A MIRACLE OF CHANCE AND COINCIDENCE, PART I

“And so, I was like, listen, I don’t care that it’s stupid, I don’t care that it’s, like, a holiday invented by Hallmark or whatever….” Lindsay’s rattling on about Patrick, punctuating her story by tapping the steering wheel with the heel of her hand. She’s perfectly in control again, hair swept back in a ponytail just messy enough, lip gloss slicked on, a mist of Burberry Brit Gold clinging to the puffy jacket she’s wearing. It’s strange to see her this way after last night, but at the same time I’m glad. She’s cruel and frightened and proud and insecure, but she’s still Lindsay Edgecombe—the girl who freshman year took a key to Mari Tinsley’s brand-new BMW after Mari called her a froshy prostitute, even though Mari had just been voted prom queen, and nobody, not even people in her own grade, would stand up to her—and she’s still my best friend, and despite everything I still respect her. And I know that however wrong she’s been—about a million things, about other people, about herself—she’ll figure it out. I know from the way she looked last night, with the shadows making a hollow of her face.

Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I like to believe, on some level, or in some world, what happened last night matters, that it didn’t totally vanish. Sometimes I’m afraid to go to sleep because of what I’m leaving behind . Thinking about Kent’s words makes shivers dance up and down my spine. This is the first time in my life I’ve ever missed kissing someone; the first time I’ve ever woken up feeling like I’ve lost something important.

“Maybe he’s freaking out because he’s too into you,” Elody pipes up from the backseat. “Don’t you think, Sam?”

“Uh-huh.” I’m savoring my coffee, drinking it slowly. A perfect morning, exactly how I would have chosen it: perfect coffee, perfect bagel, riding around in the car with two of my best friends, not really talking about anything, not really trying to talk about anything, just babbling on about the same stuff we always do, enjoying one another’s voices. The only thing that’s missing is Ally.

I suddenly get the urge to drive around Ridgeview for a little bit longer. Partly I don’t want the ride to end. Partly I just want to look at everything one last time.

“Lindz? Can we stop at Starbucks? I, um, kind of want a latte.” I take a few gulps of my coffee, trying to drain it, to make this more believable.

She raises her eyebrows. “You hate Starbucks.”

“Yeah, well, I got a sudden craving.”

“You said it tastes like dog pee strained through a trash bag.”

Elody gulps her coffee. “Ew—hello? Drinking. Eating.” She waves her bagel dramatically.

Lindsay raises both hands. “That’s a direct quote.”

“If I’m late to poly sci one more time I swear I’ll get detention for life,” Elody says.

And you’ll miss the chance to suck face with Muffin before first,” Lindsay says, snickering.

“What about you?” Elody pegs her with a piece of bagel, and Lindsay squeals. “It’s a miracle you and Patrick haven’t fused faces yet.”

“Come on, Lindsay. Please?” I bat my eyelashes at her, then twist around to Elody. “Pretty please?”

Lindsay sighs heavily, locking eyes with Elody in the rearview mirror. She flicks on her turn indicator. I clap my hands and Elody groans.

“Sam gets to do what she wants today,” Lindsay says. “After all, it’s her big day.” She emphasizes the word big , then starts cracking up.

Elody picks up on it right away. “I would say it was Rob’s big day, actually.”

“We can only hope.” Lindsay leans over and elbows me.

“Ew,” I say. “Perverts.”

Linday’s on a roll now. “It’s going to be loooong day.”

“A hard one,” Elody adds.

Lindsay sprays some coffee out of her mouth and Elody shrieks. They’re both snorting and laughing like maniacs.

“Very funny,” I say, looking out the window, watching the houses begin to stream together as we come into town. “Very mature.” But I’m smiling, feeling happy and calm, thinking, You have no idea.

There’s a small parking lot behind the Starbucks in town, and we get the last spot, Lindsay slamming into it and nearly taking out the side mirrors of the two cars on either side of us, but still yelling, “Gucci , baby, gucci ,” which she claims is Italian for “perfect.”

In my head I’ve been saying good-bye to everything, all these places I’ve seen so often I start to ignore them: the deli on the hill with perfect chicken cutlets and the trinket store where I used to buy thread to make friendship bracelets and the Realtor’s and the dentist’s and the little garden where Steve King put his tongue in my mouth in seventh grade, and I was so surprised I bit down. I can’t stop thinking about how strange life is, about Kent and Juliet and even Alex and Anna and Bridget and Mr. Otto and Ms. Winters—about how complex and connected everything is, all threaded together like some vast, invisible netting—and how sometimes you can think you’re doing the right thing, but it’s actually terrible and vice versa.

We head into Starbucks and I get a latte. Elody gets a brownie, even though she’s just eaten, and Lindsay puts a stuffed bear on her head and then orders a water without blinking while the barista stares at her like she’s crazy, and I can’t help but throw my arms around her, and she says, “Save it for the bedroom, babe,” making the old woman behind us inch away. We come out laughing and I almost drop my coffee—Sarah Grundel’s brown Chevrolet is idling in the parking lot. She’s drumming her hands on the wheel, checking her watch, waiting for a spot to open up. The last spot—the spot we took.

“You’ve got to be freaking kidding me,” I say out loud. She’ll definitely be late now.

Lindsay catches me staring and misunderstands me. “I know. If I had that car I totally wouldn’t rock it past the driveway. I think I’d rather walk.”

“No, I—” I shake my head, realizing I can’t explain. As we pass, Sarah rolls her eyes and sighs, like, Finally . The humor of the situation hits me and I start to laugh.

“How’s the latte?” Lindsay asks as we climb back in the car.

“Like dog pee strained through a trash bag,” I say. We roll out of the spot, giving Sarah a little beep, and she huffs and zooms in as soon as we’re out of the way.

“What’s her drama?” Elody asks.

“PNS,” Lindsay says. “Parking Need Syndrome.”

As we pull out of the parking lot, it occurs to me that maybe it’s not so complicated at all. Most of the time—99 percent of the time—you just don’t know how and why the threads are looped together, and that’s okay. Do a good thing and something bad happens. Do a bad thing and something good happens. Do nothing and everything explodes.

And very, very rarely—by some miracle of chance and coincidence, butterflies beating their wings just so and all the threads hanging together for a minute—you get the chance to do the right thing.

Here’s the last thing that occurs to me as Sarah recedes in the rearview mirror, slamming out of the car, jogging across the parking lot: if you’re one tardy away from missing out on a big competition, you should probably make your coffee at home.

When we get to school I have a few things to take care of in the Rose Room, so I split up with Elody and Lindsay. Then, because I’m already late, I decide to skip the rest of first period. I wander through the halls and the campus, thinking how strange it is that you can live your whole life in one place and never really look at it. Even the yellow walls—what we used to call the vomit hallways—strike me as pretty now, the slender bare trees in the middle of the quad elegant and sparse, just waiting for snow.

For most of my life it’s always seemed like the school day dragged on forever—except during quizzes and tests, when the seconds seemed to trip over themselves trying to run away quickly. Today it’s like that. No matter how badly I want for everything to go slowly, time is pouring away, hemorrhaging. I’ve barely made it into the second question of Mr. Tierney’s quiz before he’s yelling, “Time!” and giving all of us his fiercest scowl, and I have to turn in my quiz only partially completed. I know it doesn’t matter, but I’ve given it my best shot anyway. I want to have one last day when everything is normal. A day like a million other days I’ve had. A day when I turn in my chem quiz and worry about whether Mr. Tierney will ever make good on his threat to call BU. But I don’t regret the quiz for long. I’m past regretting things now.

When it’s time for math I head down early, feeling calm. I slide into my seat a few minutes before the bell and take out my math textbook, centering it perfectly on my desk. I’m the first student to arrive.

Mr. Daimler comes over and leans against my desk, smiling at me. I notice for the first time that one of his incisors is extra pointy, like a vampire’s. “What’s this, Sam?” He gestures at my desk. “Three minutes early and actually prepared for class? Are you turning over a new leaf?”

“Something like that,” I say evenly, folding my hands on top of my textbook.

“So how’s Cupid Day treating you?” He pops a mint in his mouth and leans closer. It grosses me out, like he thinks he can seduce me with fresh breath. “Any big romantic plans tonight? Got someone special to cozy up next to?” He raises his eyebrows at me.

A week ago this would have made me swoon. Now I feel totally cold. I think about how rough his face was on mine, how heavy he felt, but it doesn’t make me angry or afraid. I fixate on his hemp necklace, which is, as always, peeking out from under his shirt collar. For the first time he strikes me as kind of pathetic. Who wears the same thing for eight straight years? That would be like if I insisted on wearing the candy necklaces I loved when I was in fifth grade.

“We’ll see,” I say, smiling. “What about you? Are you going to be all by your lonesome? Table for one?”

He leans forward even more, and I stay perfectly still, willing myself not to pull away.

“Now why would you assume that?” He winks at me, obviously thinking that this is my version of flirting—like I’m going to offer to keep him company or something.

I smile even wider. “Because if you had a real girlfriend,” I say, quietly but clearly, so he can hear every word perfectly, “you wouldn’t be hitting on high school girls.”

Mr. Daimler sucks in a breath and jerks backward so quickly he almost falls off the desk. People are coming into class, now, chattering and comparing roses, ignoring us. We could be talking about a homework assignment, or a quiz grade. He stares at me, his mouth opening and shutting. No words come out.

The bell rings. Mr. Daimler shakes his shoulders and stumbles away from the desk, still staring at me. Then he turns a complete circle as if he’s lost. Finally he clears his throat.

“Okay, everyone.” His voice breaks and he coughs. When he speaks again it’s a bark. “Everyone. Seats. Now.”

I have to bite the edge of my hand to keep from cracking up. Mr. Daimler shoots me a look of total disgust, which makes the urge to laugh even harder to resist. I look away, turning toward the door.

Right at the moment that Kent McFuller walks through it.

We lock eyes, and in that second it’s like the classroom folds in two and all of the distance disappears between us. A zooming, rushing feeling comes over me, like I’m being beamed up into his bright-green eyes. Time collapses, too, and we’re back on my porch in the snow, his warm fingers brushing my neck, the soft pressure of his lips, the whisper of his voice in my ear. Nothing exists but him.

“Mr. McFuller. Care to take a seat?” Mr. Daimler’s voice is cold.

Kent turns away from me and the moment is lost. He mumbles a quick sorry to Mr. Daimler and then heads for his seat. I turn around, following him with my eyes. I love the way he slides into his seat without touching his desk. I love the way, when he pulls out his math textbook, a bunch of crumpled sketches come with it. I love the way he keeps nervously fiddling with his hair, running his hands through it even though it swings back into his eyes immediately.

Miss Kingston. If I could trouble you for just a second of your precious time and attention.”

When I turn back to the front of the room, Mr. Daimler is glaring at me.

“I guess for a second,” I say loudly, and everybody laughs. Mr. Daimler folds his mouth into a thin white line but doesn’t say anything else.

I flip open my math textbook, but I can’t focus. I drum my fingers on the underside of the desk, feeling antsy and exhilarated now that I’ve seen Kent. I wish I could tell him exactly how I feel. I wish I could explain it somehow, that he could know . I watch the clock anxiously. I can’t wait for the Cupids to come.

Kent McFuller is getting an extra rose today.

After class I wait for Kent in the hall, butterflies making a mess of my stomach. When he comes out he’s carefully holding the rose I’ve sent him, like he’s afraid it will break. He glances up, serious and thoughtful, his eyes searching my face.

“You going to tell me what this is about?” He doesn’t smile, but there’s a teasing lilt to his voice and his eyes are bright.

I decide to tease him right back, even though being so close to him is making it hard to think. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He holds the rose out and flips the note open so I can read it, though, of course, I know what it says.

Tonight. Leave your phone on and your car out, and be my hero.

“Mysterious,” I say, holding back a smile. He looks ten times more adorable when he’s worried. “Secret admirer?”

“Not so secret.” His eyes are still roving over my face like there’s the answer to a puzzle written there, and I have to look away to keep from grabbing him and pulling him toward me. He pauses. “I’m having a party tonight, you know.”

“I know.” I rush on. “I mean, I heard.”

“So…?”

I give up on playing with him. “Listen, I may need you to pick me up from somewhere. Twenty minutes, tops. I wouldn’t ask unless it was important.”

He crooks one side of his mouth into a smile. “What’s in it for me?”

I lean forward so my mouth is inches away from the perfect shell of his ear. The smell of him—freshly cut grass and mint—is addictive. “I’ll tell you a secret.”

“Now?”

“Later.” I pull back. Otherwise I won’t be able to stop myself from kissing his neck. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I was never like this with Rob. I can barely keep my hands to myself around Kent. Maybe dying a few times messes with your hormones or something. I kind of like it.

His face gets serious again. “What you wrote here…” He fingers the note, folding it and unfolding it, his eyes dazzling, swirling with gold. “The last bit…the hero thing…how did you—?”

My heart is beating frantically, and for one second I think he knows—I think he remembers. The silence is heavy between us, everything past and remembered and forgotten and wanted swinging there like a pendulum. “How did I what?” I can barely breathe the words.

He sighs and shakes his head, gives me a weak smile. “Nothing. Forget it. It’s stupid.”

“Oh.” I realize I’ve been holding my breath, and I exhale, looking away so he won’t see how disappointed I am. “Thanks for your rose, by the way.”

Of all the roses I’ve gotten it’s the only one I kept. It’s my favorite , I’d said, when Marian Sykes delivered it to me.

She looked up at me, startled, and then looked around, as though I couldn’t possibly be talking to her. When she realized I was, she blushed and smiled.

You have so many , she said shyly.

The problem is I can never keep them alive , I said. I have, like, a black thumb.

You have to cut the stems on an angle , she said eagerly, then blushed again. My sister taught me that. She used to like to garden. She turned away, biting her lip.

You should take them , I said.

She stared at me for a second as though suspecting a joke. Like, to keep? she said, reminding me of Izzy.

I’m telling you, I can’t have any more flower homicides on my conscience , I said. You could take them home. Do you have a vase?

She paused for a fraction of a second more and then broke into a dazzling smile, transforming her whole face. I’ll keep them in my room , she said.

Kent cocks one eyebrow. “How do you know that I’m the one who sent it?”

“Come on.” I roll my eyes. “No one else draws weird cartoons for a living.”

He puts a hand on his chest, acting offended. “Not for a living. For the love of it. Besides, they’re not weird.”

“Whatever. Then thanks for your totally normal note.”

“You’re welcome.” He grins. We’re standing close enough that I can feel the heat coming off him.

“So are you going to be my knight in shining armor or what?”

Kent does a little bow. “You know I can’t resist a damsel in distress.”

“I knew I could count on you.” The hallways are empty now. Everyone is at lunch. For a moment we just stand there smiling at each other. Then something softens in his eyes and my heart soars. Everything in me feels fluttering and free, like I could take off from the ground at any second. Music, I think, he makes me feel like music. Then I think, He’s going to kiss me right here, in the math wing of Thomas Jefferson High School, and I almost pass out.

He doesn’t, though. Instead he reaches out and touches my shoulder once, lightly. When he removes his fingers I can still feel them tingling on my skin. “Until tonight, then.” A flicker of a smile. “Your secret better be good.”

“It’s amazing, I promise.” I wish I could memorize every single thing about him. I want to burn him into my mind. I can’t believe how blind I was for so long. I start to back away before I do something wildly inappropriate, like jump on top of him.

“Sam?” he stops me.

“Yeah.”

His eyes are doing that searching thing again, and now I understand why he told me before that he could see through me. He’s actually been paying attention. I feel like he’s reading my mind right now, which is more than a little embarrassing, since most of my thoughts for the moment involve how perfect his lips are.

He bites his lip and shuffles his feet a little. “Why me? For tonight, I mean. We haven’t really talked in, like, seven years….”

“Maybe I’m making up for lost time.” I keep backing away from him, skipping a little.

“I’m serious,” he says. “Why me?”

I think of Kent holding my hand in the dark, leading me through rooms crisscrossed with moonlight. I think of his voice lulling me to sleep, carrying me off like a tide. I think of time stilling as he cupped my face and brought his lips to mine.

“Trust me,” I say, “it can only be you.”

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