THE SECRET

“I just don’t get it.” Lindsay’s pouting in the front seat, halfway down Kent’s driveway, where the line of cars ends. “How do you expect us to get home ?”

I sigh and explain it for the thousandth time. “I’ll get us a ride, okay?”

“Why don’t you just come in with us now?” Ally whines from the backseat, also for the thousandth time. “Just leave the damn car.”

“And let you drive home, Ms. Absolut World?” I twist around and stare pointedly at the vodka bottle she’s holding. She takes this as a cue to toss back another gulp.

“I’ll drive us home,” Lindsay insists. “Have you ever seen me drunk?”

“It doesn’t matter.” I roll my eyes. “You can’t even drive sober.”

Elody snorts and Lindsay wags a finger at her. “Watch out or you’ll be walking to school from now on,” she says.

“Come on, we’re missing the party.” Ally finger-combs her hair, ducking so she can check herself out in the rearview mirror.

“Give me fifteen minutes, tops,” I say. “I’ll be back before you even make it to the keg.”

“How will you get back here?” Lindsay’s still eyeing me suspiciously, but she opens the door.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say. “I hooked up a ride earlier.”

“I still don’t see why you can’t just drive us home later.” Lindsay’s grumbling, still unhappy about the arrangements, but she climbs out, and Ally and Elody follow. I don’t bother answering. I’ve already explained, and explained again, that I may be ducking out of the party early. I know all of them assume it’s because Rob will be there and I’m afraid I’ll freak or something, and I don’t correct them.

I’m planning to drop the car in Lindsay’s driveway, but after I pull out onto Route 9, I find that, without meaning to, I steer toward home. I’m feeling calm, blank, like all of the darkness outside has somehow seeped in and turned everything off inside me. It’s not an unpleasant feeling. It’s kind of like being in a pool and kicking up onto your back until you find the perfect balance where you can float without thinking about it.

Most of the lights are off at my house. Izzy’s gone to sleep several hours ago. There’s a faint blue light glowing in the den. My father must be watching TV. Upstairs a bright square of light marks the bathroom. Through the shades I can see a figure moving around, and I imagine my mom dotting Clinique moisturizer on her face, squinting without her contacts, the tattered arm of her bathrobe fluttering, a bird wing. As usual they’ve left the porch light on for me, so that when I come home I won’t have to fumble in my bag for my keys. They’ll be making plans for tomorrow, maybe wondering what to do for breakfast or whether to wake me up before noon, and for a moment grief for everything I am losing—have lost already, lost days ago in a split second of skidding and tearing where my life ripped away from its axis—overwhelms me, and I put my head down on the steering wheel and wait for the feeling to pass. It does. The pain ebbs away. My muscles relax, and once again I’m struck by the rightness of things.

As I’m driving back to Lindsay’s, I think about something I learned years ago in science class, that even when birds have been separated from their flock they will still migrate instinctively. They know where to go without ever having been shown the way. Everyone was talking about how amazing that was, but now it doesn’t seem so strange. That’s how I feel right now: as though I am in the air, all alone, but somehow I know exactly what to do.

A few miles before Lindsay’s driveway, I pull out my phone and punch in Kent’s number. It occurs to me that he may have thought I was kidding earlier today. Maybe he won’t pick up when he doesn’t recognize the phone number, or maybe he’ll be so busy trying to keep people from puking on his parents’ Oriental carpets he won’t hear it. I count the rings, getting more and more nervous. One, two, three.

On the fourth ring there’s the sound of fumbling. Then Kent’s voice, warm and reassuring: “Hunky Heroes, rescuing distressed women, captive princesses, and girls without wheels since 1684. How can I help you?”

“How did you know it was me?” I say.

There’s a surge in the music and the swelling of voices. Then I hear Kent cup his hand over the phone and yell, “Out!” A door shuts and the background noise is suddenly muffled.

“Who else would it be?” he says, his voice sarcastic.

“Everyone else is here.” He readjusts something and his voice becomes louder. He must be pressing right up to the phone. The thought of his lips is distracting. “So what’s up?”

“I hope your car’s not blocked in,” I say. “Because I’m in desperate need of a ride.”

On the way back to Kent’s, we’re mostly quiet. He doesn’t ask me why I was standing in the middle of Lindsay’s driveway, and he doesn’t press the issue of why I’ve chosen him to be my ride. I’m grateful for that, and happy just to sit in silence next to him, watching the rain and the dark brushstrokes of the trees against the sky. As we turn into his driveway, which by this point is almost completely packed with cars, I’m trying to decide exactly what the rain dancing in the headlights looks like. Not glitter, exactly.

Kent puts the car in park but leaves the engine on. “I still haven’t forgotten that you promised me a secret, by the way.” He turns to look at me. “Don’t think you’re getting off so easy.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it.” I unbuckle my seat belt and inch closer to him, still watching the rain out of the corner of my eye. Like dust, kind of, but only if dust were made of solid white light.

Kent folds his hands in his lap, staring at me expectantly, his mouth just curved into a smile. “So let’s hear it.”

I reach across Kent and pull the keys out of the ignition, cutting the lights. In the resulting darkness the sound of the rain seems much louder, washing all around us.

“Hey,” Kent says softly, his voice making my heart soar again, making my whole body light. “Now I can’t see you.”

His face and body are all shadow, darkness on darkness. I can just make out the lines of him, and, of course, feel the warmth from his skin. I lean forward, catching my chin on the roughness of his corduroy jacket, finding his ear, accidentally bumping it with my mouth. He inhales sharply and his whole body tenses. My heart is fluid, soaring. There’s no longer any space between heartbeats.

“The secret is,” I say, whispering right into his ear, “that yours was the best kiss I’ve ever had in my life.”

He pulls back a little so that he can look at me, but our lips are still just inches away. I can’t make out his expression in the dark, but I can tell that his eyes are searching my face again.

“But I’ve never kissed you,” he whispers back. Around us the rain sounds like falling glass. “Not since third grade, anyway.”

I smile, but I’m not sure if he can see it. “Better get started, then,” I say, “because I don’t have much time.”

He pauses for only a fraction of a second. Then he leans forward and presses his lips to mine, and the whole world powers off, the moon and the rain and the sky and the streets, and it’s just the two of us in the dark, alive, alive, alive.

I don’t know how long we’re kissing. It seems like hours, but somehow when he pulls away, breathing hard, both hands holding my face, the clock glowing dully on the dashboard has only inched forward a few minutes.

“Wow,” he says. I can feel his chest rising and falling quickly. We’re both out of breath. “What was that for?”

I force myself to pull away, find the handle in the dark and pop the door open. The cold air and the rain whooshes in, helping me think. I suck in a deep breath. “For the ride and everything.”

Even in the dark I can see his eyes sparkling like a cat’s. I can hardly bring myself to look away. “You really saved my life tonight,” I say, my little joke, and then before he can stop me, and even though he calls my name, I jump out of the car and jog along the driveway toward the house, for the very last party of my life.

“You made it!” Lindsay squeals when I find her in the back room. As always the music and heat and smoke is impassable, a wall of people, perfume, and sound. “I totally thought you would flake.”

“I knew you’d show,” Ally says, reaching out and squeezing one of my hands. She drops her voice, which at this volume means she screams a little quieter. “Did you see Rob?”

“I think he’s avoiding me,” I say, which is true. Thank God.

Lindsay twists around, calling for Elody—“Look who decided to grace us with her presence!” she screams, and Elody scans our faces before registering that I haven’t been at the party the whole time—and then turns to me, slipping her arm around my shoulders. “Now it’s officially a party. Al, give Sam a shot.”

“No, thanks.” I wave away the bottle she offers me. I flip open my cell phone. Eleven thirty. “Actually, um, I think I’m going to go downstairs for a bit. Maybe outside. It’s really hot up here.”

Lindsay and Ally exchange a glance.

“You just came from outside,” Lindsay says. “You just got here. Like five seconds ago.”

“I was looking around for you guys for a while.” I know I sound lame, but I also know that I can’t explain.

Lindsay crosses her arms. “Uh-uh, no way. Something’s going on with you, and you’re going to tell us what it is.”

“You’ve been acting weird all day.” Ally bobbles her head.

“Did Lindsay tell you to say that?” I ask.

“Who’s been acting weird?” Elody’s just made her way over to us.

“Me, apparently,” I say.

“Oh, yeah.” Elody nods. “Definitely.”

“Lindsay didn’t tell me to say anything .” Ally puffs up her chest, getting offended. “It’s obvious.”

“We’re your best friends,” Lindsay says. “We know you.”

I press my fingers against my temples, trying to block out the throbbing sounds of the music, and close my eyes. When I open them again, Elody, Ally, and Lindsay are all staring at me suspiciously.

“I’m fine, okay?” I’m desperate to prevent a long conversation—or worse, a fight. “Trust me. It’s just been a weird week.” Understatement of the year.

“We’re worried about you, Sam,” Lindsay says. “You’re not acting like yourself.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” I say, and when they stare at me blankly, I sigh, leaning forward to wrestle them all into a group hug.

Elody squeals and giggles, “PDA much?” and Lindsay and Ally seem to relax too.

“I promise nothing’s the matter,” I say, which isn’t exactly true, but I figure it’s the best thing to say. “Best friends forever, right?”

“And no secrets.” Lindsay stares pointedly at me.

“And no bullshit,” Elody trumpets, which isn’t part of our little routine, but whatever. She’s supposed to say, “and no lies,” but I guess one works as well as the other.

“Forever,” Ally finishes, “and till death do us part.”

The last part falls on me to say, “And even then.”

“And even then,” the three of them echo.

“All right, enough mushy crap.” Lindsay breaks away. “I, for one, came to get drunk.”

“I thought you didn’t get drunk,” Ally says.

“Figure of speech.”

Ally and Lindsay start going back and forth, Ally dancing away with the vodka bottle (“If you don’t get drunk, I don’t see the point of drinking and wasting it”) as Elody wanders back over to Muffin. At least the attention is off me.

“See you later,” I say loudly to all of them in general, and Elody glances over her shoulder at me, but she may be looking at someone else. Lindsay flaps a hand in my direction, and Ally doesn’t hear me at all. It reminds me of leaving my house for the last time this morning, how in the end it’s impossible to understand the finality of certain things, certain words, certain moments. As I turn away my vision gets blurry, and I’m surprised to find that I’m crying. The tears come without any warning. I blink repeatedly until the world sharpens again, rubbing the wetness off my cheeks. I check my cell phone. Eleven forty-five.

Downstairs I stand just inside the door, waiting for Juliet, which is a bit like trying to stay on your feet in the middle of a riptide. People swarm around me, but hardly anybody looks my way. Maybe they’re getting a weird vibe off me, too, or they can tell I’m focused elsewhere. Or maybe—and this makes me sad as soon as I think it—they can sense, somehow, that I’m already gone. I push the thought away.

Finally I see her slip through the front door, white sweater tied loosely around her, head stooped. Instantly I jump forward and put a hand on her arm. She starts, staring at me, and though she must have imagined coming face-to-face with me tonight, the fact that I’ve found her, and not the other way around, throws her off guard.

“Hey,” I say. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”

She opens her mouth, shuts it, then opens it again. “Actually, I, um, kind of have somewhere to be.”

“No, you don’t.” In one movement I draw her away from the crowded entrance and toward a little recessed area in the hall. It’s a little easier to hear each other here, though it’s so squished we have to stand nearly pressed chest-to-chest. “Weren’t you looking for me, anyway? Weren’t you looking for us ?”

“How did you—?” She breaks off, sucks in a breath, and shakes her head. “I’m not here for you.”

“I know.” I stare at her, willing her to look at me, but she doesn’t. I want to tell her that I get it, that I understand, but she’s examining the tiling on the floors. “I know it’s bigger than that.”

“You don’t know anything,” she says dully.

“I know what you have planned for tonight,” I say, very quietly.

Then she looks up. For a second our eyes meet, and I see fear flashing there, and something else—hope, maybe?—but she quickly drops her eyes again.

“You can’t know,” she says simply. “Nobody knows.”

“I know that you have something to tell me,” I say. “I know that you have something you wanted to say to all of us—to me, to Lindsay, to Elody, and Ally, too.”

Again she looks up, but this time she holds my gaze, eyes wide, and we stare at each other. Now I know what the look on her face is, behind the fear: wonder.

“You’re a bitch,” she whispers, so quietly I’m not sure I even hear the words or am just remembering them, imagining them in her voice. She says it like she is reciting the lines to an old play, some long-neglected script she can’t manage to forget.

I nod. “I know,” I say. “I know I am. I know I have been—we all have been. And I’m sorry.”

She takes a quick step back, but there’s nowhere to go, so she ends up bumping up against the wall. She flattens herself, hands braced against the plaster, breathing hard, like I’m some kind of a wild animal that might attack her at any second. She’s shaking her head quickly from side to side. I don’t even think she knows she’s doing it.

“Juliet.” I reach out, but she shrinks an extra half inch into the wall, and I drop my hand. “I’m serious. I’m trying to tell you how sorry I am.”

“I have to go.”

She seems to break away from the wall with effort, like she’s not sure she’ll be able to stand without it. She tries to squeeze past me, but I shuffle around so we’re face-to-face again.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“You said that.” Now she’s getting angry. I’m glad. I think it’s a good sign.

“No, I mean…” I take a deep breath, willing her to understand. This is how it’s supposed to be. “I have to come with you.”

“Please,” she says. “Just leave me alone.”

“That’s what I’m telling you. I can’t .” As we’re standing there I realize we’re almost exactly the same height. We must look like the dark and light sides of an Oreo cookie, and I think how just as easily it could have been the other way around. She could be blocking my path; I could be trying to slip around her into the dark.

“You don’t—” she starts, but I don’t ever hear what she’s about to say. At that second someone yells, “Sam!” from the stairs, and as I turn around to look up at Kent, Juliet darts past me.

“Juliet!” I whip around but not quickly enough. She’s swallowed by the crowd, the gap that allowed her to break for the door closing just as quickly as it opened, a shifting Tetris pattern of bodies, and now I’m running up against backs and hands and enormous leather bags.

“Sam!”

Not now, Kent. I’m fighting my way toward the door, every few steps being carried backward as people drive relentlessly toward the kitchen, holding up cups that need to be refilled. When I’m almost at the door, the crowd thins and I surge forward. But then I feel a warm hand on my back, and Kent’s spinning me around to face him, and despite the fact that I need to catch Juliet and the fact that we’re standing in the middle of a billion people, I think about how good it would feel to dance with him. Really dance, not just grind up on each other like people do at homecoming—dance the way people used to, with my hands on his shoulders and his arms around my waist.

“I’ve been looking for you.” He’s out of breath and his hair is messier than usual. “Why did you run away from me before?”

He looks so confused and concerned I feel my heart somersault in my chest.

“I don’t really have time to talk about this right now,” I say as gently as possible. “I’ll catch up with you later, okay?” It’s the easiest way. It’s the only way.

“No.” He sounds so emphatic I’m momentarily thrown off guard.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, no .” He stands in front of me, blocking my path to the door. “I want to talk to you. I want to talk now.”

“I can’t—” I start to say, but he cuts me off.

“You can’t run away again.” He reaches out and places his hands gently on my shoulders, but his touch makes a current of warmth and energy zip through me. “Do you understand? You can’t keep doing this.”

The way he’s looking at me makes me feel weak. The tears threaten to come again. “I never meant to hurt you,” I croak out.

He releases my shoulders, pushing his hands through his hair. He looks like he wants to scream. “You act like I’m invisible for years, then you send me this adorable little note, then I pick you up, and you kiss me—”

“I think you kissed me , actually.”

He doesn’t miss a beat. “—And you completely blow me away and rip my world up and everything else, and then you go back to ignoring me.”

“I blew you away?” I squeak out before I can stop myself.

He stares at me steadily. “You blew everything away.”

“Listen, Kent.” I look down at my palms, which are actually itching to reach out and touch him, to smooth his hair back and tuck it behind his ear. “I meant everything that happened in the car. I meant to kiss you, I mean.”

“I thought I kissed you.” Kent’s voice is even and I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

“Yeah, well, I meant to kiss you back.” I try to swallow the lump in my throat. “That’s all I can tell you right now. I meant it. More than I’ve ever meant anything else in my life.”

I’m glad I’m staring down at my shoes because at that second the tears push out of my eyes and start running down my cheeks. I quickly wipe them away with the back of my hand, pretending to be rubbing my eyes.

“What about that other thing you said in the car?” Kent doesn’t sound angry, at least, though I’m too scared to look at him. His voice is softer now. “You said you didn’t have much time. What did you mean?”

Now that the tears have found a way out, there’s no stopping them, and I keep my head bowed. One of them splatters on my shoe, leaving a mark in the shape of a star. “There are things going on right now….”

He puts two fingers under my chin and tilts my face up toward his. And then I really do stumble. My legs just give out underneath me, and he scoops one arm behind my back to keep me upright.

“What’s happening, Sam?” He brushes a tear away from the corner of my eye with his thumb, his eyes searching my face, doing the thing where I feel like he’s turning me inside out and looking straight into my heart. “Are you in trouble?”

I shake my head, unable to speak, and he rushes on, “You can tell me. Whatever it is, you can trust me.”

For a moment I’m tempted to let myself stay this way, pressed against him; to kiss him over and over until it feels like I’m breathing through him. But then I think of Juliet in the woods. I see two blinding beams of light cutting through the darkness, and the low sound of roaring, like a faraway ocean, an engine jumping to life. The roaring and the lights fill my head, pushing everything else out—the fear, the regret, the sadness—and I can focus again.

“I’m not in trouble. It’s not about me. I—I have to help someone.” I break away from Kent gently, detaching his arm from my waist. “I can’t really explain. You have to trust me .”

I lean forward and give him a final kiss—just a peck, really, our lips hardly brushing together, but enough for me to feel that sense of soaring again, strength and power flowing through me. When I pull away I’m expecting more argument, but instead he just stares at me for a beat longer and then whirls around and disappears toward the stairs. My stomach plummets and for one split second I ache for him so badly—I miss him—I feel like my whole chest has caved in. Then I think of the dark, and the lights, and the roaring, and Juliet, and before I can think of anything else, I fight the final few steps to the door and step out into the cold, where the rain is still coming down like shards of moonlight, or like steel.

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