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Trystan looked up at me. “It’s a secret until you say otherwise. Okay?”

I nodded about to say something else when the door above us scraped open. Trystan jumped up and shot across the room. Trystan slumped back in the tattered old chair he frequented and dangled a leg over the arm like he’d been there all along. The click of female shoes descended the stairs and I knew it was her before Brie rounded the corner.

“Hey losers,” she said, grinning at Trystan. Brie glanced at me once, her gaze sliding over my outfit like she thought I was a fashion nightmare. “Cutting? Really Trystan, and this close to graduation?” She folded her slender arms across her ample chest, “And you kept the thing with you.”

Have I mentioned that I hated Brie? Bristling, I retorted, “Nice to see you too, granny panties.”

Trystan snorted a surprised laugh. Brie glared like she wanted to kill me with her eyeballs. If she was a robot, Chinese stars would have flown out of her pupils and sliced my head off. “Don’t you have somewhere to be, you little leech? Nobody wants you here. They just pity you, and humor Tucker, so they can graduate.” She glanced at Trystan, but his expression remained impassive. I wondered if he wanted to punch Brie in the face. The thought made my fist clench. I didn’t notice until my nails bit into my palm.

Trystan glanced at me for a second. His eyes were light, but the set of his lips let me know he was seething underneath. I shook my head carefully, so Brie wouldn’t see. If he defended me now, everyone would know about us. I had to keep a secret. If my parents found out, I was toast. They’d lock me in my room for eternity.

Trystan’s brow lifted ever so slightly as he regarded Brie. “If you’re planning on starting a cat fight, let me run and get a few of the guys.” He grinned wickedly at her and leaned forward like he was serious.

Brie’s face contorted and she laughed one short burst, “As if I’d waste my time pounding Mary. Get real.”

Before I could say anything else, Trystan cut me off, “Then why are you down here?”

Her ruby lips pulled up into a seductive smile, “I already told you. The bell’s about to ring and I thought that we could practice the second act, alone, before everyone got here.” Her voice dripped with sexuality, as she walked toward him.

I’m sure flames erupted from my ears, but my lips were locked. My fists balled harder, my nails cutting through my palm.

Trystan grinned at her, and tilted his head to the side as if he were admiring her. That was going to take getting used to. If no one knew we were dating, every single girl in the school would still be throwing themselves at him. If they knew he was dating someone, the normal girls would back off.

Brie wasn’t normal. She was a no-holds barred kind of girl and wanted what she wanted. What I didn’t understand was why she was hitting on Trystan like this. I mean, she has a boyfriend.

When Trystan answered, his voice was playful. “Thanks, but I already practiced it with Mari.” He jumped out of his seat and stretched his hands over his head, which caused his dark tee shirt to hike up and reveal his flat stomach. It felt like I fell down a mine shaft, my heart jumped up into my throat as I hyperventilated. I stared. I couldn’t help it. Trystan was hot and he was mine. As the thought drifted across my mind, a smile drifted across my face.

Trystan said, “Meet you upstairs,” and walked away from Brie. He winked at me as he passed, his sapphire eyes glittering.

Brie stood there with her hands on her hips, watching him take the stairs two at a time. When she turned back to me, her smile turned rancid. “You need to stay the hell away from him, bitch. Do you understand me?”

The butterflies that were fluttering in my stomach moments ago were blasted away by Brie’s words. While Brie was rank, she’d never confronted me like that before. I tried to act like she didn’t bother me. Still slouching back into the couch with my feet kicked up onto the coffee table, I asked, “Or what? Or Tucker won’t pass Trystan. I bet he’d be real grateful if you arranged that for him.”

Brie stood in front of the table with her hands on her h*ps before her boot crashed into the cheap wood. It jarred my legs from the table top, jolting me upright on the couch. “You listen to me and listen good. You’ve been getting in my way, and don’t think I haven’t noticed, because I have. Whatever you think you have going on,” she waved her finger in a circle, indicating all of me, “isn’t working out for me. So stop, or you’ll find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be.” Her eyebrows lifted as she cocked her head, making her earrings sway along with her golden hair.

Sitting on the edge of the couch, I gaped at her. Was she serious? Brie ruined people, but it was through rumors and carefully making their lives miserable. What could she do to me? At the same time, this didn’t sound like that kind of threat. I wanted to stand up and punch her in the face. Everything she did, everything from the way she acted like she owned the school to the way she assumed she could claim Trystan whenever she wanted, pissed me off. Something inside my brain snapped. That fist that I’d been holding launched from my lap and pulled me to my feet, as it made a beeline for Brie’s perfect nose. When my fist and her nose collided there was a crunch followed by a deafening shriek.

Brie’s hands flew to her face as she screamed, “You heinous bitch!” Before Brie could do anything else, she turned and fled, running up the metal stairs as fast as her high-heeled shoes would carry her.

I stared at my fist in horror and pressed my eyes closed. I sat back down on the couch and leaned forward, burying my face in my hands. What have I done? As if I wasn’t in for it before, Brie will kill me now. I’d be a smudge on the sidewalk by this time tomorrow. I punched her. I cracked her nose.

Noise filled the stairwell overhead and multiple pairs of shoes descended in rapid thumps like they were running. Katie’s voice rang out, “I leave you alone for two periods and you punch Brie in the face?”

“I’m sorry?” I said, almost apologetically, looking up surprised to see her. “What are you doing here?”

Katie laughed, “What am I doing here? Saving your ass. Brie was ranting at the top her lungs to Tucker. I was passing by and heard her say your name, so I stuck my head in. He’s coming. Sound sorry. And next time you break Brie’s nose, I better be there to see. We could have had this up on YouTube. With that shriek, it would have gone viral.”

“Oh God, don’t say that.” Panic was setting in. It wasn’t until then that I noticed the owner of the second set of feet.

Mr. Tucker stood behind Katie with his arms folded across his chest. Neither of us realized he was standing there. Katie turned slowly, like the girl about to get killed in a horror movie.

Tucker breathed, “Get out.” Katie nodded like a dashboard dog and ran up the stairs without looking back. Before I could explain, Tucker said, “You too, get out. I don’t want to see you on set again.”

“Mr. Tucker, let me explain.”

“Explain what? That we’re days away from a show and you broke my lead’s nose. And for what? Because she was mean to you? Ah, I’ve got some news for you, Mari—get over it! You take everything to heart. You always have. Brie’s Brie. She’s got thorns around other girls, I know. I see it, but you don’t see anyone else punching her in the face, do you?” He sighed deeply, his face returning to a normal color and shook his head. “What’s with you kids today? It must be a full moon. Scott attacks his best friend and now you. You, out of all people, picked today to throw a punch.” He breathed deeply as he looked down, his fingers pinching his nose.

“Mr. Tucker…”

“I don’t want to hear it. Just go, Mari.”

It never fails. When something totally awesome happens, something equally bad blindsides me.



Practice was weird. Trystan stood on the stage as the completed set was being erected around him. The stage crew raised the flats one by one, installed doors, and touched up some of the paint. Now it looked like a real room, filled with furniture and picture frames. As the stage crew did their thing, the guy in the lighting cage was muttering to himself. His voice carried to where Trystan stood a few feet away. The house lights were flashing on and off instead of dimming. The lighting cage was nearly fifty years old and due for an upgrade, but with the school budget the way it was, they’d never get one. Whenever a budget vote came up, people showed up in drones to vote it down. It didn’t matter what was on the ballot. The roof could be caving in and the town would still vote against it.

Trystan kept thinking about Mari. A smile leaked across his face. He couldn’t help it. That kiss. And the way she felt laying in his arms. For a small moment, his life felt perfect. Happiness was always something just out of reach for Trystan. Whenever it came along, it was swiftly yanked away. This time, Trystan would make sure he didn’t mess up. Mari mattered too much to him. Everything about her made him better, made him think he had a chance. Trystan wouldn’t be another statistic.

Waiting in front of the lighting cage, Trystan stood with his hands in his pockets wondering where Brie went. When Brie finally surfaced from the basement, she ran straight into the girl’s bathroom at the back of the stage. Trystan turned to watch Brie flee with her hand over her nose. His heart sank when Tucker followed a few moments later, pointing one of his chubby fingers at the stage door. Katie and Mari left without looking back. Shit. What’d Brie do now?

Practice took too long. It was close to opening night. Brie acted hysterical. Tucker forced Brie on stage with her nose bandaged and an ice pack taped to her face, which severely screwed with her head. Brie couldn’t get a line out without stumbling or messing up. Tucker didn’t bother to try the second act. They skipped over that part like it didn’t exist, which was fine by Trystan.

After practice, Trystan grabbed his books from his locker and looked around for Mari, but the school was deserted. He walked past the diner on the way home, hoping to find her inside, but she wasn’t there. Sighing, Trystan pushed his dark hair out of his eyes. The wind blew harshly, flipping his hair over his head and into his eyes again. Trystan tightened his jacket, wishing he had something warmer to wear. The leather was nearly worn away in places, giving the frigid air a way to leak in.

It’d been a long day and it felt good to finally be out of the school. Trystan just wished he’d seen Mari before the end of the night. Curiosity was part of it, and Trystan wondered how Mari waked away without a scratch and Brie had a bloody nose. Hurrying, Trystan pushed on toward his house, crossing the train tracks, and walking quickly to his front door.

When Trystan walked into his house, he came face to face with his father. The old man’s eyes were bloodshot. There was a piece of paper in his left hand. Dad was left handed, just like Trystan. God, they were too much alike, Trystan thought as he walked through the threshold and closed the door behind him. He ignored his father’s eyes on his back as he went to the kitchen looking for something that would pass for dinner. Trystan was always hungry lately and there was never enough to eat. Placing his books on the table seemed to be what set his dad off. Suddenly he was yelling like Trystan did something horrible.