Soundtrack: Creep, Glee Cast Version
Katie Lennox had no idea who I was. And why would she? We’d only been attending the same high school for the last three years. Now, I was supposed to study with her tonight and what? Pretend I didn’t know her either? All day, I’d rolled every scenario around in my head, imagining what I would say, what her reaction would be. And I always came back to the same thing: the path of least embarrassment seemed to be acting like I’d been just as oblivious to her existence as she’d been to mine. When the last bell of the day rang, I took my time packing my book and notebook into my backpack, waiting for the other students in my American Government class to head out into the hallway before I stood and slung the bag over my shoulder.
I dragged my feet on the way to my locker, killing time, letting the hallways empty before I left for home. My Chem book was already in my bag; I’d been holding onto it like a life-preserver since class yesterday. Every time I looked at it, I remembered Katie landing in my lap, the way her eyes had widened and her lips had parted in surprise, the scent of her shampoo—a light, melony scent. It was the closest I’d ever been to her, not that I hadn’t thought about it. I’d spent more time than I would ever admit out loud thinking about Katie, about being near her.
When I was satisfied that the hallways were deserted, I headed toward the gym. The boys’ locker room was silent and empty when I got there. There were no games tonight, so there was no reason for anyone to stay late—everyone was probably eager to start their weekend. For the first time since I could remember, I was too. My weekends were usually spent studying or mowing lawns. Tonight, I actually had plans—with the most beautiful girl in school. My stomach twisted with an unfamiliar nervous feeling. I couldn’t tell if it was anticipation or dread. Maybe both.
Tamping down whatever emotion it was that was making me feel a little nauseated, I crossed the locker room toward the gym entrance. I scanned the basketball court first, then the bleachers. Finally, over in the corner, emptying one of the garbage cans into his cart, I saw my father.
Dad looked up at me with tired eyes, but his smile was wide as he set the trash can back on the ground. As I got closer, I noticed the deeper wrinkles around his brown eyes, the gray streaking through his dark hair and eyebrows. When was the last time I really looked at my father? It was like he was aging right before my eyes. Guilt settled in the pit of my stomach like a stone. I knew he didn’t like being a janitor. Who would? I wished again, for the millionth time at least, that he would let me get an afterschool job. But he wouldn’t. Every time I’d tried to talk to him about it, he’d shut me down, saying, “This is your time, son. Your mother would’ve wanted you to go to college, and we’re not going to let her down.” How could I argue with that?
“Well, this is a nice surprise. I would have thought you’d be halfway home by now.”
I shook my head. “Actually, I wanted to let you know, I’m not going straight home. I’ve got plans.”
His eyes widened in surprise, and he grinned. “Plans with a girl?”
“It’s not like that, Dad. She’s my Chemistry partner, and my grade depends on her. I need to pass this class.”
He nodded, but his expression clearly said he didn’t believe me.
A door crashed open at the other end of the gym, and heavy footsteps echoed in the large room. “Hey hey, what do we have here? The trash taking out the trash?”
Brad. I knew that voice well.
“This is how he treats his family?” my dad muttered under his breath but pasted on a fake smile as we turned to face my cousin.
“Brad,” I greeted, not bothering with the fake smile as he crossed the gym toward us. I didn’t like him just as much as he didn’t like me. No sense pretending.
“Don’t mind me. I just came back to grab my jersey. I was so busy scoring a date with Candy Dupree after fourth period, I forgot it.” It was a lame attempt at reminding me how popular he was. And how unpopular I was. “Later, loser.” He passed me, shoving a shoulder into mine on his way. I caught my balance before the blow could knock me over and glared at Brad’s back as he sauntered outside.
“I can’t believe she used to date that jerk,” I mumbled to myself after the door shut behind Brad.
“Who?” my dad asked, snapping me back from my thoughts of Katie and Brad together.
“No one. I’ll see you later, Pop.” I exited through the same door Brad had, preparing myself for the fact that he would probably have more insults, but he was already gone by the time I got outside.
Katie’s house was huge, a veritable fortress of stone and wrought iron. The stone wall surrounding her property was almost as tall as my house, and the gate stood even higher than the wall. I pulled out my phone and double-checked the address she’d texted to me. 3684 Amberly. I was definitely at the right house—or rather, mansion. I walked up to the call box next to the driveway, feeling a little conspicuous not being in a vehicle. I could still back out. I could catch the next bus home in—I checked the time—twenty-three minutes. Maybe I could just text her and tell her I hadn’t been feeling well or something. Anything was better than studying with her in a house bigger than my block, pretending I wasn’t a poor kid from the poor side of town. Her dad was probably a lawyer, or a doctor, or something expensive like that. Mine was a janitor. At our school.
Before I could turn tail and run back to the bus stop two blocks away, the iron gates opened and the call box buzzed. “Hey Roman!” Katie’s voice came through the speaker, cheerful and excited, like she was happy I was there. “Come on in. I’ll meet you at the front door.”
The box buzzed and clicked off. It was too late to run now.
I squared my shoulders, adjusted my backpack on my back, and started through the gate. At least the walk up her ridiculously long, brick-paved driveway would give me a chance to think of something clever to say when I got to her door.
I looked up at the house, at least three stories high, with a stone façade that matched the wall around the property. Almost a full flight of wide steps led to the dark wood French doors. As I started up the steps, one of the French doors opened and Katie stepped out. Her hair was tied back in a loose bun, and her feet were bare under a calf-length, floral sundress. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The toe of my sneaker caught the top of the last step, and I stumbled. Heat crept into my cheeks as I caught my balance. Maybe she hadn’t noticed.
“I hear that tripping-over-your-own-feet thing is going around lately.” She smirked playfully, and my embarrassment lessened just a bit. “Come on in.” She stepped back into the house and pushed the door open wider for me to follow her through.
I barely registered the door clicking shut behind me as I took in the opulence inside Katie’s house. A staircase as wide as my living room rose up from the center of the dark wood floor and curled out in two branches before meeting the banistered landing above. And the monster of a crystal chandelier hanging from the sky-high ceiling probably had its own zip code. My entire house could probably have fit inside this entryway. I was suddenly very aware of all the scuffs on my slightly too small, three-year-old sneakers and the frays at the hems of my pant legs. What would Katie say if she knew I lived in an eight-hundred-square-foot house with twenty-year-old furniture—some of which was so worn we kept sheets over it so the stuffing wouldn’t fall out? She’d probably be disgusted. Or worse, pity me.
Either she didn’t notice my awe or she chose not to acknowledge it. “We can study in the rec room.” She flitted past me, grabbing my hand along the way. Her hand was warm in mine, and the touch sent a little thrill through me. I fought the urge to look down at our joined hands, instead letting her lead me through the house.
The rec room turned out to be a small arcade, only with better furniture. The room was massive and filled with everything I’d ever dreamed of owning: a pool table, arcade games, gaming systems, a wet bar. Band and movie posters lined the walls at regular intervals, accentuated by light fixtures and underlined with small bar tables and stools. The room was a party waiting to happen. Did Katie actually hold parties here? I would have, if this was my rec room.
“This is where you study?”
She shook her head. “I don’t usually.”
“Study here?” Where did she study then?
“At all.” And suddenly I wasn’t interested in the games or fantasizing about throwing parties in this theme park of a rec room. Clearly, I was going to have to work very hard for my A in Chemistry if Katie wasn’t the studying type.