scoot onto the far side of one of the plush seats, and Liam sits opposite me. Noah climbs in next and sits beside me, and Nia next to Liam. As soon as suit guy peels away from the curb, Liam is out of his seat and is sitting cross-legged on the floor, plugging his iPod into the stereo and opening the fridge. A song starts playing, something rock and British-sounding, and then he starts passing around Sobes

to all of us. I sit and enjoy the music while I sip my blueberry-blackberry drink, and occasionally throw a story or two into the conversation. Nia, for all her polished appearance, is as exuberant and bouncy as Liam is, so they provide much of the entertainment in the car. Noah seems rather subdued, but about ten minutes into the ride, he turns to me. “I’m Noah.” His voice is deep and velvety, but not dark and silky like Liam’s—more gentle and less cultured. “You’re Peyton, right?” “Yeah.” “And that’s spelled P-E-Y-T-O-N, right?” His gray eyes crinkle up at the corners, and he smiles wanly. He’s cuter when he smiles. Somehow it lights up his whole face, and I can see myself falling for this guy, almost as much as I fell for Trevor, if only he would put on some weight. In fact, he’s almost gorgeous, but in a tragic sort of way. IPP smiles. Change is good, Pey. Don’t forget how nice it is to love and be loved. Don’t forget that it’s not a bad thing to try out new people for a change. Her voice, in my head, is gentle, motherly and sincere. Trevor was good, but maybe this Noah boy is better. LRC stomps in, dressed as usual in her combat boots and jacket. Peyton Marie Colemyer. Do not trust this boy. His voice is too deep. And he stares at you, and says random things. Do not fall for him. Do not sing for him. While IPP glares at LRC, I let my mind wander back to reality. “Um, yeah.” I say to Noah. “Well, that’s kind of unusual.” “I guess.” I settle back into my seat with my Sobe. “I’ve only ever heard of it being spelled with an A and a D.” “Yeah, Mom and Dad got creative. Or stole it from Peyton Manning.” “Ah, football. The great American pastime.” Noah tilts his head back and lowers his eyelashes. His throat exposed for a second, I get a chance to look at him when he can’t see me well. His Adam’s apple is prominent—just like Trevor’s. A blast from the past, LRC murmurs, Hey, he’s got nice ears. I ignored her for once and forced myself to concentrate on our conversation. “Wait. I thought that was baseball.” “Well, it could be, but every day I see and more and more football jocks.” “It’s properly footie!” Liam calls from the other side of the limo, and we laugh. “So what about you?” I call Noah’s attention back to me. “What about me?” “Just…anything. School, family, whatever.” “Neh. Maple Bluff’s pretty boring. My school doesn’t really have any cool electives, except for this physical therapy internship thing I’m doing.” “So do you want to be a physical therapist?” “It’d be cool. I mean, I’d much rather a lyricist or a composer, but it’s my second choice.” Noah finally gets into the conversation, and starts talking animatedly about anything that pops into his head—going from future careers to a story that was in the news about a kid riding the subway alone—we get into all subjects, debating, agreeing, whatever. Just as he finishes talking about tennis, the limo pulls to a stop, and we’ve arrived at Redwood. We all pile out of the car, but just as I’m about to get out ahead of Noah, he catches my arm gently in his fingers. “Hey—Peyton.” I turn to look at him, and the expression on his face is almost scared, but it’s soft, and I realize that LRC is completely wrong. He’s not creepy at all—he’s quiet, and sweet, and he’s just what I need. Not that I’m looking for a boyfriend. Mom might think I am, but I’m not. Maybe a friend boy, but not a boyfriend. “I’ll see you again, right?” “Well, yeah, I guess. I mean, we’re here for three months, and we’re bound to spot each other once in a while, right?” “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Right.” “Okay. See ya ‘round.” “Cool.” He lets his hand fall away. “I’ll talk to you later?” “Yeah.”

And he nods slightly, and I get out of the car. The Redwood Academy is breathtakingly beautiful. The main building looks like something straight out of a storybook. It’s tall and white, made of creamy stone that glitters in the early-morning sunlight. The walls are covered in towers and windows, so many of the latter that you can visibly follow the faculty inside as they make their way down the hallways. Outside is a sprawling quadrangle, with winding paths and lush gardens. Following the edge of the outermost flowerbeds, the lawn begins, and stretches out for a long way before hitting the wrought-iron fence around the perimeter of the Academy’s property. In the far distance, you can see one of Oregon’s mountains rising out of the horizon, providing a natural backdrop. Behind the main building are the dorms, which seem to be more like studio flats or even apartments. There are seven buildings that I can see, and they look kind of like large greenhouses, all swoopy metal and glass. Our group from the limo troops together up to the front doors of the Academy, where another Suit Guy holds open the heavy wooden door for us to slip inside into the cool. Once in the front hall, I glance around, but hug my cardigan closer to my body, as inside, not only is it dim, it’s freezing. Liam comes up beside me and slings his arm around my shoulders. “Sure is cold in here,” he says, and I nod and push up against him to keep warm. We walk together up the stairs to our left. At the top is a heavy wooden desk, behind which is a small woman with glasses. She looks at us quizzically, and Liam steps up closer. “Liam Wallace, and Peyton Colemyer.” “That’s M-Y-E-R, not M-E-R,” I add quickly, so as to not waste her time. She nods sharply and digs through a file box for a second, then hands each of us our respective folders. Liam lets go of me to rifle through his and pull out the half sheet with the dorm assignment. I do the same. The small piece of paper reads:

Redwood Music Academy Peyton Colemyer Beethoven Hall (#30478) Room 402 (#53657)
Once I locate my map in my folder, it’s easy to find Beethoven Hall. All the dorms are named after famous composers, twelve of them: Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Debussey, Handel, Pachelbel, Schuman, Liszt, Haydn, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. As well as that, the classroom buildings are named after concert players, such as Yoyo Ma, and strangely, the cafeteria is called Mustard Hall. Turns out that Liam and Noah are roommates, so they both head to Debussey Hall together, while me and Nia walk outside side by side, even though she’s in Brahms. “So you’re from North Carolina?” Nia asks, collecting her duffel bag and suitcase from the trolley and slinging her garment bag over her shoulder. On the way up to Redwood, she pulled out the rubber band from the end of her braid, so now her reddish hair, brighter than mine, is loose and wavy, falling down to her hips. She’s a lot prettier with her hair down, more majestic than I ever would have suspected. “Yeah. What part of England are you from?” We start walking down a path toward one of the greenhouses. The campus is even more beautiful in the midst of it all, very green and flowery. The lawn is so perfectly cared for that it looks almost like the Center Court at Wimbledon. “Well actually I’m from Wales, but I guess that’s kind of right in the middle of England. But I’m from Cardiff, so I’m a city kid, like Liam.” She smiles.

“You kind of like him, don’t you?” I’m good at picking up on these sorts of things. It comes from years and years of experience of being a perfect girl. You learn. “Well, it’s probably only temporary. I mean, we were the only two kids on the flight from London, so undoubtedly we’re the only kids from the U.K., unless they took another airline, or they’re already here. I’ll most likely meet someone else over the course of the camp. And I’m sure he’s the type that would rather have a summer fling with someone and go back to England and never have to think about them again, rather than have to keep in touch because there’s no logical reason you shouldn’t.” “You can’t say that, Nia. You only just met him. You have no idea what he could be like when he lets his guard down. I mean, Noah at the airport was quiet, but in the car once I got him talking, he’s actually really fun to be around. So there’s really no way of knowing.” “I guess you’re right.” Nia shrugs one shoulder up and smiles a little. “Well, here’s Brahms. I’ll see you later?” “Yeah, sure. See you.” She pulls open the door of the greenhouse and disappears inside, pulling her suitcase on it’s wheels behind her. I continue on down the path, reading the names of the girls’ dorms as I pass them. Tchaikovsky…Mozart, Bach…Chopin…and last, right next to the boys’ Hadyn Hall, Beethoven. The brushed-steel and glass door doesn’t budge when I push on it, and I push a few more times before remembering the dorm assignment paper. On the keypad next to the doorframe, I punch in the numbers, and then there is a long beep and the door swings open inwardly. I pull my luggage inside and follow the signs on the wall to the elevator at the back of the building. Nobody’s using the elevator, so it’s already on the ground floor, and once on the fourth floor, I double back and locate room 402. My first impression of the dorms was right. From the moment I tap in the security code of the room, all I see is polished white surfaces and brushed steel details. One entire wall, straight across from the door, is painted with that fancy magnetic white board paint, and in hot pink script is written, Welcome, Peyton and Olivia! Love, Your Dorm Counselor. There’s a spacious kitchen to my right, and the room that the whiteboard wall occupies has a black sofa and two pink satin floor cushions. Down the golden hardwood floor of the hallway, I pass a bathroom glowing with natural light from the small window, and then, farther on, is the bedroom. Lucy Woodward’s “Dumb Girls” is blasting from behind the partially closed door, and immediately I’m in a better mood, knowing that my roommate has the same musical tastes as me. I push the door all the way open, and I’m greeted by an open expanse of hardwood floor, two monstrous closets, and two twin-size beds. There’s a tall, lanky girl standing in front of one of them, bopping her hips from side to side, her long, straight white-blonde hair swinging at the same rate. A black canvas suitcase is open at her feet, and she’s hanging up all her clothes from it. Turning around, I spot an iPod dock built right into the wall, and I reach over with my free hand and spin the dial on the front to turn the volume down. The music dies away quickly, and the girl turns around, quickly going from upbeat and dance-y to nervous. She brushes her hair behind her ears and extends her hand. “Hi. I’m Olivia Scott.” “Peyton Colemyer,” I say in what I hope is a bright tone, and shake her hand briskly. As I move farther into the bedroom, I see that she hasn’t made her bed yet, but there’s a yellow and white polka-dotted sheet set and a white quilt piled on top of the mattress, along with two pillows. Right next to it are two white mesh garment bags, one rather flat, but one, I can tell, is barely holding in whatever’s in it. A ball gown, for the formal banquet at the end of the summer. My bed is already made, as Mom paid full-price for the Academy, all in rich purples, the tops of the sheets striped with different colors of ribbon. I dump my purse and backpack on top of it, and the first thing I do is hang up my garment bags in the back of the closest. Then I follow Olivia’s lead and start hanging up my clothes from my suitcases. Shirts on the

top rack, skirts and pants on the bottom one, color-organized, pink to black. Olivia starts to make her bed, bending over to stretch the yellow fitted sheet over the corners of her mattress. When she’s done, she pauses, straightening up and looking at me, a strange expression on her face. “What?” I ask, grinning slightly. She looks at the ceiling, her lips in an O. “You know…” she says slowly. “I kind of feel like I’m in a spaceship.” Then she grins sheepishly. “Is that weird?” “No. I’ve kind of been hoping that you felt the same way. It’s too clean here.” “Exactly! Like, it’s all chrome. Straight out of an IKEA catalog.” “Oh, I know. It looks like my dad’s office, just more comfortable. And girly.” “Kudos to the Swedes.” I laugh out loud, for the first time in a while. I can tell that me and Olivia could be friends. We go on to discuss music, which luckily is a common denominator with everyone here. I’m grateful that camps aren’t just a random combination of people from different places. There has to be a theme, because there has to be similarity. The most diverse camps are the church camps—but at least there’s the religion factor. There has to be something to talk about, otherwise everybody would hate each other and the entire point would be ruined. Nobody would be friends, and nobody would want to perform with each other. I discover that we’re both fans of Lucy Woodward and Leanne Rimes, We Shot the Moon, and Eric Hutchinson. We’re listening to the latter’s hit song, “Rock & Roll”, singing at the top of our lungs, when a woman, built like me, small and curvy, appears in our doorframe. We stop the music and stand at attention. She introduces herself as Michelle, our dorm counselor, and tells us that we need to meet downstairs in the common room as soon as possible. She seems nice enough, kind of bubbly and bright but strict at the same time. She has dark hair tied into a messy bun with a colorful scarf, and warm brown eyes that always smile. After delivering her message, she leaves our suite, and Olivia quickly finishes making her bed. I stand by the door while she walks over to the closet and pulls a shirt off the hanger. Laying it flat on the bed, she pulls off her spring green baby tee, revealing a long expanse of smooth, lightly tanned porcelain skin. Her stomach is flat, with a faint suggestion of rock-hard abs that lie underneath. Olivia pulls the other shirt on over her head, and instantly I fall in love. The new one is a dusty lavender color, scoop-necked with three-quarter poets sleeves, the edges ruffled. An empire waistline is accented with a silk ribbon tie, white and red striped, and as we leave the room, she deftly ties it in a bow behind her back. Once in the elevator, I look over at her. “I love your shirt. Where’d you get it?” Olivia’s open and friendly expression disappears and she bites her bottom lip, revealing a row of shiny white teeth and a thin retainer wire. She glances at me awkwardly out of the corners of her eyes. “Um…this place called Ross?” I cock my head to the side. “Huh. That’s weird. I have never heard of that!” One of my favorite things about traveling is that there’s always different stores than where you normally come from. It’s even better when you’re in a different region or country. She smiles wanly. “Huh,” she says thoughtfully. “Well, we should find out if there’s one near here, and maybe check it out on one of our free days!” “Yeah, I guess.” I turn to face the elevator doors again, but I can feel Olivia glancing at me nervously every few seconds. Obviously there’s something about this subject that she’s not comfortable talking about, but I don’t bring the matter up. After what seems like an eternity, the elevator bell pings! and the doors slide open onto the ground floor. Following the signs, we turn left and go all the way down the hallway to a big set of glass doors rimmed with brushed steel. They swing open at our approach, and the landscape, so to speak, that unfolds before us is amazing. The room is gargantuan, first of all. It’s about the size of the entire ground floor of my

house, and that’s big. The walls are painted a sleek powder blue that at first appears matte, but then a cloud moves and the sun slants through the long solarium windows. The blue turns watery and shimmers with a sort of depth that isn’t usually an effect that paint has. Set into the ceiling are at least a hundred flat, bubble-like lights that glow with the kind of light you get in an open room during the early afternoon. On one wall hangs a large protector screen, which is currently lit up with the opening slide of a PowerPoint presentation. All the furniture is gathered into a U in front of the screen and a little back, but the hardwood floor is dotted with small white circles where the legs of the couches sit to avoid scratches. The seating consists of silver brocade lounge sofas, white beanbags, and black banana chairs. Michelle is sitting on a beanbag, a white Mac laptop on her knees, looking expectantly at us. Quite a few girls are already there, sprawled out with their roommates and friends. Olivia and I find a seat on a sofa and settle in to wait for the rest of the Beethoven girls. Soon everyone else is there, and Michelle clicks something on her laptop that makes the lights all over the common room turn off and the sliding doors glide over the windows, submerging the entire huge room into absolute darkness. The projector screen glows to bright and blinding life, but soon my eyes adjust and I can see clearly once more. The first slide shows the same logo and photo as the Redwood Academy brochure, the main building, with the mountains, and the sky, and the swoopy blue and purple border. Michelle stands up to the side of the screen, her laptop balanced on her forearm. “Welcome to Beethoven Hall, girls. I’m your dorm counselor, Michelle, as you know, and I know that you hate these sorts of things, but if I don’t show you this, I get fired, so let’s get this over with quickly.” She taps a button on the laptop and the slide changes to one with a short outline of things to go over. Michelle starts to speak, and from her bored tone, I can guess that this speech hasn’t changed much since she first started the job. “Welcome to the Redwood Music Academy. Our prestigious school was established in 1964 and has progressed from teaching piano to talented students, to educating students of all disciplines and talents. You have been enrolled in our summer musical camp, and will live here for three months in Beethoven Hall. “Beethoven Hall is named after Ludwig van Beethoven, an extremely gifted German composer and pianist, living 1770-1827. We of the GROVE (Governing Redwood Office of Verification and Eligibility) expect you young women to uphold the honor of representing the late Mr. Beethoven. This can be done by obeying all of the rules we have outlined for you: “You are expected to complete all the assignments given to you by your instructors and practice your respective talents nightly. Members of the opposite sex are only allowed in the dorms before 8 PM. When allowed off campus on free days, you must be accompanied by a Redwood Staff member or a GROVE representative if you plan on leaving the city of Redding. At the dances, banquets, and performances, you are expected to behave with decorum. Any tomfoolery that involves the substitution of lyrics or solos, or the interruption of a groups performance will result in an immediately referral or possible expulsion from the program, unless substitution is condoned by an instructor, or the interruption is premeditated for the enjoyment of the other students. The breaking of any of these rules will earn you a disciplinary conference with a GROVE committee member.” Michelle clicks over to the next slide. “Exceptional students will earn rewards, such as indefinite invitations, full-time tutelage, or a spot saved in the next summer’s program. Please enjoy the following video of the class of 2007’s winning performance, which resulted in two scholarships and two invitations.” There’s the sound of another click and the screen changes to a still frame of an empty stage, which only remains still for a split second before humming into life. The sound comes from invisible speakers somewhere over our heads, and the only thing audible for the first few seconds is the rush of a camera microphone picking up static from the silent air. Then two stagehands move a few things into place, and an announcer walks into the center, a spotlight following him. He runs a hand over his dreadlocks and begins to speak. His voice is amplified by a tiny microphone clipped to his collar. “Hello, everybody! I’d now like to welcome onto our stage the vocal talents of Kylie Hoffman, the

drumming skills of Seth Keagan, guitarist Liam Wallace, and keyboardist Da-Xia Williams! Give it up!” The crowd begins to cheer wildly, and I lean forward expectantly in my seat, waiting to see the musical side of the energetic, slightly eccentric boy I shared a limousine with. Four people walk onto the stage. A girl, with auburn hair pulled back in twisty knots, in a sparkly pink tank top that throws dots of reflected spotlight all over the stage. Behind her comes a tall, stocky guy with shaggy blond hair, twirling three sets of drumsticks in his hands in a way that suggests that he expects to break all six of them over the course of the song. Side by side, Liam and a Chinese girl come after the drummer and the singer, Liam looking much the same, wearing the charcoal-gray cargo jacket over a yellow graphic tee, an electricacoustic guitar gripped in one of his slender hands, the Chinese girl in an olive green halter top and white skirt with flowered leggings, her sleek black hair swinging over her shoulders. After a short introduction from the singer, the drummer sits down and taps his drumsticks together—“One, two, one two three,” and begins to tap on one of the cymbals quickly while Liam starts strumming short, high-pitched chords and the Chinese girl’s fingers fly over the keys of her keyboard. The other girl starts singing and soon I’m stunned by just how much she sounds like Kelly Clarkson. She’s singing “Walk Away”, and Seth and Liam do a little backup voicing while they grin and play their instruments. The song is over all too soon; all four players stand and bow, and the lights go down, and the video feed goes still again. Michelle clicks. “Every one of you will attend various classes: specialty classes for each of your specific talents, musical theory, basic composition, improvisation, basic voice, and private tutoring. There are certain collaborations in classes as well. The lyricists will meet with the vocalists every two days, composers meet with concert band and orchestra alternately every two days, and percussion may be called to help with band or orchestra pieces. Some specialties are exempt from certain classes, for example, vocalists are excused from basic voice, composers and lyricists from basic comp, and as such may use the time for practice. “All of you are expected to eat three meals every day in Mustard Hall.” Michelle stops and turns to look at us. “Don’t laugh.” Then she continues. “The only exception is on free days or classes that have outings occasionally. In such cases, you may eat at a restaurant or market. Please consider your healthy choices. “Medical care is available in the main building near the check-in desk. Students that are forced to go home because of extreme illness will receive a full refund for their parents. However, this is only in cases that call for hospitalization. “We hope you enjoy your summer stay here at Redwood Academy and find it worth your while. Our only expectation when you leave is that you carry your new knowledge with you and continue to use it throughout your life. Our mission statement is to create talented musicians for the future and give them a boost toward a lifetime career in our esteemed industry. Thank you.” Michelle sighs, closes her laptop, and then the lights come back on. The projector screen goes blank, and then slides upward into the ceiling. She puts the computer down on her chair, and then looks at us. “Well, now that that ridiculous thing is over, as much as we love the GROVE and their rules, we can play some games and whatnot with our partner dorm. The way it works here is I, Michelle, have a partner, named Caleb, who is the dorm counselor for Haydn Hall. So together we are a company, and basically we just play games and go places together, and if I’m not around, Caleb can give you permission to do stuff. You cannot ask permission for things of other company counselors—for instance you cannot ask Scarlett from Bach because you do not live in Bach, and you can’t ask Jonas from Debussey because Debussey is not in our company. Got it?” Various noises of affirmation rise from the girls, a cacophony of agreement just so we can get on with the introductory stuff. We’re all wide awake, even though it’s only 6:00 AM. Soon we head out the door, and across the quad to the space between Beethoven and Haydn Halls.

The boys of Haydn are already waiting for us, standing together in a big crowd, fronted by a skinny guy with curly blond hair, wearing a white t-shirt just like Michelle’s, with a big redwood tree silkscreened on the back of it. He’s taller even than my dad, who’s really tall, and has a big smile. I think this must be Caleb. As we approach, he waves to Michelle and beckons to the gang of boys behind him. They troop over to meet us halfway. “Hi, Michelle. Hey, girls! How’s it going?” We all respond —good, great, awesome, okay, etc. “I’m Caleb Winters, dorm counselor for Haydn Hall. These are my boys, whose names, due to my sheer brainpower, I already know.” He goes on to introduce all his boys, who smile and wave. I only notice a few, and those I do, I memorize their faces and the names that go with them: Logan Cassidy, Tristan Beck, and Henry Jackson. Michelle doesn’t know all our names yet, though she promises that she will by the end of the week, and so we go around, saying our names. We all sit down in a circle after that to play that one game “I’m Going On A Road Trip and I’m Bringing…” and you go through the alphabet, except the counselors have changed it up to be “I’m Going To Music Camp and I’m Bringing…”. There are so many of us that we get through two and a half times before we’ve done everybody. All the boys come up with crazy stuff, even going so far to bringing certain families they know back home, different kinds of weather, or various pieces of fishing equipment, in order to use their letter of the alphabet. The girls, not wanting to be so eccentric, usually end up sticking with adjectives if they can’t think of anything. The company plays games for another hour or so—running around, the boys making moves on the girls, the girls flirting with the boys, and then we all flop down and start talking, finding out who was in our specialty groups, who was wearing what to the banquets. Finally we get bored of that and Michelle releases us to our dorm buildings, reminding us that we need to be in the Ma Amphitheater at 12:00 for the orientation assembly. Olivia and I meander slowly across the quad, talking about the boys from Haydn, discovering we both thought the same boys were cute. We take the elevator up to the fourth floor and immediately are yawning, totally exhausted. I set the alarm on my cell phone to 11:30, and we both flop down on our beds, instantly asleep.

Chapter 8 Liam—Redding, California
Noah reaches Debussey Hall before me, even though we’d started out from the main building together. He’s my roommate, an arrangement I figured couldn’t be too bad, because he seemed like a nice guy, kind of quiet and subdued. Still, underneath it all, I felt like maybe there was something more to him, and my paranoid side guessed that maybe he was in a gang. But no, my logical side countered, he’s a lightweight. Thus, the argument was settled. I meander across the pathways, sometimes leaving them and cutting across grass. Redwood Academy is set up like a big fan, with the main building in the center and the twelve residence halls arranged around it in sort of a wonky semicircle. The amphitheater is across from the main building, with the ballroom to the east and the cafeteria and four educational halls to the west. Debussey Hall is just north of the ballroom, the first on the boys’ side of the semicircle. My suitcase and folding garment bag, which hook together, are heavy, and my guitar case, slung across my back from its shoulder strap, only adds to the weight. I see a bench ahead, hurry over, and park my suitcase, then pull out my guitar and sit down to play. It’s only just starting to get light, and the sun, peeking over the mountains to the east, glances off the patchwork surface of the body. I rub the lucky spot of enamel, the white one with the blue calico flowers, with my thumb, pull my finger-picks out of my pocket, slip them on, and start strumming. People are starting to arrive, mostly guys coming this way, because I’m on the boys’ side, but there a few girls, and the latter look at me as they pass, appraisingly me up and down, and then nodding approvingly before they move on. I’m playing a new song I just learned, Landon Pigg’s “Trickery”—it’s fun to sing because the guy has an attitude. “They say your life’s like a yellow brick road. That’s nice—mine’s like a maze…” I lose track of time, and before long, there’s a text on my phone, buzzing against my hip, from an unknown number. This is your dormitory counselor. Where are you, Mr. Wallace? Oops. I’m late for company meet. Coming, I text quickly. Which quad are we on? South-side Bono. Be there soon. I rush over to Debussey, punch in the access number, and ditch my suitcase just inside the door, choosing to keep my guitar with me. Then, back down the paths. Just a little ways away, I can see the soaring eaves of the Hewson Ballroom, usually called Bono, because that’s what Bono himself goes by. The ballroom only got built like, two years ago, and it looks kind of like the Sydney Opera House, only cooler. I hurry around the side of it, and there, sprawled in all directions of the field behind it, is my company. A quick glance at the counselor tells me that this year Debussey is paired with Brahms, because I recognize Bianca Sanders, a tall African-American girl with a short dark brown afro. Last year I was in Liszt Hall, and we were with Brahms. But I don’t recognize the boys’ counselor, who is dark, probably of Middle-Eastern descent, and I conclude that Morgan, Debussey’s counselor last year, either got fired or quit to go do something else. As I sit down, the new counselor looks at me kind of witheringly. “Thank you, Mr. Wallace, for joining us.” He doesn’t like me. Well, screw him. “You’re welcome. Who are you, again?” “Your dorm counselor.” “Well, I figured, but, who are you?”

“Jonas Cox.” “Okay. Thanks.” I settle back on my hands nonchalantly, pretending I had just done nothing wrong at all. I can feel the familiar heady heat rising in my chest, the wave of red fog that fills my lungs and makes my breath come fast and my heart beat harder and everything in my brain just goes away. So I hold my breath and name prime numbers up through twentyone, which is how long it takes me to unzip my guitar case and rub the lucky spot. Slowly, gradually, the heat cools down and the fog turns a cool blue-gray, and I count the primes back down to two, and the musky scent fades from my nostrils, and my heart relaxes. And then I remember the gorgeous girl sitting next to me, and I can smell her floral perfume, and the breeze blows her long caramel hair into my face—she looks over, and a blush spreads over her olive-skinned cheeks, and I smile reassuringly, but she turns away and quickly bundles the hair into a ballerina bun on the side of her neck farthest away from me. I’m not going to take that. She’s leaning back on her hands, and I reach out and touch her first finger with mine. She looks at me. “Liam. London. Guitar. You?” She blushes again, but smiles widely. “Cadence. Chicago. Flute.” “Flute’s pretty.” I move my hand off of hers and reach up to gently pull the rubber band out of her hair. “So are you.” Her green eyes flick up to Bianca, who’s talking about some new rule or something and gesturing over at the ballroom, and then back to me, and the blush spreads to her ears. “No.” “Yes. Do you have your schedule?” Glad for a subject change, Cadence pulls a piece of paper out of the hidden pocket of her dove-grey eyelet lace skirt and hands it over. I take mine out and compare them—we have two of the same classes, one of them after lunch. I smile softly. “Meet me before Comp tomorrow?” “Okay.” “Coo.” She smiles at the way my accent cuts off the L sound, and I turn back to listen as Jonas begins to explain our first game. He turns out to be a pretty cool counselor, however, and gives us the option of not playing. I back up a few yards and take out my guitar again to play. “Everything You Want” is one of my favorites, because of the way you play it, the alternate beats with the heel of your hand, or in my case, tapping my claddagh thumb ring against the top produce the correct hollow thump. A couple guys from Debussey run back and get their own guitars and we all play together. One guy, someone I recognize as Jake Hansen, starts teaching his girlfriend how to play, and she picks up on it pretty quick. Basically what was supposed to be company games hour turns into a big guitar party, and no one actually plays games, which is probably pissing Jonas off right now. But on the other hand, there’s still a tiny shred of red fog left in my lungs, and as I play, mostly my breath is blue-gray, a good color, but that shred comes out with it, and it twines itself around Jonas’s head like a dark halo. It feels good to let go of that last scrap of hostility. After games hour, I go back to Debussey Hall and pick up my luggage, pulling it down the hallway to the elevator and up to the second floor. Once entering the suite, I put what’s left of my iced coffee from the airport and the Sobe from the limo in the fridge and move into the living room. I’m kind of weirded out by what I see. It appears that Noah never even made it to the bedroom. Duh-duh-DUH! No, he isn’t dead, my logical side chastises paranoid side. Just asleep. My roommate is conked out on the black leather sofa, lying on his back, his skinny chest rising and falling evenly. One arm is across his stomach, the other hanging off the couch. His long legs are stretched out, resting on the arm of the couch, his mouth closed, his nostrils flared. This gives me a chance to study him further. My first glance confirms my earlier suspicion. He is indeed a lightweight. Either

interpretation would do the trick—no, he doesn’t weigh a lot, and yes, half a beer would probably knock him out. But he doesn’t look like the drinking type. He looks kind of like a younger Adam Brody, a long face with a square jaw and curly brown hair. In the limo, he had looked really stressed at first, but once he started talking to that girl Peyton, seemed to relax. Maybe he liked her. But still, he didn’t seem like the bold type, kind of insecure, it looked like, because most guys I know would have followed my lead with a pretty girl like Peyton and slung their arm over her or something, like I had. I leave him to sleep (there’s big purple bags under his eyes, so I assume he’s exhausted), and go into the bedroom to unpack. The GROVE (the big committee that runs everything at Redwood) has already made both of our beds with the bedding our parents bought our first time at the academy—Noah’s is solid green, but mine is infinitely cooler: green, brown, blue, and gray, quilted in stripes with the occasional tan twill ribbon going diagonally across it. I unpack everything into my closet, only pausing to unzip my garment bag and admire my brand-new tuxedo, jet black with a gray silk fleur-de-lis waistcoat and darker gray tie. I went fancy and old fashioned this year, so the jacket has long, Regency-era coattails. Very romantic. I zip it back up and hang it in the back of the closet. Once everything is put away like I like it, I flop down on the bed to play guitar some more. I don’t play any songs—just absentmindedly strumming chord after chord as I lay on my back and stare at the ceiling. And I think: it’s time for me to get over Corinne. Finally. Obviously, there’s nothing I can do about her relationship with Tyson; obviously she likes him now. And I’m not really the jealous type, only sometimes. The best thing for me to do this summer would be to concentrate on two things. Guitar, and getting as many girls as I can.

Chapter 9 Noah—Redding, California
Once I get into the dorm room, I’m suddenly extremely exhausted. I leave my suitcases by the door and move to the living room, loving the fact that somehow I got put into the exact same room and dorm building as last year. The black leather couch is as familiar as my old baby blanket, the dark blue beanbag in the corner just the same. I flop down on the couch and lay flat on my back. After I had gotten off the airplane, Coco and I walked together to the baggage claim. It had taken a while to wake her up once we landed. She didn’t seem to want to leave the admittedly rather cold comfort of my bicep. Not that there was much of it anyway. Finally she opened her eyes, released my hand, and sat up, brushing herself off slightly embarrassedly. In the baggage claim, we wait for my suitcases and her duffel bag, and once we have them, stand there in front of each other, unsure of how to say goodbye. Her skin, away from the yellow light of the airplane cabin, is milky and smooth rather than silky and pale. Her eyes are doelike, wide and innocent. She’s really pretty, I can’t help but think. Very pretty. Even beautiful. As I stare, she looks away awkwardly, glancing down at her duffel on the floor. “Um,” I say. “Um,” she repeats. She bites her lip in that unbearably cute way. “Well.” “Well.” She glances left; glances right; squeezes her eyes shut and looks up at the ceiling, seemingly offering up a prayer to some unseen god for courage or whatever she wants. And then she looks back at me, and then she’s kissing me. I close my eyes, remembering the feel of her lips against mine and her hand on my shoulder. It was the first time I’d been kissed in a while—the experience was almost revolutionary in nature, like it was my very first kiss. I’m startled out of my wits for a split second, and then my brain remembers how to do this and starts sending hesitant instructions to the rest of my body. I lift my hands to her face and splay my fingers over her cheeks, holding her mouth to mine so she doesn’t stop. Finally she pulls away, prying my fingers off of her face. “There’s my cousin,” she says regretfully. “I better go.” “I put my number in your phone while you were asleep,” I offer, though of course I did no such thing. However, I had stolen her number off of the label on her backpack and programmed it into my phone, and planned to send her a text as soon as I had the chance. “Okay.” “Bye.” “Bye, Noah.” And then she was gone. I’m in a half-asleep sort of stupor, smiling vaguely as I reminisce, and a certain Mabler piece floats across my senses. With the tune comes images, displayed colorfully on the backs of my eyelids like a wall with a projector beam trained on it. Explosions of dusky light and trailing ribbons like eels in water, swirling and intertwining with each other until they are no longer recognizable as separate entities. And all at once it’s too much for my exhausted mind, and it shuts down, into the most peaceful sleep I’ve had in a while.

Darkness sweeps across my vision in a smoky sheet, like night enveloping the last escaping daylight in its silky embrace. I turn around slowly, trying to let my eyes adjust, but the darkness is complete. I’m walking on nothing. All around me is simple, empty space, and I’m standing in the center of it all. Suddenly fear fills my body like a tidal wave. I cannot escape it, it’s all-encompassing, there’s no way out—so I start humming. Humming, then singing, quietly to myself, making up a song on the spot: “You say— that you don’t know where you’re off to. But I say—that’s just the point. You’re off to somewhere beautiful, and I don’t mean a thing. But it’s a quiet sort of empathy, this thing I feel for you. And you say that you don’t feel the same—but I can’t help but think you do.” Slowly, the tide of terror ebbs away, leaving me behind. Underneath my feet, an image starts to form. At first, it’s foggy and vague, like a digital camera that refuses to focus itself, but as I squint, it becomes clearer. I’m floating above my dining room at home. Actually, my dining room at home of a year and a half ago. My mom, always the perfectionist trophy wife, has made it perfect: she’s redone the floors in pale, almost white hardwood, checker boarded with the darkest possible cherry panels possible to form a tiled appearance. The table is the same dark wood, with one of my Aunt Emma’s hand-quilted table centerpieces in the middle, this time black and green and violet and orange, with a jack o’ lantern in each corner for the Halloween season. We’re having dinner, all four of us. As I watch, Mom says something, and Faith laughs as Dad comments on it sarcastically, and then passes a bowl of some vegetable or other over to her. Her curly hair is down and loose, spiraling over her shoulders in a waterfall, contrasting sharply against her cream-colored cable-knit sweater. My vision draws closer and I can see that Faith’s sweater is in reality cream and green striped, so narrowly it looks solid. And then I can hear voices, and I turn to see myself talking. My gray eyes are bright. “So today in Science I’m sitting there, and Mark comes in fifteen minutes late—he sluffed physical therapy to go down to Starbucks…” I tune myself out to look around at us all. My face is less gaunt-looking—you can barely see my cheekbones, and only because they’re prominent. The shirt I’m wearing hangs properly off my shoulders and is even a little tight in the chest. Mom’s face is positively glowing—she hasn’t been this happy since before we found out about Faith being sick, and for once Dad’s face is free of worry. As I finish my story, we all laugh. Faith starts talking again, and I withdraw from the conversation, content to just listen, as is my nature. Suddenly, Peyton is behind me. She puts her hand on my shoulder, and I turn my head. My family doesn’t seem to notice as she offers her free hand, which I take. The dream that follows is like a rehash of A Christmas Carol. Peyton pulls me to my feet and draws my dream self away from the table, into a corner of the kitchen. My floating observer self watches as the kitchen around my family dims, so all you can see clearly is them. Things on the counter and desk move around to show passage of time. I can see the transformation taking place. Faith grows quieter and less vibrant, and then starts taking less and less food. After that, her portions stop decreasing and she moves to just pushing them around her plate and saying that she’s not all that hungry. Later on, my dream self starts glancing between her and Mom worriedly, and Mom and Dad look at each other in the same way. Then their expressions get more and more worried as Faith gets skinnier and I stop taking as much food as before. Every now and then a very good-looking boyfriend of Faith’s joins us for dinner, providing a night of animated normalcy for our dysfunctional, imagechallenged family. Later, a few nights of me missing from the table. Faith is gone too, but I can tell from my parent’s expressions that we’ve reached the point in the story where she won’t be coming back. Eventually I come back to the table, but I don’t take any food, instead just bringing an apple or a yogurt cup to the table—this is the phase just after my return from the hospital. We’re nearing the present point in time.

A few times Mom or Dad convince me to eat some rice, or some vegetables, but they never force me, letting me come back on my own. They’re trying to act normal, but you can tell they’re finding it hard to deal with the loss of Faith, and my issues themselves. Finally the three people at the table get up and leave the table, and the kitchen disappears. It’s black again, except I can see Peyton next to me, as if she has her own backlight. “Noah,” she says. I run my tongue over my lips. “Peyton, look, it’s not what you think, it’s all—“ “Shh.” She puts a slender finger on my lips. “Listen. I’m here. That’s all that matters.” I close my eyes, remembering the previous, prophetic dream about Peyton. Finally she’s spoken, and I didn’t even have to kiss her. But the outcome isn’t what I would have expected. Everything isn’t better all at once. “You’re going to have to work for it,” she confirms, nodding. “But remember. Come to me, okay?” I nod, and then she’s gone. And I’m left in the darkness by myself again, unable to see even my own hand, so I hum random classical pieces until I fall asleep, and as I close my dream eyes— They open onto the real world. The light coming in through the loft windows has a different quality, a brighter, noontime glow. Luckily, because of my condition, I’m excluded from company games hour, so I’m not in any trouble for missing that, but as I crane my neck backwards to see over the back of the couch and down the hallway, I can see that the light in the bedroom is on—meaning Liam has finally arrived, and he’s seen me sprawled out on the couch. Which is embarrassing enough with someone you know, but when your roommate happens to be a posh British boy whose temporary band won the showcase last summer, it’s ten times worse. Standing up and stretching widely, I grab my suitcases and pull them into the bedroom. Liam is laying on his bed, guitar on his stomach, his eyes closed, singing loudly. “Stitch in your knitted brow, and you don’t know how…you’re gonna get it out…” I recognize it as an A Fine Frenzy song, who is a female singer, but his rich accent makes it work for him. I unzip my largest suitcase and start loading stuff into my side of the closet and abruptly the strumming of the guitar stops. “So,” says the rich voice. “How was your nap?” “Fantastic,” I say sarcastically. “How was games hour?” “Lame. Where were you?” “Don’t have to go.” “Right.” He drawls the word. I finish putting my stuff away. It’s not organized, just hanging haphazardly or piled onto a shelf, with a laundry bag hanging on the clothing rod and my shoes on the floor. Then I back up and sit on the bed, elbows on my knees. Liam looks over at me. “Okay. Let’s get over all the roommate crap. What’s your talent?” “Composition. Lyricist. Little piano. You guitar?” “Yep. Where you from?” “Maple Bluff, Wisconsin.” “London, England. North of Thames, roundabounts. How long have you been coming?” “Since I was 12.” “Same here. Weird we’ve never met before.” The conversation is like firing bullets— sharp and to the point, no extra details, just getting it all out there on the floor. “Well, it’s understandable, I’m probably farther ahead in theory than you are, and we don’t have any similar talents.” “True.” “Cool. Got your eyes on any girls yet?” This is the inevitable question always asked. Sure, we all come for music, but mostly we come for girlfriends. Redwood is the best place to get the pretty, willowy musical girls possible. “Well, yeah, there’s this girl in our company, Cadence…” “Cadence Wilcox?”

“I guess.” Liam’s face closes off and his dark eyebrows crinkle inward. “What, is she like a flirt or something?” I scramble. I hate it when people misunderstand me. “No, no, I was just wondering. She’s sweet. Go for it.” “Coo. So what about you?” He settles back onto his elbows and raises his eyebrows. I take a moment to study him before I answer. He’s wearing jeans that are almost skinny but not quite, and a ripped and zippered gray canvas jacket over a white wifebeater t-shirt that hugs every single muscle he has. And there are a lot of them. His hair is jet black, tipped with gold, in tons of little spikes. Very punk. “Peyton. From the limo,” I say, and let out a long breath. His eyebrows do that crinkly thing again. “Ooh,” he says, “sorry about that. Flirting with her and all. I’m just a natural flirt. I know that sounds like a bad excuse but I honestly can’t help it.” “Oh, it’s fine.” I shrug off the comment. It honestly is fine with me. I’m not the jealous type. I scoot back on my bed and reach into my backpack for my laptop. I get connected to the cell phone wi-fi service and open an Internet session. Joco.com…loading, the bar at the bottom of the screen says, and a few seconds later, a tiny silvery-blue speck appears in the center of the screen, expanding to fill all but an inch around the edges, which stay white. A login box flashes into existence. My fingers dash over the keys (I’ve always been a fast typist)—[email protected] The login screen flips over after I put in my password and turns into my e-mail inbox. I click “new message”, address it to my mom, and start typing: Mom: I’ve settled into my dorm and gotten everything put away. Company orientation was great. My roommate is Liam Wallace, from England, who plays guitar. He seems all right. I hope you and dad are doing well back home. If anyone calls for me, just tell them I’m at Redwood—they’ll know what I’m talking about. Love you, Noah I hit send and browse through my e-mails for a few minutes, checking for new stuff and generally just entertaining myself, until suddenly, despite my nap earlier, I’m overwhelmed by a huge yawn. I power down the laptop. “Liam, I’m gonna—“ and then realize that my roomie has left the room. My laptop goes on the floor, and I lay back on my pillows, put my hands behind my head, and close my eyes.

Chapter 10 Liam—Redding, California
In the kitchen, I hunt through the cabinets for something even vaguely familiar to eat. Finally I discover a package of Fig Newtons in a basket next to the fridge, and rip those open with my teeth on my way to the dorm room to collect my guitar, planning a walk around the grounds. Back in the room, I practically groan out loud. Noah’s asleep again, but at least this time he doesn’t look dead. He actually is sleeping in the same position I nap in: hands linked behind his head, leaning against the pillows. Being very quiet, because he seems like a light sleeper, I grab my guitar and the more portable padded backpack-style case, slip it in, and head down the spaceship-like hallway to the door. Once out on the cement path outside Debussey Hall, I wander to my left, out towards the Ma Amphitheater, which has been affectionately called the Yoyo both for its namesake’s first name and its odd half-yoyo shape. The amphitheater is in its uncovered stage right now—the big glass rain roof folded down against the sides in layers like the Sydney Opera House. In half of it wooden benches aren’t in place, and the ones that are there don’t have their blue brocade cushions on them. I wander down the first few steps and walk onto one of the empty tiers, stuff my hands into my pockets, and walk around the amphitheater systematically: down the aisle, trot down the steps to the next empty tier, across that one all the way to the other side, and repeat. Once I’m on the bottom tier, I jump off the step and onto the floor of the amphitheater, cross to the big wooden platform stage and sit down, pulling my guitar out of its case. After a few minutes of idly strumming chords, there is the quiet noise of someone walking across the stage behind me, not trying to be quiet, and then a small, waiflike girl plops down next to me. She has big blue eyes and an even tan, white blonde hair cut in a steep a-line, the ends brushing her chin. For all her tiny stature, she’s vaguely model-looking. “Hi, Liam,” she chirps, one of the few Americans here at Redwood who pronounce my name right. We’d bonded last year in alternative strings class—she plays harp and piano. “Hey, Piper,” I reply without looking up. From where I am, all I can see of her is skinny jeans tucked into multicolored gingham Wellington boots and her long-fingered, gently callused hands curled around the edge of the stage. “How was your year?” Piper asks quietly. As well as being able to pronounce my name correctly, she’s one of the few girls who come here who gets me totally. She doesn’t make sudden movements, she’s quiet and understanding, and isn’t a huge flirt—surprising, considering she’s from San Fran. “All right, I guess. Except for Corinne.” “She was your girlfriend, right?” She slowly, comfortingly, reaches over and puts her right hand over my left knee, moving it back and forth a few times to let me know: Shh, it’s just me, Liam. Piper. And I’m here for you. “Yeah. A while back…I dunno she just got…different.” “Meaning…?” Another thing about Piper is she’s blunt. Very blunt. She knows me like the back of her hand and knows when I’m beating around the bush myself. When I look over at her, she’s staring stonily at me, straight white teeth peeking out from behind her lips, eyebrows raised. “Meaning that she started lying to me. And there was this other guy, and I got the idea that she’d been cheating on me for a while now and I was the only person who didn’t know it. Meaning I felt like an idiot and she was laughing at me behind my back. Meaning I got really pissed and she broke up with me then and there and started dating that American Tyson. Meaning I’m over her.” I’m holding back information and I know it. I have to, because what would Piper think of me if she knew what I’d really done.

“All right, all right,” Piper says, holding her hands up in a defensive gesture. I realize that I’d gotten that tone of voice that meant I was ready to hit someone. “I get that,” she says, more quietly. “But how are you dealing with it.” She’s looking at me in that way that means she knows I’m not telling her everything. “Just get it out of your system,” she whispers. “I won’t judge.” Her eyes are yearning; she wants to be that person for me, the person I can tell everything—she wants me to trust her. “I can’t,” I manage to choke out. I have to get out of there. The red fog is choking me, forcing me to swallow all the words I would have liked to say, filling my nostrils. I can’t breathe. I stand up and grab my guitar, holding my breath, counting prime numbers. It takes longer than usual to get rid of it. I’m up to forty-one before my breath comes out, cool blue-gray. By then, I’m in a grove of trees on one of the quads, hidden by thick shrubbery from the rest of the campus. I collapse on the ground, dropping my guitar a few feet away, breathing heavily. I squeeze my eyelids shut and grit my teeth, seeing the images flash through my head—wanting to relive them, but wanting them to go away at the same time. Corinne and her black hair, face angry, yelling soundlessly at me. And then my hand, my long pale hand, the glinting silver ring on my right thumb, coming up, making contact, and Corinne stumbling back, hand to her cheek, face astounded. The fog is in my eyes, fuzzing around the edge of my vision, making it hard to see. Tyson, glaring at me with his green eyes, bundling Corinne away behind him as he rushes toward me, grabbing one of my wrists with one hand while he beats away at my chest with his other fist. Standing against the gymnasium wall during the dance I hadn’t been able to get out of, looking across the room at Tyson and Corinne, curled together, sitting down against the wall. Her head on his shoulder, noses touching, his hand on her leg. My phone rings. I pull it out of my pocket, glance at the screen. Paul, it says. I can’t screen this call. “Hallo?” “Liam?” “Yeah.” “You at the Academy yet?” his thick Scottish accent is stern. Paul McNamey is my parole officer from Juvie, and it’s his job to make sure I don’t get in trouble while I’m at Redwood. It’s the only way they’d let me out of the country. “Yeah, all settled in. Everything’s fine.” I let out a large breath (to the side, so Paul can’t hear it). “What are you doing?” “Playing my guitar.” “All right. You remember your Anger Management strategies?” “Mm-hmm. Prime numbers, deep breaths, rephrasing.” “Good. I’ll talk to you later. Don’t go hitting anybody, okay?”

Chapter 11 Olivia—Redding, California
At noon, we are all summoned via intercom to head to the amphitheater for orientation, to bring our lanyards and ID tags (to be found in your fruit baskets in the kitchen), and to stay with our dorms. On the way out, a girl from the room next to us tells us that this last is not really meant to be followed, and if it were, there would be nothing any of the counselors could do about it. All the girls move off toward the main building, figuring out ways to wear their lanyards as they go. I just string mine over my neck—the ID card swings from it, printed with last year’s school photo, and on the back is my class schedule. Peyton walks beside me, chirping away at another girl who seems to be, from what I can gather, in the vocal department. We file down the stone steps into the amphitheater. As I sit down on a cushioned bench, a tall dark boy squeezes past a bunch on people on my left to sit next to me. “Hey,” he says, holding out his hand. “Joe Callim.” I smile and shake his hand. “Olivia Scott.” I’m slightly bemused—this guy is just going to come up and start flirting with me, seconds after being introduced?

Chapter 12 Peyton—Redding, California
Once

Part 2
Liam & Olivia -June-

Part 3
Noah & Peyton -June-

Part 4
The Concert -Late June-

Part 5
The Weekend -Late June, Early July-

Part 6
Liam & Olivia -July-

Part 7
Noah & Peyton -July-

Part 8
The Banquet -Late July-

Part 9
The Weekend -Late July, Early August-

Part 10
Liam & Olivia -Early August-

Part 11
Noah & Peyton -Early August-

Part 12
The Ball -Mid-August-

Part 13
The Recovery -Late August-

Part 14
The Farewell -August 26-

Part 15
Home -August 27 & 29-

Chapter Noah—Los Angeles, California; Madison, Wisconsin
I hug Peyton one last time—“Keep in touch, okay?” I whisper, and she nods into my off-white thermal—which now accentuates a firmly muscled (sorry, no miracle six-pack recovery here) stomach instead of every single rib. It’s kind of a jab at my father, me wearing it on the flight home. Just to show him how much I’ve changed. Pey doesn’t seem like she wants to let go, and I’m not sure I want to either. I press my face into her hair and breathe in deeply—it smells like coconut and oranges. “I love you,” she mumbles against my chest, and I pull back just a little; it’s the first time she’s ever said that to me. She looks up, biting her lip. I hesitate just a second longer, then smile down at her. “I love you too.” And I do mean it. “Okay. See you, then, I guess.” She turns to walk away, but I’m struck with an idea. “Pey! Wait!” I call, and she stops. I rush over to her, swinging my backpack off my shoulders as I do, and then I crouch at her feet, digging in an inside pocket for the navy blue Sharpie I know is in there somewhere. “Gimme your shoe.” Peyton reaches down to pull off her right sneaker, but I shake my head. “No, the other one.” Still confused, she takes off the left one, and I hold it flat between my ankles and uncap the Sharpie. There, on the heel of the white canvas shoe, like I knew it would be:

eTREVOR
I don’t cross it out, because that would be low, and jealous, and I’m not that kind of guy. Instead, beside it, in my considerably better-looking handwriting, I write:

Noah Pearson loves you more than any Trevorperson ever will, whoever that bozo is.
Then I flip the shoe over and in the corner of the tongue, near where Pey’s ankle goes, I put my initials, N.I.P, and then I hand Peyton her shoe back. “There you go,” I say. “So you don’t forget me.” Rocking back onto my heels, I reach out my hand and she grabs hold of my wrist, pulling me onto my feet. “I could never forget you.” Peyton smiles. “You’ve come a long way from the kid who passed out at the June banquet.” I twitch my eyebrows. “It was the curry.” Taking her jaw in my hands (big and long-

fingered still, but with the veins no longer visible), I kiss her long and gently on the mouth. When I’m done, she smiles, waves once, and turns away to walk down the hallway, hopping on one foot to fix the tongue of her shoe. I turn away, too, to find a seat in the gate. But a second later, I hear her voice. “Noah!” she yells, and I move quickly to look at her. “What’s the I for?” her voice carries well, bright and clear, and people turn to look. “Isaac!” I yell back. She grins widely. “Well, goodbye, Noah Isaac Pearson!” “Adios,” I call, and then quieter, “Peyton Marie Colemyer,” careful to catch the sharp T and the ‘mer’ sound. And then she turns the corner by the elevators, and then she’s gone. Once on an airplane for the second time that summer, after the flight attendant has offered me soda and I’ve accepted, once the airplane has lifted off the runway and I’ve experienced that greatest of airplane feelings (like you’re going to fall out of the air while the plane takes off), once I’ve looked out the window at LAX falling away and the clouds moving in, once the seatbelt light turns off, I pull on my old red hoodie and settle back in my seat. Soon the in-flight movie turns on, and I watch, because it’s Martian Child and that’s a good one. The flight attendant brings me pretzels, and I snack on them, my feet resting on the armrest. Halfway through, there’s a thump in the seat next to me, and a pair of bare feet puts themselves on top of mine, socks against skin. The feet are connected to slim legs, sheathed in a familiar pair of sweatpants in a violent shade of chartreuse. I follow the legs up, and they’re attached to a slim stomach, encased in a white-cotton t-shirt, and then I see her face, and I feel my mouth spread out into a wide smile. She finishes twisting off the end of her tiny braid and grins. “Hello, Noah. “Hi, Coco.” I’m so happy I can barely stop myself from busting out into laughter. I feel like my face is going to break, I’m smiling so big. “How’s it going?” “Well obviously I’m not as good as you are, Mr. Happy Face.” I roll my eyes. “Whatever. I thought you were only in Cali for a few weeks.” “Decided to stick around. It’s nice and warm. I like the beaches.” She holds out her arm. “See? Tan.” I nod. “I see.” “So how was that music thingy? Cool?” “Yeah it was really fun. Did a lot of composing, there were dances and banquets and stuff. Concerts, free time.” “So where was it again?” “In Redding. We were right by the Sundial Bridge, so when we needed money we’d just troop down to there and play music. It was funny.” “So what, you’d just plop down in the middle of the bridge and start rocking out? Just like that?” She’s disbelieving. “Just like that,” I confirm. I pull my feet out from under hers, feeling it’s probably too intimate a contact for someone who has a girlfriend, and cross my ankle over my other knee. Me and Coco continue talking for a long time—catching up about our summers, covering topics we hadn’t on the plane ride in June, playing that game where you scribble a shape and then the other person has to make a picture out of it. We play magnetic checkers, chess, and connect four on this magnetic board Coco bought in the airport, and finally, our supply of activities is exhausted. There’s been an air of tension around us the entire flight—well, not really tension, more like the avoidance of a very obvious fact. Ignoring the elephant in the room, as some say. And at last Coco acknowledges it. “So,” she says, holding onto that one syllable for dear life, drawing it out farther than I’ve ever heard it drawn out before. “So.” I end the word sharply. “So,” Coco says again, but not holding it out.

“So what?” I ask. “You’re…looking better?” She says it tentatively, like she’s afraid she might offend me by noticing. Also, in her eyes there’s something kind of sad. Like maybe she wanted to be the one who made me get better. Like she wanted a chance to be the hero for once. “Yeah, I guess I am,” I say, clenching my hands nervously in my lap. “So I take it you kept your promise to your dad? Or at least half of it?” “Actually, all of it.” Coco’s face falls. Her smiles disappears, her brown eyes go dull, even her perky hair seems to droop a little. “Oh.” The syllable is soft, almost inaudible, dismayed. I immediately feel bad for saying that I had a girlfriend. I feel like a horrible person who doesn’t deserve to alive, to be healthy, to have a girlfriend in the first place. I kind of want to curl up in my airplane seat and die from embarrassment. I know Coco likes me; why did I have to bring Peyton up? But before I can say anything else, Coco smiles wanly and closes her eyes. “Who is she?” “Her name’s Peyton.” “Did you meet her at Redwood?” I swallow hard and nod. My light brown curls waggle against my face in the corners of my vision, grown out longer over the summer. “What’s her talent?” “She sings.” I’m trying to keep my responses short and to-the-point, hoping not to cause her any more pain than I have to by telling rambling stories about our adventures this summer. Coco’s silent for a long moment, and then, quietly, she says, “Do you have a picture?” I’m instantly pleased beyond words to describe it that she’s not being bitter about this entire situation. She seems not to mind so much that I’ve moved on from our one-flight stand, so to speak, and now have a new girl to care for. I smile widely. “Yeah. Hang on second.” I unbuckle my seatbelt and stand up halfway, bracing my feet against the seat in front of me and pushing my hips up so I can get at my cell phone, which is buried deep within my pocket. Once I’ve located it, I relax back into my seat and spin the track ball to turn it on.

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