THE SAVIOR: Chapter One

Amanda Claire Yancey

What is to give light must endure burning.
-     Viktor E. Frankl

            Here are my two options: kill the one I love or let the one I love kill. It’s a nightmare of a situation and no matter my choice the outcome isn’t going to be pretty. The seconds tick, my bones ache, death is just around the corner and now is my time to act.   

The silence makes me think they’re all dead.
I really did try the polite method of waking them up, but they have left me with no other option than to call on the help of my good friend Led Zeppelin. I stop hovering over the scratched up CD player like a hawk because now is my time to strike.
I punch the red triangular play button and then blare the volume to an obnoxious level. Quickly snatching up a hairbrush from off the floor I start rocking out to the beat of “Rock and Roll,” mouthing the words into the brush as though it were a microphone.  
The moaning commences.
It’s alive! Wahahaha.
“Juna!” Lily shrills.
Someone chucks a shoe in my direction.
This is my cue to leave the bedroom I share with five other girls here at St. Mark’s Children Center, which is a polite way of saying orphanage.
As I make my way down the hallway for the stairs a familiar voice from behind calls out to me, “Yo, Tiger! Hold up!” I could identify that voice anywhere; it belongs to my best friend Max Riley.
Max was born in Santa Rosa, California to Natasha and Ethan Riley. His parents were killed in a plane crash, leaving Max an orphan at four years old. Only one child has lived here longer than him.
And who would that lucky child be?
I’ve been here since I was only a few months old. Apparently, the story goes that some man—who may or may not have been my father—took me into the city, left me in a hotel, drove off, and then called the front desk to inform them that he had forgotten his kid and if they could please do something about it. Nice guy, eh? I know it sucks to be an orphan when I could’ve had a happy little life with him.
“Hola.” I stop and wait for him to catch up.
He laughs, jogging toward me. “You’re such a dork!” he says, shaking his head.
“Why?” I ask, one side of my mouth quirking up mischievously, staring up into his smiling eyes.    
People often mistake Max’s incredibly dark brown eyes for being black when not inspected closely. It always fascinates me how something so dark can find a way at brightening my day. His thick ebony hair swoops just above his caterpillar eyebrows and hides the tips of his ears in a way that makes me think they were never meant for public viewing. If Max doesn’t stop growing I’ll have to start calling him Paul Bunyan. Being six feet three inches certainly has its advantages when playing basketball and also figuring out who is going bald these days. One of my favorite things about Max is his smile. When he smiles these dimples emerge in curved lines on both sides of his mouth that make everything he says look as though it were being said in parenthesis.
“Oh you know why,” he answers, flatting down the collar of my shirt with his hand. I smack it away and raise my fingers to the lapels of my shirt, fiddling around with the collar so that it sticks up slightly. He and the rest of the world always try to fix it for me, but when I tell people I purposefully wear it that way, they have a freaking aneurysm—which is exactly why I do it in the first place. Max laughs. “Playing Led Zeppelin at six in the morning.”
“What’s so wrong with that?” I ask innocently as we make our way down the stairs.  
Shaking his head, he lectures, “I’m telling you one of these days they’re gonna gang up you and do something. Something bad. And when that day comes you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“Yeah, well…” I mutter, hopping off the last step, “like to see them try.”
The first time I met Max I had a sudden urge to chop off a piece of his thick black hair—who knows why, I was only four at the time—so, I dragged him into the bathroom with a pair of extremely large scissors that honestly shouldn’t have been in my possession and snipped away. Thank god I didn’t blind him. Leslie and Abbey were beyond furious with me because not only was this a bad thing to do it was also one of the most unattractive looks in the world, but hey, it thoroughly amused me at the time, which was the most important thing.  
Anyhow, Max and I have been best buds ever since.
Max is exactly nine months older than me. His mother popped him out on September 19th, while my mother—whether she liked it or not—squeezed me out on June 19th.
“What will it be today?” Max asks, opening the pantry door in the kitchen.
“Um, Coco Puffs,” I answer, skipping up to the cabinet where the plastic bowls are stored. I gather us spoons too. “I’m in a chocolaty mood today.”
“Nice choice.” He nods, snatching the brown box off the shelf. “I think I’ll do the same.”
“Copycat,” I say over my shoulder.
He shrugs, smiling at me.
Leslie shuffles into the kitchen sporting her fluffy yellow robe, her face drooping as though the dark bags beneath her eyes weigh her down. “Morning kiddos,” she yawns.
“Morning,” Max and I say, taking a seat at the large oak table that allows eighteen children to squeeze in together at a lung-crunching degree.
Leslie Markham is a curvaceous woman in her late fifties—one of those rare gems who make being slightly overweight sexy and appealing. Her chilling indigo blue eyes can cool even the most volcanic of tantrums our younger kids often have. Her face has a few wrinkles here and there, but honestly, with eighteen plus kids to tend to year after year, a wrinkle or two is inevitable.
Leslie is often mistaken as being my biological mother and it’s not that I blame anyone who thinks this because we really do look alike. What with my mocha colored skin, dark hair, bright eyes, and me living with her since I was only a couple days old, it’d be easy to arrive to that conclusion.  
Leslie lumbers over to the kitchen radio, situated above our refrigerator, which looks more like something that’s been plucked out of a war zone than anything worth placing in one’s kitchen. She clicks the play button and “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles comes on.
Max taps his foot to the beat.
Leslie is the biggest Beatles fanatic I have ever met. St. Mark’s ought to be called “The San Francisco Beatles Exhibit” since we literally have their posters lined on every wall. Thanks to Leslie’s musical obsession I know the lyrics to every Beatles and John Lennon song—all of us St. Mark’s kids do, it’s sort of a rite of passage.  
“Yellow Submarine” ends and the livelier song “Revolution” begins.
“Ooh!” Max’s head pops up. “Leslie can you turn it up please?”
She nods. Next, Leslie pours grounded coffee beans into the coffee machine.
Once when I was eleven, Max and I secretly tried some coffee. We figured it had to be delicious since it’s all adults seem to live by, but the minute it touched our lips we immediately spat it back out. Honestly, I don’t understand why people love it so much. Tastes like a mixture of dirt and boiling cat piss if you ask me—not that I’ve ever tried boiling or non-boiling cat piss before, but hey, if I ever did it’d probably taste like coffee. I’m more of a hot chocolate girl personally and because of this interesting little fact people at school assume I’m a Mormon.
For the billionth time: I am not Mormon!
“You two excited for camp?” Leslie mumbles.
“Yep,” Max and I say in unison as we slurp down our Coco Puffs.
More than a dozen footsteps come thundering down the stairs.
I scoot closer to Max, my hip and elbow bumping against his. It’s a routine we’ve both grown used to. I groan, while a smile skims across Max’s face.

After breakfast we head out to the bus for camp.
I love camp. It’s something I eagerly await all year. Camp Eleanor differs from other camps because it is solely for orphans living in California. Leslie and her family founded it, which is totally awesome and I gotta admit it’s comforting because all of us kids have one thing in common: no parents.
I mosey outside, toward the bus, with my duffle bag slugged across my shoulders and start shivering like crazy as the icy air twirls about my body. “Gah,” I groan and then stick my tongue out to the sky, annoyed at the San Francisco fog for being so inconvenient during this time of the year.  
Leslie’s sister Abbey shuffles down the sidewalk beside me, pinching the bridge of her nose with her index finger and thumb.
Abigail Delucchi is a thirty-nine-year-old woman with an angular figure and shares Leslie’s curly raven black hair, except that Abbey’s is much longer and each lock cascades down her back as though it were a spiral staircase. Abbey takes more after her full-blooded Italiano papa with his dark bronze skin and giant brown liquid-center eyes that can really unstitch a person when used correctly. 
Abbey absolutely hates mornings. One day when I was nine Max and I brought the kitchen radio into her room and blared “I Was Made for Loving You” by Kiss to a deafening level, while bouncing up and down on her bed like a couple of chimpanzees on crack. Well, our plan worked. We woke her up, but it took every ounce of effort she had to restrain herself from strangling us to death. Through clenched teeth she growled out, “I was made for killing you baby! You were made for killing me!” So, now of course, this has become our little inside joke. Anytime Max is annoying me I’ll start singing or humming Abbey’s version of this classic Kiss song.
“Morning Princess!” I chime.
Her eyes shoot daggers at me.
I laugh as I climb into the bus and find Max sitting off to the right at the very back, saving a seat for me in our spot. A smile seeps across his face, dimpling both cheeks when our eyes meet. “Hey,” I say, plopping down next to him.
“Hey,” he greets back huskily.
“Yep. Aren’t you?” Max asks me. “Your birthday is coming up.”
“Yeah.” I shrug, eyes diverting to the window, focusing my attentions on a suicidal squirrel as it darts across the street into the park.
“What’s wrong?” he asks.  
“Nothing,” I mumble. It’s a lie and he knows it.  
Not to bring out the mini violin and sound super sappy or anything, but I hate the nineteenth of June more than any other day of the year—it’s not that I don’t like getting older—I just don’t appreciate being reminded of how many years I’ve been without a family. 
This thought alone brings up a memory that occurred almost eight years ago, before Camp Eleanor even existed. I was eight. He was nine.

I climb up into the cobweb-infested attic and plod over to the only window in the room, it’s a circular stained glass window, composed mostly of blue pieces, but at its center is a large white dove in flight. The floorboards squeak beneath my toes as I take a seat on Leslie’s father’s antiquated bench. With the sleeve of my shirt I rub a small circle into the window, removing several layers of dust as I watch little four-year-old Sarah Wheatley hop into a blue car or at least it looks blue through this glass, but maybe it’s white. Today she is going home with her new family.
Yes, today she has been adopted.
Lucky her.
I bring my knees up to my chest, wrapping my arms tightly around them. A ragged breath escapes my lips and tears stream down my cheeks. Pain blossoms across my chest and I crave—more than anything in the universe—to have a mother—my mother—hug me, tell me everything is going to be all right because I am loved.
I am not mad at Sarah. No. She deserves a family, but so do I.
Why doesn’t anyone want me?
“Juna?” Someone calls my name. “You ok?”
I turn my neck to the left and see Max. Embarrassed, I turn away, wiping my dusty shirtsleeve over my tear-stained face and sniff the runny mucus back into my nose.
Max takes a seat on the bench next to me, wrapping his arm around my shoulders. “Sad about Sarah?” he asks.
I nod as a sob comes up my throat and shakes my entire body. “Uh-huh,” I say.
“Don’t worry,” he assures me. “You’re gonna get adopted soon.”
I shake my head. “No…I don’t think so.”
“Well, I know so,” Max tells me matter-of-factly and a small light flickers to life, lighting up the gloom inside my chest. “You’re too wonderful not to adopt.”
“Thanks,” I mutter as the tears continue toppling out of my eyes.
He then goes on to tell me, “I bet you’ll get adopted before me and when that happens you better tell them to adopt me too because then we’d be together forever.” He smiles.
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “You’ll get adopted before me.”
“Well, if that happens,” he begins, “then I’ll tell them I’m not leaving here without you.”
“Promise?” I ask.

The bus takes off with a mechanical groan, pulling me away from my dismal reverie.
The ride is about an hour and a half, depending on traffic. So, I lean my head onto Max’s shoulder and take a nap for the duration of the trip.
Once we reach our destination Max squeezes my hand.

It’s 3:30 and those two morons are late.
A dog, whose balls have obviously been chopped off, barks in the distance. It’s the kind of never-ending grating sound that has got me contemplating suicide.
 My choices? Either hang myself with the gardening hose, hack myself to death with a nearby rustic shovel, or chew on a handful of mushrooms.
Hmmm, decisions, decisions.
Harris, Spencer, and I are going fishing today. Plan was to meet up at my house at 3:15 and then ride our bikes out to the river. Both don’t live all that far away from here, so it makes me wonder what the heck is taking them so long.
A pinecone tumbles off the roof and hits me square in the head. I kick it away, huffing.
A wise musician once said, “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?” This seems to be the template of my life because every flipping time I turn on the radio—and it doesn’t matter what radio I turn on—the song “Loser” by Beck starts playing.
Every. Single. Flipping. Time. 
Apparently, it’s my theme song.
Why can’t I have a cool and menacing one like Darth Vader’s? Answer: Because John Williams probably knows I am a gigantic loser too.
Just call me Bill Murray because every day is pretty much Groundhog’s Day around here. I go to school, which is obviously a complete blast within itself, and then spend the rest of my day driving my siblings around to their various activities. I’ve got too many siblings.
What were my parents thinking?
Well, whatever the case may be it didn’t include birth control. I mean you can’t treat kids like desert: Oh I think I’ll just have one more. Get a glimpse of my baby pictures and it’s a wonder why my dad didn’t get a vasectomy immediately after my delivery.
I’ve got five siblings and every single one of them has some lame activity that requires my driving accessibilities; whether it is soccer, gymnastics, fencing, piano lessons, or what have you, there is always something I have to drive them to. Every single blasted day! Bores me to death—well, not quite to death obviously, but sure wish it did.
Thing is, I’ve got a widowed mother who works eight to five six days a week, so needless to say she needs a little help. I’ve been forced to master the art of cooking, which I guess isn’t too horrible, but I’ve got homework to do too. On my lucky days homework gets done around midnight.
“Hi,” Noah, my six-year-old sister greets me in her squeaky chipmunk-like voice.
“Hey,” I grumble, not looking at her. Great, I can’t even get fifteen minutes to myself.
“What-yah doin’?” she says in a singsong voice.
“Waiting,” I answer.
“Waitin’ for what?” she probes, sitting her tiny butt cheeks down on the porch steps beside me.
“Waiting for Harris and Spencer,” I say through clenched teeth, scooting away from her.
“Aha,” she mumbles, starring at me like a riveted psychiatrist.
Two minute pass and she’s still staring at me. 
“WHAT?” I snap.
“Do you think,” she begins in her high-pitched childish voice, “we’re gonna find the savior this summer?”
 “Nope,” I answer my sister.
“Why not?” Her eyebrows contract.
“Because it’s a retarded lie Nellie likes to tell us. She’s probably suffering from schizophrenia,” I inform her.
“Skits-so…skits-so…what?” she looks at me inquisitively.
“Schizophrenia,” I repeat. “It’s a disease when people go cuckoo and can’t differentiate between reality and what’s in their mind.”
Noah stares at me blankly.
“Remember the time when Spencer’s dad told us about that weird guy who hid in the woods? Thought he was an orange and was afraid people were gonna peel him?”
Nodding her head, she giggles.
“That guy had schizophrenia,” I tell her.
She ponders this for a moment and then suddenly gets one of those light-bulb popping looks of hers. “Nellie thinks she is an orange?” she asks all panic-stricken.
“No,” I groan in defeat. Why don’t six-year-olds get sarcasm?
“I hope I’m the chosen one. It’d be so awesome,” she says, the corners of her mouth rising high up her face, tongue poking through the holes where teeth are missing.
“Keep dreaming, but it ain’t gonna happen,” I tell her.
“You. Are. In. A. Bad. Mood,” Noah yells, making each word a sentence. She shoots up from her seat, hands place firmly on her hips. “I’ll be back when you’re happy,” she scolds, then wheels around and stomps off.
Fine. Goodbye forever then, I think.  
Finally, I see Harris and Spencer pedaling their bikes toward my house. Waving to them, I spring off the porch steps with my fishing pole and leap onto my bike.
This summer is going to suck.

“Hey Tiger, I bet you can’t do a double back flip,” Max declares as he mounts the diving board, preparing to do a trick off into the lake.
“I bet I can do a better one than you,” I challenge, both hands settling on my hips.
An outburst of giggles rattles in my brain.
Behind me stand five girls from Southern California, bunked in the same cabin as me. It doesn’t take a pimp to know what field of employment awaits these girls, especially if it weren’t for the itty-bitty animal-print patches covering up their girly parts. And they shall do wonders in that career, scaring off all other competition with the cancerous amount of make-up smothered across their faces. 
Claiming that they wanted to hang out with me I’d never in a million, billion, gazillion years buy that pathetic excuse from them. Especially not after they streaked out of the cabin like a Jack Russell bolting after a cat once they saw who I was going out with.
Maxwell Theodore Riley.   
I have yet to make it through one bloody day at school when I do not have to hear a girl gushing about how attractive Max is or how badly they wish they could go out with him. On our second day of high school his name was added to the top of the “hot guy” list, a list some bored girls devised with an assortment of neon-colored sharpies on one of stall walls in the girls’ bathroom. Apparently, lots of girls are in agreement with this addition because next to his name are a dozen approving check marks and smiley faces. But really is that something to be proud of for a guy? To have your name scribbled on and then worshipped in the confines of a girl’s defecation zone?  
  “Sure she can,” Alisha, the slender blonde, trills.
“No she can’t. I bet ten bucks she can’t!” Max shouts, unconsciously puffing his chest out.
A warm breeze whistles past the dock, making the old oak tree near the water’s edge creak and groan in such a way that I can’t help but agree with it.
“Shut up and jump already!” I holler at him.
The five girls erupt in giggles again.  
I groan, rolling my eyes.
He faces us, bends his knees, and then springs from the edge of the board, flipping backwards into the air, completely over doing it. Max smacks the water’s surface on his stomach, which makes this awful fleshy slap.
In unison the girls gasp, every single one of us cringing at the sight. Stepping onto the board, I laugh wildly, so hard that my sides ache.
Water sloshes against the dock as I wait.
Emerging from the dark choppy waters, Max’s face is contorted in pain, but inside I know he is laughing at himself.
“Well done,” I say, bending down, hands gripping around my knees. “I’m not sure if I’ll be able to top that.”
“I’d like to see you try,” he shouts out hoarsely.
The girls giggle another time.
“I will,” I say matter-of-factly, turning on my heel and then strutting down to the beginning of dock to get a running start.
Max swims over to the side of the dock and then swiftly climbs up the ladder to watch me. Passing me with a smirk on his face, water drips off his body as he goes to stand with the girls on the trampled grass. “Don’t step on a nail,” he warns me.
Whipping my head around I scowl at him, quickly humming Abbey’s renamed Kiss song “I Was Made for Killing You.”
This only makes him laugh.
After taking a deep breath I run to the edge of the dock, jump once, sinking my legs deep into the board, and then launch myself into the air. Pulling myself up into a tight ball, I spin backwards twice and then finally plunge into the icy water. A smile spreads across my face as I swim up to the surface. Climbing up the ladder, I strut over to Max and poke him playfully in the chest. “Ten dollars,” I say, “And I better see it today.”
“Fine,” he chuckles, “but it’s going to be the other way around next time.”
“Sure,” I say over my shoulder as I step onto the board, preparing for a dive this time.
“That looked like that really hurt,” Kendra, the ginger-haired girl of the bunch, says in a whiney voice.
Well, hello, of course it hurt. I want to scream. Look how red his chest is moron!
Here’s my brilliant observation of the world: Girls infatuated with Max are no different from zombies—just a pack of brainless idiots foaming at the mouth and wanting a piece of his flesh.
“Ah, don’t worry.” Max grins at them, playing along.
On the verge of puking, I realize I better get back in the water before I strangle these want-to-be-hooker-zombies.  
I stride over to my duffel bag when I enter the cabin and quickly pull on my jeans that were recently cut into a raggedy pair of shorts and then yank over a long faded black Led Zeppelin tee. Afterwards, I move to the vanity mirror where the girls do their makeup each morning, take out my brush, and comb the pesky wet knots out of my hair. Icy water still drips from my hair, some of it runs down my spine, tickling me, making me shudder.
My hair is way, way too long. It goes past my elbows for crying out loud! I’ve been nagging Leslie to let me get it cut soon, but the thing is, she likes it long. Well, I figure if she likes long hair so much, she should just grow out her own damn hair. Sooner or later I’m going to cut it all off myself. I am the hair-cutting expert after all.
I stare into the mirror, examining my emerald eyes, my long chocolate-colored hair, wondering—for a brief moment—if I look anything like my mother did when she was my age. Do I have her nose? Ears? Eyes maybe? Or did I take more after my father? This is something I will never know. I don’t even know what nationality I am. Leslie thinks I’m Italian like her and since we look so much alike maybe she is right, but no one knows for sure.
Deep down, there is a part of me that wishes I had a picture of my parents, some sort of proof of their existence, but on second thought I am sure this would only bring me more pain, for their abandonment stings enough as—
“Oh my god! He is so hot!” Alisha shrills as she rips open the cabin door.
Like a wave rolling up my spine my muscles tighten. How the hell did I not hear them approaching the cabin? I think, whirling around.
“Oh, I know,” gushes Maggie, the strawberry blonde with a constellation of freckles sprinkled across her face.
“Uh!” Kendra sighs.
“He’s, like, so funny, too,” Lily, the brunette, adds.
“I wonder why I never noticed him last year,” Celeste, the short black-skinned girl, notes. “He totally gave me eyegasms.”
I don’t even want to know what the hell that means.
“Hey, Juna,” Alisha calls out, but pauses for a brief moment because apparently I have a weird look on my face and I can feel it, too. My muscles are all scrunched up in a way that probably makes me look like I just ate something extremely sour. Immediately reassembling my expression I try to appear less repulsed. Alisha continues, “How long have you known Max?”
“Um, since I was four,” I answer a little unsteadily. “Why?”
“Lucky!” Kendra moans, crossing her legs and bending her torso over in a way that makes me think she has to go take a winky tink.
“I guess so,” I mumble, shrugging.  
“You guess so?” Alisha scoffs dramatically. “How can you guess so? He is like definitely the hottest guy I’ve ever met, which is like saying a lot. Then there is you” –she plants her hand on her hip and gives me a disapproving look—“who has been with him like practically your entire life and all you can say is, I guess so. What the hell is wrong with you?”
The room goes silent, but each and every one of those want-to-be-hookers smirks at me in such a way I feel like I am going deaf from the loudness of their glares.
 Rolling my eyes, I get to my feet, and march for the door and as I thrust open the door I accidentally slam into somebody, my nose hitting against their chest. Stumbling backwards I rub my nose, recovering my senses and when I look up, I see that this person is Max. “Great,” I hiss sarcastically, scowling at him. “Just the person I wanted to see.”
I push past him and run.  
“Hey, it’s Max,” someone shrills.
“Max!” They all scream in unison.
“Hold on,” he tells them and then sprints after me, shouting out my name. “Juna, hold up!” He yells.
I can definitely outrun him if I wanted to and I do want to, but someone tugs the reins on my horse and brings me to a halt.  
I swing around, feeling the heat of anger rising up inside of me. “What?” I blare.
“What’s wrong?” He catches up to me.
“Nothing,” I mutter through clenched teeth.
“Uh-huh, sure,” he says, unconvinced, walking closer to me. Uncomfortably close now. “What’s wrong?”
“Why don’t you just go hang out with your girlfriends,” I grumble and then stomp off.
Max chuckles, jogging up right in front of me. He takes large steps backwards as I continue to walk forward, trying to avoid him. He stares at me intently, his dark brown eyes boring into mine.
“No,” he says, smiling sincerely, those parenthetical dimples emerging clearly on both sides of his mouth. “I want to hang out with you.”
“Why?” I ask, stopping.  
“Um, because you’re my best friend, duh,” he chuckles.
“They bug me,” I say, pushing aside the wet strands of hair that have fallen in front of my eyes. Glancing down at my arms I notice several red bumps running up and down my forearms. I lied out on the grass earlier today without a towel between me and the ground, even though I shouldn’t have because I am allergic. “Oh look”—I point to my arms—“I’ve got hives now because I’m allergic to those idiots!”
He cocks his head to the side and smirks at me. “Ba-dum-bum-chhhh!” He says sarcastically, adding in the little drumming motion too.
I roll my eyes.
“Yeah, they bug me too,” he adds, seriously now. “But, that blonde,”—he scratches his head awkwardly, almost embarrassedly—“What’s her name? Alisha? Yeah. Alisha, she’s kind of cute.”
My intestines just tied into a knot.
“You got to be kidding me?” I glower at him.
“You don’t think so?” He cocks his head, looking at me suspiciously.
“No I don’t. She’s—uh—” I growl and am unable to finish my sentence.
“Oh,” he says in a strange tone. 
“Would you just shut up for a second,” I bark at him.
  He nods, silently strolling by my side for the next few minutes as I take a moment to cool down, now feeling guilty and—in all honestly—a little stupid for yelling at him.
Breaking the silence I ask, “So…where’s my ten bucks?”
“Oh,” he says, grinning, his hand rummaging around in his left pocket. “I almost forgot the whole reason I came out to see you.” 
Grabbing my wrist, he uncurls my fingers from their fisted position and places the money into it, smiling.
Long after he lets go I feel the ghost of where his hand was.

Quiet. It’s probably my favorite thing about fishing.
Nothing but birds chirping, dragonflies humming across the river’s surface, and the splash the bait makes when it hits the water.
I sigh, reeling in the line. Spencer and Harris sit on the opposite side of the dock from me, neither one of us has caught anything yet, but that’s ok. Not like we’d do anything with Nemo if we found him.
“Hey guys, I’m sorry, but I got to get going now,” Harris says, gathering his equipment and then gets to his feet. “Marley’s gonna pick me in an hour.”
Turning around I say, “Yeah, no problem.” Forcing a smile.
“See yah later,” Spencer tells him.
“Bye guys,” Harris says, jogging after his bike.
Marley, Marley, Marley.
Where do I even begin?
Well, not to sound cheesy or anything, but Marley Lexington is sort of the love of my life. Ah crap, nevermind, that sounds really cheesy.
Marley is definitely one of a kind; she has beautiful banana blonde hair, dark brown eyes, and a killer smile. And not only is she outrageously gorgeous, but she is also intelligent, kind, humorous, and incredibly athletic. A straight “A” student, enrolled in the hardest classes our school can provide. She plays varsity on our high school’s volleyball, basketball, and softball teams. She also participates in the school’s choir and performs in all the musicals.
Could a girl get any more perfect?
She and my bud Harris have been going out for about two years, three months, and a week now or something like that…
Yeah, it bites, but lets face the facts shall we?
Harris plays water polo, basketball, and lacrosse and he plays them pretty darn well too. I haven’t gotten a freaking clue how many times he’s been honored MVP, but enough times to make a guy’s ego plummet. He, too, is in every single AP class that ever existed and has a 4.0. Oh yeah, and before school ended for the summer he was elected next year’s Honor Society President.
Does it stop there?
Like Marley, he too is musically gifted. He plays the alto saxophone. Yep, and he plays it freakishly well too. He’s like best in the whole state of Oregon I think. Sometimes he’ll play in the school musicals. This last year’s production was of Anything Goes. He played his saxophone, while Marley starred as Reno Sweeney and man is her voice incredible.  
I’m betting they’ll be crowned prom queen and king, and then be medaled at graduation as our school’s valedictorians along with a couple of Asians. They’ll lead ridiculously successful lives, get married, and then make perfect babies.
And then there is me: the tall, curly-haired dork with less muscle tone than his six-year-old sister. I’m in a few Honors Classes, but it’s no cakewalk for me. I get more B’s than A’s, but fortunately more A’s than C’s. I like watching movies, playing video games, riding our four-wheeler out in the woods, paint balling, and fishing, but big freaking whoop!
Spencer told me once that everyone supposedly has a purpose. Well, what the heck is my purpose?
Oh yeah—almost forgot—to chauffeur to my siblings every needs. Maybe I should just quit school now, change my name to Travis Bickle, and become a taxi driver because it kind of seems inevitable right now. It’d be a waste of time and money to go to college, try to be something I’m not. Jerry Seinfeld once said that the only qualification one needs to be a taxi driver is a face. Well, thankfully I fit that description because I don’t seem to fit in anywhere else.
“You bout ready to leave?” Spencer asks.
I jump, forgetting he was here. Forgetting I was here.  
“I’m done fishing,” I say, “but I don’t want to go home yet. Nellie is visiting.”
His eyebrows pull together.
“My grandma,” I clue him in.
“Which one?”
“The demented one.” I widen my eyes for emphasis.
“Oh, sorry,” he says, cringing. “You want to stay at my place tonight?”
“Uh, duh,” I say without hesitation.

The sun feels like heaven on my skin as I lie out on my back, here on the soccer field. My arms lay above my body, hands resting behind my head and I actually have no idea how long I have been out here. After one of the games I just lied down in the center of the field for no particular reason. Little white moths flutter around me and as it turns out, the grass is quite comfortable, even though it will make me itchy with hives later in the day, but that’s no biggy because at least it’s the type of itch I can scratch in my life.
My teeth grind together and dirt pushes up underneath my fingernails as I clench fistfuls of grass between both hands.
Alisha, she’s kind of cute. Max’s words replay in my head.
I groan.
I’m annoyed at how irritated I am about this whole ordeal. I mean, over the past few years I’ve grown used to the constant swooning, to the countless I-love-Max-Riley’s scribbled across the bathroom walls, but for some reason Alisha makes me madder than any girl ever has. I can only recall one other time when this sort of thing bothered me as much as it does now. It happened a year ago, during school. I was fourteen. He was fifteen.

I walk into the girl’s bathroom—no, scratch that—I run into the girl’s bathroom because I have to pee like a racehorse. Throwing my backpack against the wall, I rush into one of the stalls, undo the zipper on my jeans, plop down against the cold ceramic seat, and squeeze.
Ah, that’s better.
As I continue peeing, I tear off a sheet of toilet paper when I notice the George Washington High School’s “Hot Guy List,” written in an array of colorful sharpies against the stall’s wall. I’ve seen this list before and know that Max’s name lies at the peak of it with several agreeing check marks beside it, but I find something new written to the side of this list. In bold black sharpie someone has written: Stephanie Taylor totally made out with Max Riley!
“What?” I unintentionally blurt aloud.
No. This can’t be true. Max doesn’t even like Stephanie.
Or at least, I don’t think he does. Maybe…
No, I refuse to believe this. Someone—probably Stephanie herself—wrote this to appear cool, but it was mostly wishful thinking, not an actual truth.
I stand up, wipe, flush, wash my hands, grab my backpack, and leave the restroom. Irritation floods me because I don’t have a class with Max today, plus he has basketball practice after school this week, so I won’t see him until later this afternoon.
Damn it.  
Later that day, while I am doing my homework Max comes home from basketball practice. He puts his stuff away, grabs a glass of milk, chugs the entire thing down in one big gulp, and then sits down beside me at the kitchen table, ready to do some homework. I glance up at him. His wet hair sticks up in hedgehog spikes and he smells of sweat. Max gives me a small smile and then flops open his corpse-like navy blue binder.
Glancing back down at my history textbook, pencil clutched firmly between my fingers, I suddenly can’t remember what I was doing. Max’s pencil makes mouse-like squeaks as he scribbles various academic things into his notebook. I stare at him, tapping the end my pencil against the tabletop, wondering if he is ever going to talk to me.
He doesn’t.
Trying to sound casual I ask, “So, how was practice?”
Eyes meeting mine, he says, “Good,” and then looks back down to his notes.
Oh, so that’s how it is going to be.
I toss my pencil onto the table. “So,” I begin, trying my best at nonchalance, “Have you seen Stephanie Taylor lately?”
“What?” he asks, peering up at me.
“Stephanie Taylor,” I repeat quickly. “Have you hung out with her lately?”
“No,” he says flatly, continuing with his notes. “Why?”
“Um,”—I shrug—“no reason.”
Okay,” he scoffs, sounding thoroughly unconvinced.
“Actually,” I probe immediately. “I was wondering if you’ve ever kissed anyone yet?”
Sitting up abruptly in his chair as though a metal rod has been shoved done his spine, eyes widening, he asks, “Kissed anyone?”  
“Yeah.” I nod.
“Where did this come from?”
“It’s just a question,” I say firmly. “Yes or no?”
Giving a smug smile, he answers, “Maybe,” and then hunches back down into his seat, glancing at his notes again.
“What?” I’m disgusted by the squeakiness of my voice, the childish sounds my questions make as they come out my throat. “So, you did make out with Stephanie Taylor?”
“Because I saw it written in the girl’s bathroom,” I gripe. “So did you or didn’t you?”
“Did what?”
“Make out with her!”
“No,” he says, making a gagging sound afterwards.
“Oh,” I mumble, leaning back into my chair.
Max gives me a strange look, half confused and half amused.
“But wait,” I begin, “You never really answered my question. Have you ever kissed anyone?”
“I said maybe,” he tells me.
Leaning forward, I shake my head. “Maybe isn’t an answer,” I scoff.
  “Ok, then,” he says. “No. I haven’t.”
   I stare at him for a moment and then ask, “Is there anyone at school you want to kiss?”
He eyes me carefully before answering. “Yes,” he admits.
“Are you, uh, gonna tell me?”
He shakes his head.
I sigh.
“Why do you want to know so badly?”
“I don’t know,” I tell him and it’s the truth. “I just do.”

Now that I look back on it, it was rather amusing how irritated I was, strange though.
I moan as the shadow of a cloud moves in, blocking the rays of my beautiful, warm sun.
“Jesus!” I shudder, my eyes flashing open.
“Nope.”  Max shakes his head. “Close though.” Sunrays burst around the edges of his profile.
“What are you doing here?” I ask, rising to my elbows.
“Just about to ask you that. I was looking all over for you. I asked Alisha and Kendra if they knew where you were, but they didn’t have a clue.” – Or, a care, I think bitterly, hating the sound of Alisha’s name spoken aloud, especially by him – “I looked everywhere, except here. I was getting concerned because you kind of looked dead,” he explains.
“Well, I’m not,” I say, rising into a seated position, “but I appreciate the concern.”
“Ok, maybe not dead, but you’re heading in that direction,” he notes. “You’re gonna get skin cancer laying out here all day.”  
“What time is it?”  I ask, wondering how long I’ve been out here.
“It’s six o’clock,” he tells me. “We were supposed to help set up today at the Mess Hall, but Leslie had me go looking for you instead since you didn’t show up.”
“Oh shoot.” I smack my forehead. “I totally forgot about that.”
“It’s ok,” he assures me. “We’ll just help clean-up after dinner.”
“Ok.” I nod.
“Come on, let’s go. I’m starving because of you,” he says, holding out a hand for me. I reach out for it, squeezing tightly as he pulls me to my feet, his Quicksilver flip-flops catching my attention, so big compared to my narrow feet.
“Fine, fine.” I roll my eyes. “Sorry.”
“So what were you doing out here anyways?” he asks as we trek across the field toward the Mess Hall.
“Oh, you know.” I shrug and then lie, “I fell asleep.”
“You fell asleep?” he laughs.
“Yeah,” I say as though it were no big deal. “What? It was comfortable.”
“You’re such a weirdo.”
I give him a shove and he laughs at me.
As Max and I enter the Mess Hall a sea of voices drown out our own. No use in trying to decipher what the other is saying when all other voices braid into a knotted rope of noise around us.
Back muscles tensing, Max and I grab a tray with two chicken tacos and a side of beet salad, which I have to admit, is one of the weirdest combinations of foods ever. Honestly, who comes up with this stuff?
A deep breath of air escapes my lungs the instant we step outside. Evening heat curls around my body, summer giving me a hug. I want to open myself up to it.
Leading the way to a wooden picnic table stationed beneath a colossal oak tree I take a seat, back facing the Mess Hall. Max sits down on the opposite side of the table, smiling at me.
Getting a whiff of my taco, saliva instantly floods my mouth. I bite into it—crunch—and it tastes just as good as it smells, the hot and creamy delicious refried beans ooze over my tongue.   
It’s quiet, but unfortunately not for long. A cacophony of giggles disrupts the peaceful atmosphere.
My stomach tightens.
Alisha and the rest of Max’s adoring fan club parade over to our table, each member carries a tiny plate of salad and nothing more.
Figures, I think.
“Do you mind if we sit here, Max?” Alisha asks, innocently tilting her head, batting her mascara-caked eyelashes at him.
 My gag reflexes to kick into gear and I roll my eyes, grinding my teeth together, desperately hoping he’ll say no.
“Up to you Tiger.” He looks to me.
Does he honestly want her to sit with us? I try to search for the answer in his eyes, but they just stare blankly back at me, waiting for a response.   
“Sure,” I mutter, succumbing to this ludicrous. 
“Thanks,” Alisha squeaks over-joyfully.
I cringe.
Seating herself near Max—a little too close in my opinion—I curl my left hand into a knuckle-whitening fist beneath the table, fingernails cutting tiny half crescents into the flesh of my palm, inhaling deeply.
 Kendra, Lily, and Celeste squish in beside me on the right, while Maggie takes a seat on Alisha’s left.
“So where were you?” Celeste asks and I realize it is me she is speaking to.
“Oh, just lying out on the soccer field,” I reply nonchalantly.
“Why?” Alisha scoffs.
“I don’t know.” I shrug.
“Interesting,” she says, eyes shooting daggers at me. Hunching over her plate she begins picking aimlessly through her salad with a beige plastic fork.
It’s really a shame that out of the millions of sperm she was the fastest swimmer.
I bite into my taco and as I do this some meat and beans spill out the back end, splattering onto my plate, suddenly reminding me of my second grade class field trip out to the dairy farm.
Now I’ve definitely lost my appetite.
Alisha looks up at me, repulsion and disgust clearly written all over her face.
“What?” I hiss, wanting nothing more than to fling a spoonful of beets at her.
Max chuckles.
Alisha observes him smiling at me and then immediately scoots even closer to him, till she is practically sitting in his lap. Energetically tapping him on the shoulder while flipping her silky blonde hair off to the side, she asks, “So what college are you thinking about going to?”
Ignoring them, I pick up my taco once more, trying to eat it as quickly as possible without spilling this time.
Stupid taco.
As my teeth crunch into the taco once again someone’s toe touches mine and for a split second Max glances at me from the corner of his eye, the edge of his mouth twitching with the hint of a smile as his toe inches closer up my foot, until his entire foot is resting gently on top of mine.
Breath freezing in my chest, every sense seems to be on hyper-alert. A blush prickles up the back of my neck and spreads over my entire head. If you were to ask me what fruit best symbolizes me at this very moment—tomato would be my current answer.
I want to release my ponytail and hide behind the curtain of my hair, ditch this bizarre show because this actor isn’t sticking to his script and has got me all confused.
But I can’t for I am paralyzed.  
My pulse drowns everything out.
That’s all I hear.
His foot rises up my leg, his warm toe gliding along the contours of my calf.
A shudder goes down my spine.
Gliding up behind my knee, he pauses for a moment.  I bite the inside of my cheek in an attempt to remain calm. Then, slowly, he descends down my calf, skimming—
“Juna!” Maggie shouts, diverting my attention.
I flinch, Max’s foot jerking away from mine.
Blowing out a deep breath of air, I get a quick glimpse at Max, but his expression is neutral, any emotions he may feel right now remain invisible. I want to know what the heck is going on in his mind—right now!—but no, instead I suck in a deep breath of air and turn my attention to Maggie.
“You ok?” she asks, sounding genuinely concerned for me. “You look like you’re getting sick.”
“I do?” I ask and am even more embarrassed by the unexpected squeak in my voice. Coughing, I make sure this doesn’t happen again, which coincidentally makes my cheeks burn hotter.
“Why are you so red?” Alisha asks, her thin brows pulling together in suspicion.
“Well,” I begin hesitantly, “I guess I do feel a little, um—”
“Sick? Oh no, are you gonna throw up?” Alisha asks. “Ewe! Don’t do it here.”
“I’m not going to throw up,” I mutter.  “Actually, yeah, I’m getting a little tired,”—I force a yawn—“I think I’ll go to bed early.” Gripping the edge of the table I rise from my seat, legs shaky and unsure of themselves, my stomach unstable.
“I’ll come with you,” Max offers.
My heart explodes.
“No!” Alisha shrieks, seizing his arm. “I mean Max doesn’t have to walk you all the way over to our cabin when Kendra, Maggie, Lily and Celeste can do it.” – Each one of the girls’ eyebrows furrow disapprovingly –  “Besides your cabin is a long walk from ours.”
“I don’t mind walking,” Max insists, cutting a glance at me.
“No, it’s fine. I’m a big girl, perfectly capable of walking herself over,” I say sarcastically.
Leaving the table, I toss my plate into the trash and put my food tray back inside. Striding outside, just about to pass Max and the girls, Leslie yells out, “There you are Juna!”
I twist around.
What on earth could she possibly want?
“You and Max need to get in here and help clean up,” she says, turning her eyes on Max for a confirmation. “Okay?”
“Okay.” He nods.
“Okay,” I mutter, trudging back to the Mess Hall.
Well, this sucks.

Chapter 2


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