16 SOMEONE’S BEEN KISSING IN THE KILN….

That same Wednesday lunch period, Emily strode quickly through the art studio hallway. “Heeeyyy, Emily,” crooned Cody Wallis, Rosewood Day’s star tennis player.

“Hi?” Emily looked over her shoulder. She was the only person around—could Cody really be saying hi to her?

“Looking good, Emily Fields,” murmured John Dexter, the unbelievably hot captain of Rosewood Day’s crew team. Emily couldn’t even muster a hello—the last time John had spoken to her was in fifth-grade gym class. They’d been playing dodgeball, and John had beaned Emily’s chest to tag her out. Later, he’d come up to her and said, snickering, “Sorry I hit your boobie.”

She’d never had so many people—especially guys—smile, wave, and say hi to her. This morning, Jared Coffey, a brooding senior who rode a vintage Indian motorcycle to school and was usually too cool to speak to anyone, had insisted on buying her a blueberry muffin out of the vending machine. And as Emily had walked from second to third period this morning, a small convoy of freshman boys followed. One filmed her on his Nokia—it was probably already up on YouTube. She had come to school prepared to be taunted about the photo A had passed around at the meet yesterday, so this was sort of…unexpected.

When a hand shot out of the pottery studio, Emily flinched and let out a small shriek. Maya’s face materialized at the door. “Psst. Em!”

Emily stepped out of the stream of traffic. “Maya. Hey.”

Maya batted her eyelashes. “Come with me.”

“I can’t right now.” Emily checked her chunky Nike watch. She was late for her lunch with Becka—Little Miss Tree Tops. “How about after school?”

“Nah, this’ll just take a second!” Maya darted inside the empty studio and around a maze of desks toward the walk-in kiln. To Emily’s surprise, she pushed the kiln’s heavy door open and slid inside. Maya poked her head back out and grinned. “Coming?”

Emily shrugged. Inside the kiln, everything was dark, wooden, and warm—like a sauna. Dozens of students’ pots sat on the shelves. The ceramics teacher hadn’t fired them yet, so they were still brick red and gooey.

“It’s neat in here,” Emily mused softly. She’d always liked the earthy, wet smell of raw clay. On one of the shelves was a coil pot she’d made two periods ago. She’d thought she’d done a good job, but seeing it again, she noticed that one side caved in.

Suddenly, Emily felt Maya’s hands sliding up her back to her shoulders. Maya spun Emily around, and their noses touched. Maya’s breath, as usual, smelled like banana gum. “I think this is the sexiest room in the school, don’t you?”

“Maya,” Emily warned. They had to stop…only, Maya’s hands felt so good.

“No one will see,” Maya protested. She raked her hands through Emily’s dry, chlorine-damaged hair. “And besides, everyone knows about us anyway.”

“Aren’t you bothered by what happened yesterday?” Emily asked, pulling away. “Don’t you feel…violated?”

Maya thought for a moment. “Not particularly. And no one really seems to care.”

“That’s the weird thing,” Emily agreed. “I thought everyone was going to be mean today—like, teasing me or whatever. But instead…I’m suddenly crazily popular. People didn’t even pay this much attention to me after Ali disappeared.”

Maya grinned and touched Emily’s chin. “See? I told you it wouldn’t be so bad. Wasn’t it a good idea?”

Emily stepped back. In the kiln’s pale light, Maya’s face shone a ghoulish green. Yesterday, she’d noticed Maya in the natatorium stands…but when she’d looked after discovering the photo, she couldn’t find Maya anywhere. Maya had wanted their relationship to be more open. A sick feeling washed over her. “What do you mean, good idea?”

Maya shrugged. “I just mean, whoever did this made things much easier for us.”

“B-but it’s not easier,” Emily stammered, remembering where she was supposed to be right now. “My parents are livid about that photo. I have to go into a counseling program to prove to them I’m not gay. And if I don’t, they’re going to send me to Iowa to live with my aunt Helene and uncle Allen. For good.”

Maya frowned. “Why didn’t you tell your parents the truth? That this is who you are, and it’s not something you can, like, change. Even in Iowa.” She shrugged. “I told my family I was bi last year. They didn’t take it that well at first, but they got better.”

Emily moved her feet back and forth against the kiln’s smooth cement floor. “Your parents are different.”

“Maybe.” Maya stood back. “But listen. Since last year, when I was finally honest with myself and with everybody else? Ever since then, I’ve felt so great.”

Emily’s eyes instinctively fell to the snakelike scar on the inside of Maya’s forearm. Maya used to cut herself—she said it was the only thing that made her feel okay. Had being honest about who she was changed that?

Emily closed her eyes and thought of her mother’s angry face. And getting on a plane to live in Iowa. Never sleeping in her own bed again. Her parents hating her forever. A lump formed in her throat.

“I have to do what they say.” Emily focused on a petrified piece of gum someone had stuck on a kiln shelf. “I should go.” She opened the kiln door and stepped back into the classroom.

Maya followed her. “Wait!” She caught Emily’s arm, and as Emily spun around, Maya’s eyes searched her face. “What are you saying? Are you breaking up with me?”

Emily stared across the room. There was a sticker above the pottery teacher’s desk that said, I LOVE POTS!

Only, someone had crossed out the s and drawn a marijuana leaf over the exclamation point. “Rosewood’s my home, Maya. I want to stay here. I’m sorry.”

She snaked around the vats of glaze and potter’s wheels. “Em!” Maya called behind her. But Emily didn’t turn around.

She took the exit door that led straight out of the pottery studio to the quad, feeling like she’d just made a huge mistake. The area was empty—everyone was at lunch—but for a second, Emily could have sworn she saw a figure standing on Rosewood Day’s bell tower roof. The figure had long blond hair and held binoculars to her face. It almost looked like Ali.

After Emily blinked, all she saw was the tower’s weathered bronze bell. Her eyes must have been playing tricks on her. She’d probably just seen a gnarled, twisted tree.

Or…had she?

Emily shuffled down the little footpath that led to Lorence chapel, which looked less like a chapel and more like the gingerbread house Emily had made for the King James Mall Christmas competition in fourth grade. The building’s scalloped siding was cinnamon brown, and the elaborate trim, balusters, and gables were a creamy white. Gumdrop-colored flowers lined the window boxes. Inside, a girl was sitting in one of the front pews, facing forward in the otherwise empty chapel.

“Sorry I’m late,” Emily huffed, sliding onto the bench. There was a Nativity scene placed on the altar at the front of the room, waiting to be set up. Emily shook her head. It wasn’t even November yet.

“It’s cool.” The girl put out her hand. “Rebecca Johnson. I go by Becka.”

“Emily.”

Becka wore a long lacy tunic, skinny jeans, and demure pink flats. Delicate, flower-shaped earrings dangled from her ears, and her hair was held back with a lace-trimmed headband. Emily wondered if she’d end up looking as girly as Becka if she completed the Tree Tops program.

A few seconds passed. Becka took out a tube of pink lip gloss and applied a fresh coat. “So, do you want to know anything about Tree Tops?”

Not really, Emily wanted to answer. Maya was probably right—Emily would never be truly happy until she stopped feeling ashamed and denying her feelings. Although…she eyed Becka. She seemed okay.

Emily opened her Coke. “So, you liked girls?” She didn’t entirely believe it.

Becka looked surprised. “I—I did…but not anymore.”

“Well, when you did…how did you know for sure?” Emily asked, realizing she was brimming with questions.

Becka took a minuscule bite out of her sandwich. Everything about her was small and doll-like, including her hands. “It felt different, I guess. Better.”

“Same here!” Emily practically shouted. “I had boyfriends when I was younger…but I always felt differently about girls. I even thought my Barbies were cute.”

Becka daintily wiped her mouth with a napkin. “Barbie was never my type.”

Emily smiled, as another question came to her. “Why do you think we like girls? Because I was reading that it was genetic, but does that mean that if I had a daughter, she would think her Barbies were cute, too?” She thought for a moment, before rambling on. No one was around and it felt good to ask some of the things that had been circling around in her brain. That’s what this meeting was supposed to be about, right? “Although…my mom seems like the straightest woman on earth,” Emily continued, a little manically. “Maybe it skips a generation?”

Emily stopped, realizing that Becka was staring at her with a weirded-out expression on her face. “I don’t think so,” she said uneasily.

“I’m sorry,” Emily admitted. “I’m kind of babbling. I’m just really…confused. And nervous.” And aching, she wanted to add, dwelling for a second on how Maya’s face had collapsed when Emily told her it was over.

“It’s okay,” Becka said quietly.

“Did you have a girlfriend before you went into Tree Tops?” Emily asked, more quietly this time.

Becka chewed on her thumbnail. “Wendy,” she said almost inaudibly. “We worked together at the Body Shop at the King James Mall.”

“Did you and Wendy…fool around?” Emily nibbled on a potato chip.

Becka glanced suspiciously at the manger figurines on the altar, like she thought that Joseph and Mary and the three wise men were listening in. “Maybe,” she whispered.

“What did it feel like?”

A tiny vein near Becka’s temple pulsed. “It felt wrong. Being…gay…it’s not easy to change it, but I think you can. Tree Tops helped me figure out why I was with Wendy. I grew up with three brothers, and my counselor said I was raised in a very boy-centric world.”

That was the stupidest thing Emily had ever heard. “I have a brother, but I have two sisters too. I wasn’t raised in a boy-centric world. So what’s wrong with me?”

“Well, maybe the root of your problem is different.” Becka shrugged. “The counselors will help you figure that out. They get you to let go of a lot of feelings and memories. The idea is to replace them with new feelings and memories.”

Emily frowned. “They’re making you forget stuff?”

“Not exactly. It’s more like letting go.”

As much as Becka tried to sugarcoat it, Tree Tops sounded horrible. Emily didn’t want to let go of Maya. Or Ali, for that matter.

Suddenly, Becka reached out and put her hand over Emily’s. It was surprising. “I know this doesn’t make much sense to you now, but I learned something huge in Tree Tops,” Becka said. “Life is hard. If we go with these feelings that are…that are wrong, our lives are going to be even more of an uphill battle. Things are hard enough, you know? Why make it worse?”

Emily felt her lip quiver. Were all lesbians’ lives an uphill battle? What about those two gay women who ran the triathlon shop two towns over? Emily had bought her New Balances from them, and they seemed so happy. And what about Maya? She used to cut herself, but now she was better.

“So is Wendy okay that you’re in Tree Tops now?” Emily asked.

Becka stared at the stained-glass window behind the altar. “I think she gets it.”

“Do you guys still hang out?”

Becka shrugged. “Not really. But we’re still friends, I guess.”

Emily ran her tongue over her teeth. “Maybe we could all hang out some time?” It might be good to see two ex-gays who were actually friends. Maybe she and Maya could be friends, too.

Becka cocked her head, seeming surprised. “Okay. How about Saturday night?”

“Sounds good to me,” Emily answered.

They finished their lunch and Becka said good-bye. Emily started down the sloped green, falling in line with the other Rosewood Day kids heading back to class. Her brain was overloaded with information and emotions. The lesbian triathletes might be happy and Maya might be better, but maybe Becka had a point, too. What would it be like at college, then after college, then getting a job? She would have to explain her sexuality to people over and over again. Some people wouldn’t accept her.

Before yesterday, the only people who knew how Emily truly felt were Maya, her ex, Ben, and Alison. Two out of the three hadn’t taken it very well.

Maybe they were right.

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