THE RULES OF SURVIVAL

“What do you mean you can’t go out?”

Ally’s looking at me like I just said I wanted to go to prom with Ben Farsky (or Fart-sky, as we’ve been calling him since fourth grade).

I sigh. “I just don’t feel like it, okay?” I switch tactics and try again. “We go out every weekend. I just—I don’t know. I want to stay in, like we used to.”

“We used to stay in because we couldn’t get into any senior parties,” Ally says.

“Speak for yourself,” Lindsay says.

This is harder than I thought it would be.

I flash on my mom asking if I’d had a fight with Rob and before I can think too much about it I blurt out, “It’s Rob, okay? We…we’re having issues.”

I flip open my phone, checking for texts for the millionth time. When I first came into the cafeteria Rob was standing behind the registers, loading his fries with ketchup and barbecue sauce (his favorite). I couldn’t bring myself to go up to him, so instead I hurried to our table in the senior section and sent him a text: We have 2 talk.

He texted back right away. Bout?

2nite , I wrote back, and since then my phone’s been silent. Across the cafeteria, Rob is leaning against the vending machines talking to Adam Marshall. He has his hat twisted sideways on his head. He thinks it makes him look older.

I used to love collecting all these little facts about him, storing them together and holding them close inside of me, like if I gathered up all the details and remembered them—the fact that he likes barbecue sauce but not mustard, that his favorite team is the Yankees even though he prefers basketball to baseball, that once when he was little he broke his leg trying to jump over a car—I would totally understand him. I used to think that’s what love was: knowing someone so well he was like a part of you.

But more and more I’m feeling like I don’t know Rob.

Ally’s jaw actually drops. “But you’re supposed to—you know .”

She kind of looks like a mounted fish with her mouth open like that, so I turn away, fighting the urge to laugh. “We were supposed to, but…” I’ve never been a good liar and my brain goes totally blank.

“But?” Lindsay prompts.

I reach into my bag and pull out the note he sent me, which is now crumpled and has a piece of gum, half unwrapped, sticking to it. I push it across the table. “But this.”

Lindsay wrinkles her nose and flips open the card with the very tips of her fingernails. Ally and Elody lean over and they both read. They’re all silent for a second afterward.

Finally Lindsay closes the card and pushes it back to me. “It’s not that bad,” she says.

“It’s not that good, either.” I was only trying to fake an excuse to keep us away from the party tonight, but as soon as I start talking about Rob, I get really worked up. “Luv ya? What kind of crap is that? We’ve been going out since October.”

“He’s probably just waiting to say it,” Elody says. She pushes the bangs out of her eyes. “Steve doesn’t say it to me.”

“That’s different. You don’t expect him to say it.”

Elody looks away quickly, and it occurs to me that maybe, despite everything, she does.

There’s an awkward pause, and Lindsay jumps in. “I don’t see what the trauma is. You know Rob likes you. It’s not like it would be a one-night stand or anything.”

“He likes me, but…” I’m about to confess that I’m not sure that we’re good together, but at the last second I can’t. They would think I was insane. I don’t even understand it myself, really. It’s like the idea of him is better than the him of him. “Look. I’m not going to have sex with him just so he’ll say that he loves me, you know?”

I don’t even mean for the words to come out, and for a second I’m so startled by them, I can’t say anything else. That isn’t why I was planning to have sex with Rob—to hear the words, I mean. I just wanted to get it over with. I think. Actually, I’m not sure why it seemed so important.

“Speak of the devil,” Ally mutters.

Then I smell lemon balm and Rob’s planting a wet kiss on my cheek.

“Hi, ladies.” He reaches over to take a fry from Elody, and she moves her tray just out of reach. He laughs. “Hey, Slammer. Did you get my note?”

“I got it.” I look down at the table. I feel like if I meet his eyes I’ll forget everything, forget the note and how he left me alone and how when he kisses me he keeps his eyes open.

At the same time, I don’t really want anything to change.

“So? What’d I miss?” Rob leans forward and puts his hands on the table—a little too hard, I think. Lindsay’s Diet Coke jumps.

“The party at Kent’s and how Sam doesn’t want to go,” Ally blurts out. Elody elbows her in the side and Ally yelps.

Rob swivels his head and looks at me. His face is completely expressionless. “Is that what you wanted to talk about?”

“No—well, kind of.” I wasn’t expecting him to mention the text, and it flusters me that I can’t tell what he’s thinking. His eyes look extra dark, almost cloudy. I try to smile at him, but I feel like my cheeks are all stuffed with cotton. I can’t help but picture him swaying on his feet and holding up his hand and saying, “Five minutes.”

“Well?” He straightens up and shrugs. “What, then?”

Lindsay, Ally, and Elody are all staring at me. I can feel their eyes like they’re emitting heat. “I can’t talk about it here. I mean, not now.” I tip my head in their direction.

Rob laughs: a short, harsh sound. And now I can tell he’s mad and just hiding it.

“Of course not.” He backs away, both hands raised like he’s warding something off. “How ’bout this? You let me know when you’re ready to talk. I’ll wait to hear from you. I would never want to, you know, pressure you.” He elongates some of the words, and I can hear the sarcasm in his voice—just barely, but it’s there.

It’s obvious—to me, at least—that he’s talking about way more than our having a talk, but before I can respond he gives a flourish with his hand, a kind of bow, and then turns around and walks away.

“Jeez.” Ally pushes around the turkey sandwich on her plate. “What was that about?”

“You’re not really fighting, are you, Sam?” Elody asks, eyes wide.

Before I have to answer Lindsay makes a kind of hissing noise and juts her chin up, gesturing behind me. “Psychopath alert. Lock up the knives and babies.”

Juliet Sykes has just walked into the cafeteria. I’ve been so focused on today—on fixing it, on the idea that I can fix it—I’ve totally forgotten about Juliet. But now I whip around, more curious about her than I’ve ever been. I watch her drifting through the cafeteria. Her hair is down and concealing her face: fuzzy, soft hair, so white it reminds me of snow. That’s what she looks like, actually—like a snowflake being buffeted around in the wind, twisting and turning on currents of air. She doesn’t even glance up in our direction, and I wonder if even now she’s planning it, planning to follow us tonight and embarrass us in front of everybody. It doesn’t seem like she would have it in her.

I’m so focused on watching her that it takes me a second to realize Ally and Elody have just finished a round of Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est and are now laughing hysterically. Lindsay’s holding up her fingers, crossed, like she’s warding off a curse, and she keeps repeating, “Oh, Lord, keep the darkness away.”

“Why do you hate Juliet?” I ask Lindsay. It’s strange to me that I’ve never thought of asking until recently. I always just accepted it.

Elody snorts and almost coughs up her Diet Coke. “Are you serious?”

Lindsay’s clearly not prepared for the question. She opens her mouth, closes it, and then tosses her hair and rolls her eyes like she can’t believe I’m even asking. “I don’t hate her.”

“Yes, you do.” It was Lindsay who found out that Juliet wasn’t sent a single rose freshman year, and Lindsay’s idea to send her a Valogram. It was Lindsay who nicknamed her Psycho, and who, all those years ago, spread the story of Juliet peeing on the Girl Scout camping trip.

Lindsay stares at me like I’ve lost my mind. “Sorry,” she says, shrugging. “No breaks for mental-health patients.”

“Don’t tell me you feel bad for her or something,” Elody says. “You know she should be locked up.”

“Bellevue.” Ally giggles.

“I was just wondering,” I say, stiffening when Ally says the B-word. There’s still always the possibility that I’ve gone totally, clinically cuckoo. But somehow I don’t think so anymore. An article I once read said that crazy people don’t worry about being crazy—that’s the whole problem.

“So are we really staying in tonight?” Ally says, pouting. “The whole night?”

I suck in my breath and look at Lindsay. Ally and Elody look at her too. She has final say on all of our major decisions. If she’s hell-bent on going to Kent’s, I’ll have a hard time getting out of it.

Lindsay leans back in her chair and stares at me. I see something flicker in her eyes, and my heart stops, thinking that she’ll tell me to suck it up, that a party will do me good.

But instead she cracks a smile and winks at me. “It’s just a party,” she says. “It’ll probably be lame anyways.”

“We can rent a scary movie,” Elody pipes up. “You know, like we used to.”

“It’s up to Sam,” Lindsay says. “Whatever she wants.”

I could kiss her right then.

I cut English with Lindsay again. We pass Alex and Anna in Hunan Kitchen, but today Lindsay doesn’t even pause, probably because she’s trying extra hard to be nice to me and she knows I hate confrontations.

I hesitate, though. I think of Bridget putting her arms around Alex and looking at him like he’s the only guy on earth. She’s annoying, okay, but she deserves way better than him. It’s too bad.

“Hello? Stalk much?” Lindsay says.

I realize I’m just standing there staring past the ripped-up flyers advertising five-dollar lunch specials and local theater groups and hair salons. Alex Liment has spotted me through the window. He’s staring straight back at me.

“I’m coming.” It is too bad, but really, what can you do? Live and let live.

In The Country’s Best Yogurt, Lindsay and I both get heaping cups of double chocolate with crushed peanut butter cups, and I add sprinkles and Cap’n Crunch cereal. I have my appetite back, that’s for sure. Everything is working out the way I planned it. There won’t be any party tonight, at least not for us; there won’t be any driving or cars. I’m sure that this will fix everything—that the kink in time will be ironed out, that I’ll wake up from whatever nightmare I’ve been living. Maybe I’ll sit up, gasping, in a hospital bed somewhere, surrounded by friends and family. I can picture the scene perfectly: my mom and dad tearful, Izzy crying while she hangs on my neck, Lindsay and Ally and Elody andAn image of Kent flashes through my head and I push it away quickly.

—And Rob. Of course Rob.

But this is the key, I’m sure of it. Live the day out. Follow the rules. Stay away from Kent’s party. Simple.

“Careful.” Lindsay grins, shoveling a huge spoonful of yogurt into her mouth. “You don’t want to be fat and a virgin.”

“Better than fat with gonorrhea,” I say, flicking a chocolate chip at her.

She flicks one back. “Are you kidding? I’m so clean you could eat off me.”

“The Lindsay buffet. Does Patrick know you’re giving it up like that?”

“Gross.”

Lindsay is wrestling with her jumbo cup, trying to dig out the perfect bite. But we’re both laughing, and she ends up lobbing a full spoonful of yogurt at me. It hits me right above the left eye.

She gasps and claps one hand over her mouth. The yogurt slides down my face and lands with a plop right on the fur covering my left boob.

“I am so, so sorry,” Lindsay says, her voice muffled by her hand. Her eyes are wide, and it’s obvious she’s trying not to laugh. “Do you think your shirt is ruined?”

“Not yet,” I say, and dig out a big scoop of yogurt and flick it at her. It hits her in the side of her head, right in her hair.

She shrieks, “Bitch!” and then we’re ducking around the TCBY hiding behind chairs and tables, digging big scoops of double chocolate and using our spoons like catapults to peg each other.

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