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“Let’s get to yours,” I said.

“Let’s,” he said.

And although we didn’t run, we walked faster than before. Because we knew what was next. We let our anticipation block everything else out.

I had been the hesitant one at first, and he hadn’t pushed. He wanted me to be ready, and I used that word as my guide—I was waiting until the word ready fit how I felt. Then I’d know it was time to go all the way.

In the beginning, I couldn’t get the questions out of my head when we made out. Am I doing this right? Should I take off my shirt or should I wait for him to do it? How fast is too fast? What if I finish before he does? I would echo his movements, because that seemed safe. I enjoyed the kissing the most, because sometimes it would be the slowest, most quieting thing, the most intense kind of breathing.

Then I started to let my hands feel, to let my skin react.

He would joke with me, and I’d relax. He’d whisper out-of-the-blue song lyrics in my ear. He’d ask me what I liked and tell me what he liked. I found myself developing a memory of such things. I learned his body, his rhythm, his flutter, his gasp. And slowly all my unspoken questions were answered, and I found myself enjoying it all. I found myself ready.

The first time, he tried to plan it. The right music, the soft sheets, the flowers by the bed. But the way it worked out, the music stopped halfway through, the sheets got pushed to the floor, and the flowers ended up falling on the clock. It was slow, then fast, then slow, then fast, and it was safe in so many more ways than one. It was closeness not because he was inside me but because of what it meant, what we meant, what we could do. It was so intense and so much ours, and once it started we weren’t going to stop. Sex wasn’t the full extent of our love, but our love was what made it so powerful. It was a new way of getting to know each other. Sometimes we would talk through it, and other times most of the words were knocked away and all my thoughts would form in one-word flashes—

Yes.

Wait.

Me.

There.

Mmm.

Yes.

Turn.

You.

Breathe.

Grasp.

Sweat.

Yes.

Over.

Lower.

More.

Slow.

Yes.

Y e s.

Now.

I loved being naked with him. I loved watching him when his eyes were closed, when he lost control, when he let go and let me take him. I loved when my whole body felt a part of it, when I would grasp and glide and press without having to think about it. When I let go and let my body take me.

And still, what I loved the most was the heartbeating. The heartbeating through kisses. The heartbeating through touch. The sharp, deep heartbeating when I came and the loose, lazy heartbeating of lying there after, drifting in that love-sewn quiet of lying next to him, the gentle return.

This time, we knew Jimmy’s parents were out until at least ten. We knew we had the house to ourselves. We could have talked more about the day. We could have turned on the news. But instead we slammed into each other as soon as the door was closed, dropping our book bags, shedding our jackets, stumbling to his room in between mad kisses, kicking off our shoes, pulling off each other’s shirts, unbuckling our belts, sliding off our pants, pausing for that awkward moment of sock removal, then wrestling into bed, our underwear the thinnest barrier, soon shed. It wasn’t like it had ever been before—we were saying too many things at once. This wasn’t want, this was need. We were colliding our way to comfort, shouting with our bodies, pulling ourselves close closer closer. I was pinning him against the mattress and he was leaning up to match my kiss with his, and I was rolling over and he was pressing our bodies together, toe to head, and we were sweating and I was ready and he was ready and we were both so ready for everything in the world to fall into place, just once, just now. I arched my back and he licked my neck. I grabbed him closer and he pulled at my hair. I was all feeling, and none of those feelings were fear. It felt like war, but I was rooting for both sides.

This was what they were afraid of. But I wouldn’t be afraid. I wouldn’t.

We stopped to be safe, then continued our push and pull until we got to the rush and then the afterwards. Lying there, I could feel my heartbeat decelerating, calming. I leaned my head on his shoulder and slowly stroked the small canyon of hair down the middle of his chest. Even in the half-light of his nighttime bedroom, I admired the ghost hairs on his neck as he let his hand fall on my leg, his skin three hues darker and one degree warmer than mine.

We stayed like this for as long as we could. This was the closest to sleep that waking could be, and I almost crossed the border. But then Jimmy asked me a question, and his voice was full of such unexpected vulnerability that I felt the full weight of my love for him…and wasn’t afraid of it, either.

“It’s all going to be okay, isn’t it?” he asked.

And I responded by holding him close and saying that whatever it took, we would make it okay.

ten

The next two days were like watching a car wreck about to happen and not having any way to stop it.

The governor of Kansas’s plan to throw the election to Stein’s opponent by disqualifying as many Stein votes as possible soon became clear. Among the groups he was targeting were:

(a) Urban voters whose polling places had stayed open past the election deadline because lines had been so long, even after the board of elections had announced that they were closed.

(b) College voters who, the governor alleged, may have voted twice by using absentee ballots in their home states.

(c) Provisional voters whose identities, he said, had been confirmed “too quickly.”

Virgil was already organizing a Stop the Madness campaign, galvanizing voters in our state to make it clear they were ready to protest any move the Kansas governor made. Virgil insisted that none of us skip school in order to help, so we had to wait until the last bell rang to head over to headquarters. I tried not to bristle every time Keisha and Sara were out of the room together, but I couldn’t help it—I was suspicious of their every move.

I would ask Mira where Keisha had gone to, and she would tell me Keisha and Sara had just run to the store for more envelopes, or that she was in the kitchen making coffee.

I avoided the second floor.

School, however, couldn’t be avoided. At school, we were all at one another’s throats.

Two days after the election—the morning after Kansas was put back into play—Janna and I walked in to find Mary Catherine leading a prayer circle that walked through hallways, chanting. With a loudness we hadn’t known she still possessed, she was beseeching the Lord to swing Kansas to Stein’s opponent. The few people in her flock shouted their assent, while the rest of the students just wanted them to get out of the way.

Janna looked pissed.

“I prayed last night, too,” she said to me, glaring in Mary Catherine’s direction. “I prayed for a good long time to God to do the right thing in Kansas. That’s all I said—the right thing. And I guess that’s the difference between Mary Catherine and me: I don’t feel I need to tell the Lord what the right thing is. I have faith the Lord knows.”

Jesse Marin was predictably harsh to me in homeroom. “You’re going down,” he taunted.

I ignored him and made sure my seat was in place after the pledge.

When we got to Mr. Davis’s room, we found Principal Cotter in the back, which actually made me feel a little better. I wondered if Ms. Kaye or some other teachers had talked to him. Whatever the case, Mr. Davis could barely contain his annoyance at being observed. He spat out facts about the War of 1812 like he resented each and every one of them. I kept my head down, because every time Mr. Davis looked my way I could feel his disgust. He wouldn’t even turn in Jimmy’s direction…until Jimmy took off his sweater.

It was warm in the room; it made sense for Jimmy to remove his sweater. Principal Cotter couldn’t really argue that he was being provocative. But the motion got Mr. Davis’s attention. Midsentence, he looked over and saw Jimmy…and Jimmy’s shirt.

It was simple, really: a white T-shirt with a small American flag in the center. That’s it.

But it tripped Mr. Davis up. It gnashed him.

That was the thing about the Decents—they were as possessive of the flag as they were of the country. They thought it should only belong to some people, the deserving people. When the whole point of the flag—and the country—was that it belonged to everyone. During the Reign of Fear, as the Greater Depression worsened and the War to End All Wars failed so brutally, all kinds of wacky legislation appeared trying to “protect” the flag. One congressman wanted the government to license flags, so they wouldn’t get in the hands of “un-Americans.”

This didn’t go over well in most places, and luckily it never passed.

While Mr. Davis was clearly surprised to see the flag on Jimmy’s T-shirt, I wasn’t; I knew that he believed in America, in the same way that Stein believed in America. I knew the flag to him was a way of translating a concept made of so many words and understandings and complications into one clear image, the same way you can express love with a single drawn heart. By wearing the flag, he wasn’t just saying, This is mine, too. He was saying, This is all of ours.

Mr. Davis started bombarding him with questions about British troop movements—each of which he answered correctly. Then Mr. Davis moved—as all lessons about the War of 1812 seemingly do—to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“Our national anthem,” Mr. Davis invoked. As if we didn’t know.

Jimmy raised his hand.

I was afraid he was going to point out that “The Star-Spangled Banner” hadn’t been written as a national anthem, and in fact had been set by Francis Scott Key to the tune of a British drinking song. Mr. Davis clearly didn’t want to take any chances—he ignored Jimmy’s hand and kept lecturing.

“Ahem,” Mira coughed, looking at Jimmy. I got what she was trying to do. I turned to Jimmy, too, as did a large part of the class. Even the ones who hadn’t left with us the previous day were playing along. They wanted to see what would happen.

“Mr. Davis,” Principal Cotter said, “I believe you have a question.”

“Yes, Mr. Jones? What brilliant words do you have to share with us about ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’?”

“I just find it interesting that we only kept the first verse,” Jimmy said. “I mean, for the National Anthem. There were three other verses, right? And the one we made into our national anthem is the one that has all the questions.”

“What do you mean, questions?”

“I mean, we don’t really know if the flag is still there.”

Mr. Davis huffed. “Of course it’s still there. Clearly you haven’t done your reading—Francis Scott Key woke up early on the morning of September fourteenth, 1814, and saw the flag flying over Fort McHenry to mark victory over the British.”

“I know that,” Jimmy answered calmly. “What I’m saying is, the National Anthem is a question. It doesn’t say, “’Tis the star-spangled banner / O long may it wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave’—that’s the end of Key’s second verse. No, instead we use the verse that goes, ‘O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’ Our national anthem ends with a question mark.”

“There is no question,” Mr. Davis insisted.

“But there is. That’s the whole thing. That’s why it’s such a brilliant national anthem—because we all believe that it’s there, even though there’s nothing that tells us it still is.”

I knew Jimmy was pushing Mr. Davis closer and closer to the edge. This time, I decided to do something: I started clapping. Keisha, Mira, and some of the others joined in.

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