Authors: Siera Maley
Tags: #Fiction, #Lesbian
Copyright © 2014 by Siera Maley
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover Design © Ashley Clarke
Printed in the United States of America.
To my beautiful girlfriend, who asked for a silly trope with a happy ending.
verything came to a head on the night of our school’s Winter Formal, ironically. I guess I should’ve expected it, given that the plot of every teen movie ever seems to build into a climax that falls on the date of some sort of “important” school dance, but I honestly didn’t see it coming. At least not until I was there, standing in front of a crowd of students with Sarah’s hand in mine. I could feel a boulder-sized lump in my throat that wouldn’t disappear no matter how many times I swallowed, and I knew she could feel how clammy my palm was.
Mr. Crenshaw, our school principal, stood onstage in front of us, along with several other pairs of students who were up for Winter Formal King and Queen, because apparently that was a thing that our school actually did. Or… I guess it’d be Queen and Queen if me and Sarah turned out to be the winners. Which we probably would, even though Sam and Christine were pretty decent contenders as well. But there were a lot of people who’d voted for us. Most of them thought it’d be funny to give it to two girls, and the scattered giggles in the crowd as everyone waited for Principal Crenshaw to read out the names of the winners only made that more obvious.
Still, there were others out there who wanted us to win because it meant something. Because it would prove that things had changed for them. For us. What they didn’t know was that we weren’t really an “us”. At least not in the way they thought we were. We would never be exactly what we’d pretended to be, regardless of what happened after tonight.
Sarah squeezed my hand and I didn’t look at her. I was dreading Principal Crenshaw’s winner announcement, because the winners had the option of giving a small speech. And Sarah was, frankly, about to blow our cover. I felt sicker by the second.
We didn’t exactly attend the most open-minded high school. There were people who’d liked Sarah and me at the beginning of the school year and hated us now, just a few months later. But, fortunately, there were also people who’d used to feel neutral toward us and now loved us. And amongst those, there were people whose lives we’d changed. Those were the ones she was going to hurt tonight. Nevermind that she wasn’t even doing it in the spirit of being honest. She was doing it because if she didn’t tell, Christine would.
I shifted uncomfortably and released her hand, acutely aware of the hundreds of eyes on us as Principal Crenshaw opened the envelope in his hand. He paused for suspense, and I only took pleasure in the brief flash of disappointment visible on his face for a moment before he leaned into a microphone to call out, “Sarah Cooper and Katie Hammontree!”
The crowd in front of us erupted into a strange mixture of cheers and wolf-whistles and laughter as a couple of girls from the dance committee came forward to place a crown on each of our heads. They seemed confused at first when it came to which crown should go where, and so I ended up with an oversized King crown that I knew had to look out of place on my head. Even as the applause continued, I leaned in toward Sarah and tried to reassure her, “You’ll do fine. I love you.”
She gave me a nod and stepped away from me, accepting the microphone from Principal Crenshaw and taking her place front and center stage. I grit my teeth and took a step back, hardly able to fathom that she was really going to bite the bullet and do this now, with a quarter of our high school’s student body watching her. Everyone was going to hate us. A lot of people were going to get hurt. Jake would probably never speak to us again.
But we also probably deserved it after what we’d done.
“I want to thank those of you that voted for us because you thought we deserved it,” she began, shooting me a sideways look even as a guy at the front of the crowd whistled at us. My stomach twisted into a knot.
“There are a lot of people who wanted us to win this for the right reasons. And I know there are also a lot of people who probably just think this is funny and find it hilarious that that crown is way too big for Katie’s head.” There were some chuckles at that, and the same guy who’d whistled before shouted to us that we were hot together, which led to more laughter. A few months ago, Sarah’d have laughed too, but now she just let out a sigh.
“Look, what I’m trying to say here is that there’s something I need to take some time to explain to everyone.”
I heard her gulp, and she moved the microphone too close to her mouth. A shrill, piercing noise echoed around the gym, making more than a few people cringe. “Sorry. Um…” She paused again, and then took a deep breath and collected herself. I saw her straighten up and look out at the crowd, her gaze firm. She had her mind set on doing this, and when Sarah was set on achieving something, there was no talking her out of it.
“Alright. Here’s the thing: It’s true that I’m here at this dance tonight with someone I love. I care about Katie more than anything or anyone, and she knows that. She knows how I feel about her.” She swallowed hard and looked back at me, but I could barely meet her eyes. What she said was true, but it didn’t make this any easier to watch her do.
“But we weren’t completely honest with everyone,” she continued. Her voice – shaky but determined – echoed out across the gym, and her admission brought complete silence to the entire room. No one was laughing anymore. And as I looked out at the crowd, I saw no friendly faces.
She forced herself to press on.
“I was ignorant and immature and really, really stupid when all of this started just a few months ago, and I wanted attention from someone who it took me way too long to realize I meant nothing to. It was really,
dumb, and it was all completely my idea. I talked Katie into… into acting like we were a couple even though we weren’t.”
The silence was deafening. I felt my heart pound so hard in my chest it almost hurt, and if
felt this way about what she was saying, I couldn’t fathom what Sarah was feeling.
“We never were a couple,” she continued. “Not in the way we told everyone we were. We didn’t spend our formative years dealing with sexuality crises, and I never really thought about dating Katie until this whole thing started. We faked all of it, and I know there’s nothing I can say that will change how much hearing that hurts some of you. All I can say is that I’m sorry, and ask that you give me the chance now to explain what really happened.”
My eyes were on Jake when she paused to let that sink in, and I’ll never forget the look on his face right then. He was devastated and humiliated and betrayed and everything I’d been afraid he’d be. And as Sarah forced herself to keep going – to, evidently, tell the entirety of the senior class our story – I thought about the first day I’d ever spoken to Jake, just three months ago. The day that’d started it all.
ur town in Flowery Branch, Georgia looked a lot like it sounded. In the spring, when everything was alive and blooming, it was beautiful. In the fall, it was cold and windy, but there was about a two-week period in September where the leaves were orange, red, and brown, but hadn’t fallen off of the trees yet. It was beautiful then, too, and I remember exactly when I met Jake because I stumbled upon him while I was walking home from school, admiring those leaves on our first day back at Flowery Branch High after Fall Break.
I walked home most days, unless I went home with Sarah. She lived close to our school and only had a five-minute drive every day, but I lived even closer, and had a ten-minute walk. It wasn’t often that I ran into anyone on my way home, but that day was different.
I hadn’t known Jake. I hadn’t even recognized him from our school hallways or from sharing classes. It was like he was invisible until he was right in front of me, getting the contents of his backpack dumped out onto the sidewalk as he watched from where he’d been pushed to the ground.
Standing above him was Brett Larson, this kid that’d been a linebacker for our school football team until he’d recently gotten caught with tobacco. Now he was suspended, and, apparently, he was spending his recreational time picking on other kids.
I don’t really know what made me stand up for Jake that day, but I did it. Maybe it was that it was the right thing to do. But there were other times in my life where I’d had the opportunity to do the right thing and then hadn’t. Maybe it was just because I still really hated Brett for the time I’d caught him copying my homework answers in the third grade. Or maybe my instincts had just taken over.
I paused on the sidewalk, taking in Jake sprawled out on the ground with a bloody lip while a laughing Brett watched notebooks and pencils and a calculator spill out onto the ground, and then I reacted, clenching my fists at my sides and storming up to Brett. “Hey! Leave him alone!”
Brett paused, saw me, and the smile disappeared from his lips. He tossed the backpack aside, into Jake’s lap, and then rolled his eyes at me. “How about you mind your own business, Katie?”
“I take this way home every day,” I bit out. “So if you’re doing your bullying on this sidewalk, it’s my business. Of course, you could keep going, if you want… but I’m sure Coach Collins would hate hearing about it. How long is your suspension again?” I pretended to tap my chin thoughtfully. “I wonder how long a second one would last?”
“Whatever.” He shook his head at me, but I could tell he was backing off, and that was what mattered. “I should’ve known you were a queer, too.”
“Charming,” I countered, raising a middle finger in his direction as he turned and stalked away. My focus went to Jake, next, who shot me an appreciative look as I offered him a hand.
“Thanks. He’s been hounding me for a while now.” He got to his feet with my help and then bent down to start to gather his things. I tried to kneel to help, but he waved me away. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got it.”
“Okay.” I watched him, concerned, as he stuffed several notebooks back into his backpack, and tried not to stare too much at his lip.
Jake was skinny, almost overly so, and had glasses that were a little too big for him, but he was kind of a good-looking guy. His hair was carefully styled and he had this almost overly rosy-cheeked look that made him appear to be a little younger than he was. Initially, I mistook him for a freshman or a sophomore. “So why won’t he leave you alone?” I asked, although Brett’s parting comment had given it away.
Jake gave a bitter laugh as he zipped his backpack up. “Ah, you know, the gay thing. They say it gets better, though.”
“People still tease other people for being gay?” I asked, arching an eyebrow. “That seems a little archaic. I thought it only happened in, like, rural Mississippi.”
“Rural Mississippi and small-town Georgia, apparently,” he replied with a tilt of his head. “Anyway, I should get going. I’ve got kind of a long walk today. Thanks again, seriously. No one’s ever really stood up for me before.”
He started to turn and walk away, but I fell into step beside him, not ready to finish our conversation. “Wait. You don’t normally walk?” I was confident he didn’t. I’d have noticed him.
“Uh, no. I kind of wrecked my car over Fall Break and it’s at the shop until tomorrow. I’m not a big fan of the bus and my parents don’t get off work until five, so today I have to walk home. It should only be an hour or so; I’ll get back around four.”
“Shouldn’t you get your lip fixed up as soon as possible?” I asked him. It really did look bad. Not stitches bad, but it was definitely swollen. “I live right down this street.”
He started to reply, but my phone beeped in my purse and I reacted quickly. It was a text from Sarah, and it said:
“Home yet? I’m coming over!”
I shot back a response and looked to Jake again, newly inspired. “My friend Sarah’s coming over; she can fix you up,” I insisted. “She’s going to college for nursing next year, so she loves playing doctor any chance she gets.” I paused and then colored when my wording sank in, noting that Jake was struggling to hold back a smile.
“I know Sarah,” he told me. “Sarah Cooper. And that is a strangely accurate description of her.”
“Playing nurse, I meant,” I corrected hastily. “Treating injuries and that kind of stuff. She considers it practice.”
He grinned, and let me off the hook. “I think I had Chem class with her last year.”
“You’re a senior?” I asked him, unable to hide my surprise.
He laughed. “Yeah. So are you, Katie.”
I flushed hard again, embarrassed that he knew my name but I didn’t know his. “Yeah. So… are you up for coming over, um…?”
“Jake,” he told me, but he didn’t seem offended. “I know you don’t know me; it’s cool. I don’t talk to many people.”
“Why not?” I asked. He seemed friendly enough.
“Well, I guess it’s a little harder to make friends when you’re gay in a town like this. You’re always worried about each new person you have to tell, and you never know whether someone will hate you or take it in stride. It’s like playing friendship Russian Roulette.”
“It can’t be
terrible here,” I said. “I know a few gay kids at our school.”
“Do you?” He arched an eyebrow.
“Yeah. There’s, um…” I wracked my brain for a name. “Oh! That guy, Hunter-”
“He transferred,” Jake cut me off.
“Yeah. Last year.”
“Well… there’s this girl in one of my classes that I’m pretty sure is gay. She doesn’t talk much but-”
“She fits all the stereotypes?” he finished for me. I felt embarrassed again.
“You have to admit,” he said, “that there are pretty much no notable gay students at our school. At all.”
“Notable?” I echoed. It seemed like a strange word to use.
“You know… popular. A well-liked, friendly, totally normal guy or girl who’s attracted to the same sex.”
“Well, that could change,” I suggested, even though I doubted it would. Jake was right. The few gay kids I
think of were a fringe group that only really spoke to each other. And I didn’t really talk to any of them.
Sarah and I’d always been what she jokingly called “tier 2 populars” – never quite spending time with most of the jocks and cheerleaders, but we had a few mutual friends with those groups, and we were relatively well-known by our classmates. It was, in hindsight, unsurprising that Jake knew both of us but I didn’t know him.
“Doubt it,” he replied with a shake of his head. “But I’m glad we at least have some cool people around who’ll stick up for us.” He looked over at me, curious. “Why
you help me, exactly?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “It just seemed… like something I needed to do. Besides, I know what it’s like to feel like an outsider.”
“Really,” he said. It sounded more like a thoughtful statement than a question, but I nodded anyway. It was true. Throughout my elementary and early middle school years, I’d been a little heavy in the weight department. For a while, Sarah was the only friend I’d had. But one eating disorder and a lot of therapy later, and I was now around average weight for my height, according to my doctor. The end didn’t justify the means, but it did stop me from getting teased, and I was eating healthy now.
“Yeah,” I told him. “You know, sometimes people are just stupid. You can’t help that. You just have to be confident in yourself. That’s what I do, anyway.” We reached my house and I pointed, slowing to a stop. “This is me. Do you wanna come in?”
He looked back at me in a way I was wasn’t used to being looked at. Like I was a problem he couldn’t quite solve. Then he smirked. “Yeah, sure. Your friend’ll be here soon, you said?”
“Yeah. My parents aren’t home, so you don’t have to worry about them hassling you about your lip or anything.”
He followed me inside and together we took off our shoes and backpacks, leaving them by the front door while I showed him around. My house was comfortably sized, with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. I was an only child; we used the spare bed for guests.
I showed Jake the half-bath so that he could wash away the blood, then took out my phone to text Sarah again.
“Got you a patient,”
I told her, and it took her less than ten seconds to respond.
I didn’t bother to tell her, because less than a minute later, she burst inside my house without knocking and threw her arms around me with a squeal. “Oh my God, I missed you!”
I laughed as I hugged her back, and we shared a grin once she’d pulled away. “You got a tan!” I noticed. She’d spent Fall Break on a cruise with her parents. Her father was a musician who performed on cruise liners for a living, so she pretty consistently got complimentary tickets. I’d been on a couple of trips with her family.
Sarah was an only child, too. She had the blue eyes of her mother and the dark hair of her father, and I’d always thought she was beautiful. Our parents liked to say that we complimented each other, given that I had a rare combination of brown eyes and blonde hair.
“I fried first,” she told me with a shake of her head. “It was terrible. But it looks good now, right?”
“Gaw-geous!” I drawled, and that made her laugh as she wrapped her arms around me again.
We hugged, tightly, and she sighed out, “Jeez, I missed you. I wish we’d had a fourth ticket.”
“It was boring here,” I agreed, resting my chin on her shoulder. “Nothing to report.”
“I have something,” she told me abruptly, pulling away with a satisfied smirk. I heard a throat clear nearby and suddenly remembered Jake, who was now standing in the bathroom doorway, watching us both with two raised eyebrows.
“Am I interrupting something?”
Sarah jumped a little, then swiveled to face him. “Oh my God, you scared me!” She paused, then immediately moved to him. “Whoa, is your lip okay?”
“Brett Larson was messing with him. I saw them on my way home,” I told her.
“Ugh,” Sarah scoffed. “I hate that asshole.” She spoke to Jake even as she ducked into the bathroom to get the first aid kit in the cabinet. “Did you know that when we were in third grade, he used to copy Katie’s homework, like, every day?”
“Every day,” I repeated matter-of-factly, watching Jake with some amusement as Sarah doted on him. He seemed a little overwhelmed by how high-energy she was. I was used to it by now.
“So what’d you do? Step into his line of sight?” Sarah joked. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Jake,” I answered for him, given that Sarah was tending to his lip at the moment. “You guys had Chem together.”
“Really?” Sarah raised an eyebrow. “Oh. Well, I probably just don’t remember you because it took every single ounce of concentration I had just to pass that class. I’m terrible at science. Got a B-minus though because I study hard, unlike this one.” She pointed over her shoulder at me with a thumb and shot me a smile, and then stepped back a moment later to admire her handiwork. “There. All cleaned up.”
“Thanks.” Jake tapped at his lip, wincing a little, and then looked between us for a moment. “So… you guys are pretty close, then? I mean, I’ve heard your names mentioned together a lot, so I figured you were friends, but…”
“We’re the best of friends,” Sarah cut in matter of factly, wrapping an arm around me and pulling me to her. “I almost died without her this break, you have no idea.”
“Huh.” He looked back and forth between us for another moment. “That’s cool, I guess. I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend like that before.”
“Well, we’ve grown up together,” I explained. “Like sisters.”
“Closer than sisters,” Sarah corrected proudly. “Sometimes we even finish each other’s sentences.”
“Yeah?” He raised an eyebrow again, and then looked over his shoulder abruptly. “So Katie, do you think I could grab a glass of water?”