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Although the last five minutes dragged on for an eternity, I watched the final few seconds tick toward the top of the hour and braced for my edge. If I got out first, I might stand a chance of beating the crowd. When the period ended, the bell rang and I made a mad run for the door, but my social-studies teacher, Mrs. Akkerman, raised her voice above the noise and royally jacked me up.
"Abbey Chandler, please stay after class."
Damn it! She nailed me, solid. With all eyes on me, I turned around. I couldn't even pretend that I hadn't heard her.
"Ha. Loser," Britney Hartman mumbled under her breath as she shoved me aside. She rolled her eyes and heaved a sigh, like I cared about the added drama.
I could've totally come up with something cool to say, but Britney had already turned her backthe cowardand she got swallowed up by the horde of mindless zombies that crowded the hall. Okay, I admit I may have instigated her resentment from elementary school.
In Girl Scouts, she had all the badges and her mother ran the show, making sure her precious suck-up daughter got more than her share of recognition. Me? I'd never been a joiner, but that didn't become apparent even to me until I hit Britney over the head with a confetti egg in front of the whole troop. Pieces of colored paper stuck in her hair and she bawled like a baby. What can I say? She egged me on.
Even her mother got into it and expelled me from the scouts, stripping me of the one badge I'd earned for Food Power. (I made a food pyramid of healthy food groups out of junk food. Oh, the irony, but what the hell. It tasted good after.) Britney hated me for my project, too. She begrudged me the one badge I had. I caught her grinning when her mom stripped it off my sash in front of the troop. Our feud had deep roots.
After my chance to let loose my inner smart-ass on Britney had come and gone, I slouched against a wall near the classroom door and waited for the room to clear as I chipped the navy glitter polish off my stubby fingernails. Pretending to be busy, I avoided catching the smirks I knew would be there if I looked up.
Being the second to last day of school, you'd think Mrs. Akkerman would lighten up and cut me some slack, but forget about it. Teachers never had a concept for how bad it felt to single a kid out, especially on Taco Thursday. I didn't care about much. Most days I felt invisible, totally forgettable with no special talent. But damn it, give me my tacos.
Now there'd be a long line in the cafeteria. I'd be late and my best friend, Tanner Lange, would be pissed for making him wait. Adding to the suck factor, the other kids stared at me as they left, like I had an epic defect or something.
In elementary school, kids knew about the way my mother died and they treated me different, but it didn't take them long to see I didn't need their pity. I didn't want it. When the classroom cleared, Mrs. Akkerman called me over with a wave of her hand.
"I just wanted to ask you " When she stopped, I looked up. Big mistake.
She looked down at my clothes. My hoodie and jeans were more than a little wrinkled. They were clean, but I had to pull them from a cold dryer. I'd left them overnight and didn't have time to run them on hot that morning.
"How are you doing, Abbey? You getting enough sleep? Are things okay at home?"
I hated looking at her. She had a sickening expression on her face, like I had something majorly wrong with me. But I knew why she bombarded me with questions. Guess I'd brought it on myself.
Earlier in the year, she assigned a project to keep a daily journal of everything we learned in her class. I know, sounds lame, right? Well, it was crazy lame. I bought a notebook just for her class and started that journal, but on day one, I got drool on the first page from where I'd fallen asleep. After it dried, I wrote one line.
Fell asleep today. Will try again tomorrow.
By the time I turned in the assignment, every page had the same entry and enough dried spit to keep a CSI team busy for weeks. When she saw my journal, my teacher called my dad in for "a talk." She told him she worried about me being depressed and possibly suicidal. If you haven't guessed, Akk the Yak had been a former psych major.
After my dad blew past any concern he had over my mental state, he embraced his dark side and went parental on me. I had to put up with a lecture about my work ethic, but Mrs. Akkerman ended up giving me a B+ anyway-for doing nothing. I knew other kids had gotten worse grades, despite filling their journals with enough excrement to fertilize the Matanuska valley. That confused me until I figured it out. If she thought I intended to slit my wrists, she didn't want to put me over the edge with the stroke of her red pen. I milked the whole suicidal thing for the rest of the term.
"I'm doing better. Really." I had to say "better" to stroke her ego. "And things are good with my dad." I lied again.
Of course, that wasn't the end of it. Once she opened her mouth, she spewed strange stuff that I only half heard. I stood there and took it, but the whole time, I screamed in my head, "I'M NOT LISTENING, LA, LA, LA, LA, LA, LET ME FRICKIN' GO, ALREADY!"
By the time she was done, I had to navigate the crowded halls like salmon swimming upstream to get my rocks off on some eggs. Out of my way No, left Walkin' here. I kept my head down, clutching my book bag to my chest to hide my wrinkles, but dead ahead a pod of jocks took up half the hall. Where there was one, more would follow and aggregate in mass quantities, like an unspoken rule or something. Everyone put up with their sense of entitlement to the halls before lunch. When these guys were ready to chow down, some pathetic dick weed would always let them cut in line.
I had to get in front of them pronto.
Normally I walked around them and held my breath. Some of them stank, but since I was late, I shoved my way through the wrestlers. They were like a solar system of varsity letter jackets with the smaller guys hanging out on the edge in a circle around the bigger, no-neck dudes. Making eye contact in this planetary system had always been verboten in my rule book, but when I saw Nate Holden, I stopped dead.
At that moment, I had two really good reasons to forget how much my life sucked and Taco Thursday paled in comparison to the reason standing next to me. Nate Holden stood talking to his buddy Josh Poole. His deep voice tingled in my ear and made my belly twist into a major knot, the kind of thing that felt terrible and amazing at the same time.
Even with his back to me, every side of Nate Holden was excellent. I loved how his dark hair curled at his collar and he always smelled good, but with a full frontal, his hypnotic blue eyes made me forget to breathe. Whenever he talked, his lips could mesmerize me for hours, too. Being next to him felt like getting sucker punchedand liking it. He'd always be out of my league, an unreachable boy from an alternative universe who came to me in my sleep and tortured me. Sweet torture.
Nate Holden had been a constant reminder of how messed up I was. He was the complete opposite of me, someone I had no business even wanting. We had absolutely nothing in common. Brownie points for him. But that didn't stop me from practically stalking him. Deduct said brownie points. I played scenarios in my head, where he needed me as much as I wanted him. How sick was that?
That would never happen. My fantasies were the only way I'd ever get close to someone like him.
"Where the hell have you been?" A voice came from nowhere and intruded on my fantasy like cold water dumped on my head.
I turned to see Tanner Lange roll up in his wheelchair. I considered him my best friend, poor guy. In truth, he was my only real friend, even if he got a little rude at grazing time.
"I had prime real estate staked out in the cafeteria. I had to give it up to come looking for you. What happened?"
Looking back over my shoulder, I stared at Nate as I mumbled something about Akk the Yak keeping me after class, but Tanner didn't buy my excuse.
"You've been stalking him again, haven't you?" He shook his head, but I saw him losing his battle with a smile. Tanner had cute dimples that gave him away every time. The whole bashful-boy routine came easy for him and he wore it well.
I took a deep breath and forced myself to turn my back on the one thing (besides Tanner) that made school even remotely tolerable, Nate Holden. After I slung my bag on Tanner's wheelchair, I climbed on back to scoot us down the hall.
"Coming through, people," I yelled, making engine and horn noises. "Make a hole."
It took us over thirty minutes to get through the line and get to a table, only we had to share our spot with the Scrapbook Club, the glue and stickers brigade. Talk about useless!
"You gonna eat your tomato?" Tanner didn't wait for my answer.
He reached across the table to score the tomato slices on my chopped lettuce. I thought about stabbing him with my fork, but that's not how you treat a guy in a wheelchairat least not while anyone was looking.
"Chandler, you should consider dialing it back a notch with Holden." Tanner leaned in and whispered. "You're a little obvious, don't you think? I'm disturbed by your drooling. It's nearly put me off of my taco experience."
"You're disturbed, all right. Anyone can see that." I rolled my eyes.
Although I knew he had a point, I couldn't help it. I was a junkie and Nate fed my addiction. The boy was seriously worthy. He was smart, got good grades, and he risked his sweet neck doing volunteer work for a mountain rescue team. If he had any flaws, no one could expect me to point them out, because I was blind. Seriously blind.
"It's a good thing I'm secure in my manhood or else I'd be a little uncomfortable with your courtship ritual." Tanner stuffed a taco into his mouth.
"Yeah, good thing, Chuck Norris. I can see how messed up you are about it. How're the tacos?"
"Are you gonna eat.?"
"Don't even think about it." I glared at him. I wasn't so wrapped up with crushing on Nate that I'd let Tanner scarf a taco off my tray, not on my watch. "Damn, dude. You're like a human garbage disposal. Seriously. You've got a tapeworm or something."
"I'm blessed with a healthy metabolism. It runs in my family."
"Yeah, well I wish you'd share it with me. The only reason I hang with you is, I'm hoping lean and mean is contagious."
I had totally justified body image issues, but never cared enough to go cold-turkey off the junk food, and forget about breaking a sweat. Exercise was for mice in a cage with a wheel and nothing better to do.
"Now I know you're lying. I know the real reason you've lowered your standards to hang with me." Tanner leaned across the table again. Only this time, he didn't whisper. "'Cause when I start driving, I'll have all the choice parking spots."
"You've nailed it, Lange. I'm after your handi-crap parking. You've got me figured out. But, dude, I'm tellin' ya, some days that's not good enough." I looked at him sideways and smirked. "So why do you tolerate me?"
"Two reasons. You're my only friend with boobs."
I rolled my eyes and scrunched my face. "What's the second reason?"
"You do the math, Chandler. You've got two of 'em, duh."
When Tanner shrugged and kept eating, it gave me a chance to partake in the Nate Holden experience when he finally walked into the cafeteria and the Red Sea parted. If Palmer High had royalty, Nate would be crown prince and I'd be the cursed troll who lived under the bridge. Nate stood close enough to our table for me to overhear him talk to Josh about their trip up Denali. A climb like that would be epic, but it worried me. People did it. Some never come back. I had met one of the unlucky ones once. His body was still up there, frozen in ice.
I had plenty of motivation to talk Nate out of the climb of his lifea trip he'd been talking about foreverbut he'd never listen to someone like me. I wasn't even on his radar. We occupied the same planet and breathed the same air, but that's where anything we had in common came to a dead stop.
"You comin' over tonight?" Tanner had turned his attention to his chocolate pudding cup. "I got a recording of a new Japanese reality TV show that's pretty sick. You could check out my new radio. Dad says it should pick up the frequency Nate will be using for us to track his climb."
Expedition teams on Denali carried portable radio transceivers used to get weather alerts and for emergencies. Our plan had been to eavesdrop on Nate's climb.
"Yeah, sure. That'd be great."
Tanner was an army brat whose father did the daily commute to Fort Rich so his mom could live in Palmer to be near her family. His dad doted on his only son, especially after Tanner was paralyzed from a four-wheeler accident at thirteen years old. Racing too fast with his buddies on a mountain trail, not far from Palmer, Tanner slid around a corner and his back wheel caught a boulder that sent him careening into a ravine. He got pinned under the vehicle. Once they freed him, he had to be evacuated by helicopter, but the damage to his spinal cord had been too severe. A lapse in judgment had cost Tanner his legs and since his father had bought him the four-wheeler, against his mother's wishes, the terrible incident nearly shattered his family.
Tanner had been strong and athletic once. He had friends, too. But after things got rough, his buddies went on with their lives, leaving Tanner to deal with his. I'd been one of the few people who stuck around. Birds of a feather, I guess.
My best friend had his own reasons for listening to Nate's Denali expedition on his radio. It gave him a chance to imagine going with him. Tanner never had to tell me that. I figured it out on my own.