Pretend You Love Me

( 19 )

Overview

In this fresh, poignant novel (originally published under the title Far From Xanadu), Mike is struggling to come to terms with her father's suicide and her mother's detachment from the family. Mike (real name: Mary Elizabeth) is gay and likes to pump iron, play softball, and fix plumbing. When a glamorous new girl, Xanadu, arrives in Mike's small Kansas town, Mike falls in love at first sight. Xanadu is everything Mike is not — cool, confident, feminine, sexy.... straight.

Julie...

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Pretend You Love Me

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Overview

In this fresh, poignant novel (originally published under the title Far From Xanadu), Mike is struggling to come to terms with her father's suicide and her mother's detachment from the family. Mike (real name: Mary Elizabeth) is gay and likes to pump iron, play softball, and fix plumbing. When a glamorous new girl, Xanadu, arrives in Mike's small Kansas town, Mike falls in love at first sight. Xanadu is everything Mike is not — cool, confident, feminine, sexy.... straight.

Julie Anne Peters has written a heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful novel that will speak to anyone who has ever fallen in love with someone who can't love them back.

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Editorial Reviews

Booklist
"There's no arguing with the honest intensity of Mike's emotions. Readers will wish her heartsease."
From the Publisher
"Another gem in Peters' string of literary treasures."—VOYA

"Excellent characterization makes this piece shine."—Kirkus Reviews

"Readers will root for Mike in this heartfelt coming-of-age story."—School Library Journal

"There's no arguing with the honest intensity of Mike's emotions. Readers will wish her heartsease."—Booklist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316127417
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • Publication date: 5/10/2011
  • Pages: 282
  • Sales rank: 324,492
  • Age range: 14 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Julie Anne Peters is the critically acclaimed author of Keeping You a Secret, Between Mom and Jo, Define "Normal," and Luna, a National Book Award Finalist.

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Read an Excerpt

Pretend You Love Me


By Peters, Julie Anne

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2011 Peters, Julie Anne
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316127417

Chapter One

After my dad’s suicide, the town council decided to remove the bottom portion of the ladder from the Coalton water tower. Like that was going to keep me down. We pooled our savings, me and Jamie, and bought a thirty-two-foot extension ladder at Hank’s Hardware. In the long prairie grass around the tower, we could keep it hidden so no one would ever know.

Who were we kidding? This was Coalton. Everyone knew everything.

The sky was already pinking up and I was going to miss the whole show if I didn’t hurry. I dragged the extension over and clanged it against the remaining rungs, then clambered up to the landing. The sun was peeking over the horizon as the gate screeked open to the walkaround. It was chilly. I could see my breath. I’d pulled a pair of Dad’s sweats on over my boxers, but now wished I’d dug out a flannel shirt from the laundry. His ribbed undershirt was flimsy.

I sat on the metal platform and dangled my feet over the rim. Resting my forehead against the railing, I thought, Oh man. The colors—rose and amber, indigo, orange-streaked clouds. Dad said angels painted the sky at dawn and dusk. Dad was a liar, but I could almost believe him on that one. The magnificence, the majesty, the sheer magnitude of sky was beyond human dimension. Beyond understanding, expression. It was bigger than life. Bigger than death.

Only one thing could be better than a sunrise in Coalton—sharing it with the person you loved.

Someday…

Someday…

When I got home the house was quiet. Good. They were both still in bed. Maybe I could get out of here without an encounter of the ugly kind.

I changed into a clean muscle tee, but decided to wear the boxers to school. They looked cool. I threw on a hooded sweatshirt, since it’d be late by the time I got home tonight. “Morning, morning, morning.” I performed my morning ritual—finger kissing all my nudie posters: Evangelina, Beemer Babe, the Maserati girl.

Down the dim hallway I heard Ma’s radio click on full blast to a morning call-in show. I hustled to the kitchen to make a power shake and bail.

Two raw eggs, a scoopful of protein powder, water from the tap. I covered my plastic glass with a palm and shook it. As I swigged down the chalky goop, I lifted a shock absorber off the top of Darryl’s stack of car zines and did a set of curls. My upper arm strength wasn’t where it should be. The game with Deighton yesterday I underthrew to second and T.C. had to dig the ball out of the dirt. Inexcusable. I made a mental note to add another set of tricep extensions to my circuit. Another rep of lat pulls.

In my reflection off the grimy back door, I flexed. The sleeve of my sweatshirt bulged. Nice definition, if I did say so myself.

Darryl slimed into a chair at the dinette. On his way he’d snagged a can of Dinty Moore beef stew off the counter and popped the pull top, managing to slop half of it down his bare chest. Disgusting. I didn’t claim him as a brother.

“I’m taking the truck today,” I said.

“Fuck you are.” He slurped right out of the can.

I considered crushing his skull with the shock absorber. Then figured his thick head might actually absorb the shock. “I need it for work. Everett wants me to run a load of feed up to the Tillson ranch near Ladder Creek.”

“Use the Merc’s flatbed.” Darryl swiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

“Everett needs it for hauling portable stalls.”

“Tough titties. Last time you made a delivery the inside of the truck reeked of sheep shit for a week.”

“This is only grain. Milo and horse feed.”

“No,” Darryl said. He picked up his pack of Marlboros off the table and shook one out. “I need wheels today.”

“For what? So you can joyride all over the county and take potshots at prairie dogs?”

“You been touching base with my secretary again?” Darryl smirked. He lit up a smoke.

The café doors to the kitchen crashed open and Darryl and I jumped.

Ma thundered into the room. She nearly wrenched off the loose handle as she yanked open the refrigerator. The door wouldn’t swing all the way with her between it and the counter. I noticed she had on the same outfit she’d worn all week—a sleeveless gray shift that clung to her breasts and belly. Argyle knee socks bunched at the ankles. Her hair hadn’t been combed or washed in, like, a month. She smelled worse than she looked.

“No milk,” she stated flatly, releasing the handle so the door shut on its own.

“I’ll go get you some,” Darryl and I said together. Our eyes met briefly. He added, “I’m heading over to the Suprette, anyway. I got a job interview there this morning.”

“What!” I screeched.

They both twisted their heads at the echo in the room. Did Ma focus? Did she actually see me? The momentary flicker of recognition died as she snatched a bag of powdered donuts off the top of the fridge and trundled back to her bedroom.

Ugliness, I thought. Too much ugliness in my life.

“I’ll drop you at school if you want,” Darryl said, sucking on his Marlboro.

I glared at him. “You’re looking for a job? What about the job you’ve got?”

He exhaled smoke through his nose.

My job. The one you stole from me.” The one I’d be doing now if I didn’t have to haul sheep shit in the truck.

“Mike, I keep telling you. It’s not my fault—”

I slammed out the back door, seething to myself. Hating him. Hating both of them for crapping out my day.

Coalton High was my refuge. Not that I loved school or anything; it was just a place to go. I took the back way, through the Ledbetters’ woodpile and behind the propane tanks at the Co-op. It was still only six blocks. I hit the front door as the warning bell rang for first hour.

Mrs. Stargell glanced up from roll call as I sauntered in. “Mike,” she said.

“Miz S,” I replied.

“Glad you could join us.”

“It was on my way.”

She stifled a grin, unsuccessfully.

Ida Stargell had to be a hundred years old, easy. She’d been teaching at Coalton High since the Jurassic Period. No kidding. Dad said he’d had her in high school for English, Math, and Biology—the only three A’s he’d ever gotten. I was trying to beat his record by taking her for Lit and Bio in tenth grade last year, then Creative Writing and Geometry this year.

Geometry class was crammed. At Coalton High that meant fourteen seats were filled. Well, two desks were empty today. Shawnee Miller had been rushed to the hospital in Garden City on Tuesday after her appendix burst in gym. And Bailey McCall was out helping with the spring calving. So, twelve seats full. I should get an A in math for that calculation alone.

I liked Mrs. Stargell. Everybody did. Not only for her generosity in grading; she cared about us. Too much sometimes. If you were out sick for more than a day, she’d call or stop by your house in the evening. Two years ago she was stopping by to see me and Darryl a lot. She’d bring us casseroles and Jell-O molds, which Ma snarfed down like a sow in heat.

Miz S began writing a theorem on the board when a figure filled the open doorway. The pencil I’d been gnawing on clattered to the floor. This… this girl appeared. She was the most beautiful creature in the world.

She stood beside the metal cart of textbooks inside the door, eyes darting around the room. People stared. No one spoke. Who could? She pursed her lips and tapped her foot as Mrs. Stargell continued to write.

“Um, hello?” the girl finally said. She had this low, sultry voice.

Miz S flinched. “Oh. I didn’t see you there. Come in.”

The girl pranced across the room and handed Mrs. Stargell a slip of paper. Then she headed down the aisle toward me.

Toward me!

I scrambled to stand and offer her my seat, but she slid into Bailey McCall’s desk in front of me. She sat up straight.

“Class, we have a new student,” Miz S announced. “I’d like you to welcome…” She glanced at the sheet of paper in her hands. Squinting, she removed her bifocals and let them dangle between her boobs on her neck chain. “Is it… Xanadu?”

“Wonders never cease,” the girl said under her breath. “She can read.”

Her long, dark hair flipped over the back of the seat and onto my desk. I had the strongest urge to touch it, stroke it. The color was… otherworldly. Like roasted mahogany. Like Cherry Coke.

Miz S said, “Come up here and introduce yourself.”

The girl—Xanadu?—swiveled in her seat to face me and said, “Didn’t she just do that?” Loud enough for the three or four people around us to hear. No one reacted.

I might’ve smiled. I was still speechless.

“Come on. Don’t be shy,” Miz S urged.

The girl ignored her. “Is she serious?” Blinking at me. She had these huge, expressive eyes.

“’Fraid so,” I managed to croak. And shiny white skin, like porcelain china cups. Her eyes were an unusual color, gray-blue, rimmed with lots of eyeliner and eye shadow. That gorgeous brownishmaroonish hair.

Mrs. Stargell set her piece of chalk in the blackboard tray and brushed her fingers on her flowered dress. “Xanadu, please. Come up here. We won’t bite.”

She should speak for herself, I thought.

“Shit,” Xanadu hissed. Even that didn’t evoke a response from the people around us. They just gawked at her. She stood noisily and clomped up the aisle. She was tall, taller than me. Which was no genetic feat, considering I’m probably the shortest person in school. But she was statuesque. At least five ten. A faint scent of perfume settled around Bailey’s desk. What was that fragrance? The junk Jamie slathered on after getting stoned? I floated in her fumes.

“Tell us a little bit about yourself,” Miz S said, snaking an arm around Xanadu’s waist. Xanadu, aka the goddess, had on tight low-rider jeans with a form-fitting, see-through, black lace top. So fine. So very, very fine.

“Like what?” She crossed her arms in front of her, looking embarrassed, self-conscious. Her top rode up a little and my eyes fixed on her belly-button ring.

“Xanadu. That’s an interesting name.” Miz S’s eyes glazed over. She peered off into the middle distance and cleared her throat.

Uh-oh, I thought. Here it comes.

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.”

Miz S paused. “I forget the rest. Do you know it?” she asked Xanadu.

“Know what?” Xanadu said flatly.

Miz S opened her mouth, then shut it. She asked, “Were your parents great lovers of Samuel Taylor Coleridge?”

Xanadu stared into Mrs. Stargell’s wrinkly face. “Nooo,” she drew out the word, “my ’rents were lovers of float. They were meth-heads, obviously amped up on jack when they had me.”

During the stunned silence even the dust motes fainted over dead. Xanadu’s gaze cruised around the room at all the bulging eyeballs. Was I the only one who saw it? The slight sucking in of her lips? The teasing eyes? I burst into laughter.

Her eyes met mine and she cracked a smile.

The shock on Mrs. Stargell’s face didn’t help me sober up. She withdrew her hand from Xanadu’s waist like human contact with this foreign body might be hazardous to one’s health.

No one else was laughing. Why not? They had to have figured it out by now.

“Thank you, Xanadu.” Mrs. Stargell’s voice chilled. “You may return to your seat.”

Xanadu clomped back to Bailey’s desk. Flopping down with a huff, she swiveled around again and said, “Is she for real? God help us.”

I figured God was doing His part for me today.

After class, as I was exchanging my math book for my cleats, that same dusky perfume bit my nose. I wheeled around.

“Hi,” she said, hugging her books to her chest. Her very fine chest. “I just made that up about my parents, like on the spur of the moment. Can you believe it? I freak under pressure. My parents are so totally straight; they’d die if people thought they were meth-heads. God. I can’t believe I actually said that out loud. Can you?”

“No,” I admitted.

She smiled. My insides melted.

“Apparently no one else got that I was just blowing her off. Nobody even laughed.”

A couple of people passed us in the hall and glanced back over their shoulders, checking her out. I couldn’t blame them. We’d never experienced anything like Xanadu at Coalton High.

“I wasn’t serious,” she said. “Did people think I was serious?” She peered after them, curling a lip.

“No,” I said. “They knew. We’re not as dumb as we look.”

Her eyes swept the floor. “I didn’t mean that.”

My face burned. “No. Me neither. I knew you knew.” Had I offended her? Hurt her feelings?

She raised her eyes to mine and we melded together. I could feel it. Her chest heaved and she expelled an audible sigh. “God.” She lowered her chin to her chest. “I am so lost here. So out of my realm.”

I’ll help you find your realm, I thought. I’ll ride you to the castle on a tall white steed and slay every dragon in your path.

“I guess you know my name.” She tilted her head up and crossed her eyes at me. “I’m sure the whole school does by now. What’s yours?”

“Mike.” I cleared my windpipe.

“Mike.” She bumped my shoulder with hers. Coy. Flirty. God, give me strength. It was suddenly a hundred and ten degrees in here.

“’Scuse me,” I stammered. Setting my cleats back on the shelf, I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and hung it on the hook in my locker. When I turned back, she was staring at me. And not at my face.

“Sorry,” she said, her jaw slack. “I… I thought you were a guy.”

“Yeah.” I tried to smile, but the smile twisted, like my stomach. “I, uh, get that a lot.”

Chapter Two

I stood at the pulldown station, balancing the handlebar at crotch height, studying myself in the wall-to-wall mirrors. Mike Szabo, I thought, you are one ugly girl. If I had to be born a girl, why couldn’t I at least have been a regular girl? Attracted to guys, like every other girl in the world?

“It’s all yours, Mike.” Armie sat up, straddling the flat bench. He swabbed his dripping neck and chest with a towel, then caught his own reflection in the mirror and sucked in his gut. The hair on his back was all matted with sweat—gag—and the bench was slimy now. Darryl accused me once of wanting to be a guy. He was wrong. Guys physically repulsed me. Maybe when I was younger I wished I was a guy, but I got over it.

Armie said, “Is the bench press next on your circuit?”

“Yeah.”

He bunched the towel around his neck and crouched to replace the plates. “How much you lifting?”

“Eighty,” I told him.

“With reps?” He whistled. “That’s about your limit, I’d say.”

So he thought. I hadn’t reached my limit.

“Baby, the sky’s the limit,” Dad’s voice sounded in my head.

Shut up. Is that what you were reaching for when you jumped?

“I’m only loading sixty for you,” Armie said.

Damn him. I lay prone on the bench, my knees bent, feet flat on the floor. My fingers curled over the dumbbell, caressing it. I loved the smooth feel of the metal, the cool slickness in my palms. I spread my hands apart, deltoid distance, the bar directly over my chest. Armie fastened the second collar and stood. “I’ll spot you,” he said.

“Not necessary.” I could press sixty in my sleep.

He spotted me anyway.

I concentrated. Converted the solid steel plates into bone and muscle. Mine. I closed my eyes and pictured her, Xanadu. She hadn’t run from me, exactly. More like took off fast when she figured me out.

Up and off the rack. Damn, she was beautiful.

Inhale. Down. I wanted her.

Exhale. Up. She’d never be mine.

Inhale. Down. Why not?

“Slower,” Armie said. “Make each rep count.”

Focus. Concentrate. Exhale. Up, up, and hold. If I believed it, I could have it.

Dad again. “Believe it, baby. Believe it and it’s yours.”

Stop it. Down. Stop talking to me. My muscles contracted, quivered. Block it out, Mike. You’re strong. Feel the power. Let it grow, radiate. Exhale. Up, up, and up.

“Anything is possible.”

Shut up, Dad.

“Anything.”

You’re a liar. Remember?

Armie reracked me.

“Hey—” I was on the verge of my adrenaline high.

“You’re shaking,” Armie said. “Take a break.” The phone rang and Armie headed toward the office. Over his shoulder, he added, “Do some curls.”

I waited until he was out of view and pressed another set. I needed my high.

As I was toweling off the bench for the next person, Armie reappeared. Swinging a clump of keys on a shoestring around and around his wrist, he looked at me and shook his head.

“What?”

“You’re the best advertisement I got for this place,” he said.

I exaggerated a smile. He was right about that. I struck a pose like Mr. Universe, which made Armie laugh. He ruffled my hair and headed over to the Nautilus.

After Armie blew out his knee playing football at K State, he found his way back to Coalton. Guys like him always did. Townies. People with deep roots. His family had been here longer than mine, lucky for me. Lucky for all us jocks. Armie’d bought up the old VFW building at the end of Main and remodeled it into a weight room on one side and tanning salon on the other. The gym was totally equipped: a multi-station machine, Nautilus, flat and incline benches, squat rack, barbells, dumbbells, a treadmill, couple of stationary bikes. He called it Armie’s Hut. It’d always be the VFW to us. When you’re used to something, it’s hard to change your way of thinking.

Dad and Armie were old drinking buddies from way back. Dad had bailed Armie out of the drunk tank more than once, so I guess Armie felt indebted when he’d offered to waive my membership fee. I told him forget it. I’d pay my way.

I took a quick shower, then poked my head into the salon, thinking I’d catch Jamie in the tanning bed. It was open and empty. Renata Pastore, Armie’s live-in girlfriend, was cleaning out the spigot on the espresso machine. “Hey, Renata,” I called to her.

She whirled around. “Oh hey, Mike.” She smiled, her head tilting at an odd angle. I knew what was coming. “How’s your Ma?”

“Doin’ good,” I lied. “You seen Jamie?”

“Not yet. That cheerleader jamboree was today.”

It should’ve been over by now. That was the reason I was here instead of softball practice. The visiting squads were hogging the field.

“We’re sure having a gorgeous spring, aren’t we?” Renata said, rinsing out her dishrag. “It’s warm for April, though. Bet we’re in for a long, hot summer.”

“Probably.” When wasn’t it long and hot in Coalton?

Renata had on a tie-dyed psychedelic skirt with an embroidered peasant blouse. Jamie called her a throwback to the sixties. Renata’s sister, Deb, who was in my class, was sort of retro too, except I think it wasn’t by choice. She mostly wore Renata’s hand-me-downs. My eyes strayed to the watch on my wrist—Dad’s old Timex. Crap. If I didn’t haul ass, I was going to be late for work.

Thompson’s Feed, Seed, and Mercantile was a historic landmark in Wallace County. A couple of years ago lightning had struck the original structure and burned it to the ground. Everett Thompson, the proprietor (as he liked to call himself), managed to salvage one charred beam, which he extended vertically from the roof with the new Mercantile sign. You couldn’t miss it from the highway, not after he attached the rotating pig on top.

The pig lit up at night. You could see it clear from Goodland. The town council had been after Everett for years to take down that beam with the turning pig. Coalton was more than a pig on a spit.

Everett met me at the open barn door in back. “Mike, where ya been?” He didn’t give me a chance to answer. “I need you to take this order up to the Davenport place. You know where it is?”

“Out by the main power line past Blaylock’s Dairy.”

Everett nodded as he rubbernecked around me into the gravel parking lot.

“Darryl needed the truck.” I answered his unspoken question. Fire me, I prayed. Fire me. Set me free. Give me an excuse to kick Darryl’s ass for losing the family business.

Out the side of his mouth, Everett spit a stream of chew. “Think you can handle the flatbed? I gotta stick around here for an order of well pumps and troughs coming in from Dallas.”

“Sure, no problem.” Okay, that’d be fun. I’d ridden along with Everett’s son, Junior, enough times on delivery runs to see how all the gears worked. If June could drive the flatbed, there was no reason I couldn’t.

“Here’s the order.” From his apron pocket, Everett pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and handed it to me.

I scanned the list. A pallet of horse feed, bottle of dewormer, two bags of dog chow. Everett’s handwriting was all spidery from his Parkinson’s.

“Faye specifically wants the Profile Horse Feed and not the Purina. She says Purina gives her mares the bloats.”

“Got it.” I started for the feed aisle.

“If you need help loading the truck—”

“Got it,” I said over my shoulder, flexing my biceps.

Everett chuckled and shuffled off. He was a good guy, but I still hated this job. I never thought I’d be working at the Merc. Never thought I’d need a job. I had a job. A career. A purpose in life. But that was gone now. All of it. Thanks, Dad. You knew Darryl couldn’t be trusted.

The keys to the flatbed were in the ignition. I backed up to the rear of the Merc, maneuvering as close as I could to the pallets of feed. At least it’s physical labor, I thought as I tossed up the first bag of Profile. And I got to work outside, stocking feed and garden supplies. It wasn’t what I loved to do; wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing the rest of my life. It wasn’t what I was born to. If I had to work, though, this job was better than the Dairy Delite or the Suprette, where most people ended up. I could never work at the Dairy Delite. Couldn’t bring myself to wear that candy striper shirt with the cow on the breast pocket. Jamie loved it, but that was Jamie.

My muscle tee was soaked clear through by the time I finished loading the flatbed. I would’ve liked to stop by home and change—make myself more presentable—but it was getting on to dusk already and I’d only sweat out again unloading at the Davenports’.

The Davenports’. I hadn’t been out there since the summer before sixth grade. Dad and I had been contracted to plumb their new barn—install a toilet and utility sink, an outdoor shower for cleanup. That was before Mr. Davenport—Leland—fell off the roof and broke his back. I remember Ma had baked a rhubarb pie for me to take to Faye. Wow, that was a long lost memory. Back when Ma was a functioning, productive human being.

The dogs met me at the gate. Bean and Howdy. They were looking older, grayer. Bean was hobbling around like he had arthritis.

“Hey, guys,” I greeted them from the cab. “Stay back.” I inched up the gravel entrance to the farmhouse. The Davenports probably owned the majority of sections south of town, but since they were getting up in years, they leased the land to commercial farmers. Most everyone around Coalton grew wheat or milo for feed. Farther east were the stink holes, the cattle lots, and pig farms.

I jumped down from the cab. The dogs sniffed my crotch.

“Bean, Howdy, get down,” Faye hollered from the house. The screen door slammed behind her. “Hello, Mike.” She clip-clopped down the porch steps in her rubber clogs. There was this painting from ninth grade Art Appreciation called American Gothic. That’s what Faye and Leland Davenport reminded me of, those two stoic farmers. Except more human.

“How nice to see you again.” Faye wiped her hands on her apron, then gave me a hug. “How’s your mother?”

“Doin’ good,” I lied.

“Leland’s down at the horse pens, if you want to take that feed around.” Faye pointed past the big barn. I shielded my eyes at the sun glinting off the metal roof. For some reason, my focus fell to the hammock in Faye’s yard, strung between two cottonwoods. Specifically, the person in it who was sleeping with a pair of earphones on.

My heart shattered my rib cage. The sound of cracking bone must’ve carried because her eyes opened and she swiveled her head around.

Xanadu struggled to sit up. She clawed off the earphones, swung her legs over the hammock, and smiled. At me. Or was that my imagination running wild? Because it was running wild all over the place.

Slipping into sandals, she floated across the greening lawn. She was wearing shorts. Short shorts almost invisible under an oversized tee. Which my X-ray vision might’ve been trying to see through because it was obvious she wasn’t wearing a bra. A twinge of electricity surged between my legs.

When she got to where I was, she shoved her CD player under the waistband of her shorts and said, “Hi, Mike. Wow, I’m glad you’re here. I was just about to die of terminal boredom. Let’s see if I did.” She slapped her cheek. “Not yet. I still have feeling on one side.” She grinned. I laughed. My heart pounded like a well drill.

Without her clunky shoes, she wasn’t that much taller than me. Four, five inches.

“I see you’ve met my grandniece,” Faye said.

“Uh, yes, ma’am. I’ve had the pleasure.”

Xanadu snorted. “What are you doing out here in the boonies?” She crossed her arms loosely over her chest. Maybe because my eyes were glued to it. “Besides rescuing me?” she added.

I looked from her to Faye. Faye smiled thinly. “I’m delivering your order from the Merc,” I said. “Well, not your order.” My mouth was dry as chicken scratch. Xanadu was still grinning at me. It was making me light-headed. Get a grip, Mike. I stumbled to the rear of the flatbed to retrieve Faye’s dog food.

“Why don’t you ride out with Mike and give her a hand unloading?” I heard Faye say.

I peered around the truck. Xanadu curled a lip at Faye, like, Are you serious?

Hefting a bag of dog chow onto my shoulder, I said, “That’s okay. I can handle it.” I headed toward the house. “Where do you want this, Miz Davenport?”

“Just inside the door’ll be fine,” she answered. “Thank you, Mike.”

I opened the screen and dumped the bags on the floor next to the dog bowls. The house still smelled of meatloaf and baked potato from dinner. My mouth watered. I couldn’t have come an hour earlier and been invited, could I? I hadn’t eaten since my PowerBar on the way to Armie’s.

Xanadu was leaning against the truck hood, fiddling with her CD player, when I got back. She and Faye had obviously had words. Faye did not look happy. “It’ll be easiest to go back to the road and come in behind the horse corrals,” Faye told me.

“Okay.” I climbed into the cab. The passenger door squeaked open and Xanadu hoisted herself up onto the cracked leather seat. “I’ll ride along, at least, to keep you company.”

Be still my heart, I thought.

She added under her breath, “Maybe you could drop me off in Siberia. It can’t be that far from here.”

Faye must’ve heard because she scorched Xanadu with a look. “This is your Siberia, Missy,” she snarled. “It may be your last stop anywhere.”

Xanadu’s eyes slit and shot a firebolt. Faye matched her glare with equal heat.

Holy shit. I booked it out of there before the truck burst into flames.

Chapter Three

As I circled back onto the road, Xanadu cranked down her window. The wind caught her hair, blowing up streams of red ribbons around her face. She was breathtaking. I almost drove into a ditch. At the last minute, I swerved to the center of the straightaway, hoping she hadn’t noticed my temporary lapse of control.

“How can you stand it?” She turned to face me.

I knew what she meant. The silence. The slowness of life. “You get used to it,” I said.

She averted her eyes to gaze out on the wheat fields. “I’d kill myself first.”

My breath caught. She didn’t know what she was saying. It was just an expression. We reached the turnoff at the back of the property and I pulled onto it, lungs screaming for relief. I calmed myself, tried to. Let out air.

Driving between two corrals, I stopped next to a double-wide horse trailer and saw Leland Davenport wander out of the covered stalls. He removed his Stetson and swiped his gritty face with a forearm. “Hi there, Mike. Oh good, you brought the feed.” He slid his hat back on. “I heard you were working at the Merc. Why don’t you back her up to the gate here, if you can get in close.” There was a feed bin behind him, alongside a cone-shaped storage shed.

I cranked the flatbed ninety degrees and let Leland direct me in, even though it wasn’t necessary. I could’ve done it. When he began to unload the feed, I jumped out and said, “Know what? I can get this. It’s what I get paid for.”

He eyed the pallet, then scanned me up and down. I knew what he was thinking: You’re too small; it’s too much for one person. He hadn’t seen me in action. I yanked out the work gloves from my back pocket and put them on. I might’ve nudged him gently out of my way.

“Hi, Uncle Lee.” Xanadu appeared at my side. Her bare arm grazed mine and spiked my heart rate.

Leland reached over and gave her a tweak on the nose. I launched myself onto the truck bed, wondering if the tingling under my skin was a permanent condition. I hoped so. They both watched me heft one bag off the pallet and onto my shoulder, then jump down and lug it into the storage shed. Xanadu said, “Okay, major guilt trip. I can help with this.”

Leland cuffed her chin and headed back into the stalls.

Xanadu said, “Why don’t you hand the bags to me and I’ll stack them in the garage, or whatever it’s called.”

I smiled to myself. This should be good. Looping a leg up onto the flatbed, I scrambled back onboard. I lifted a bag of feed off the pallet and passed it down to her. She caught it between her arms and proceeded to collapse in the dirt.

It was hard suppressing laughter, but I managed, sort of.

“Jesus.” She staggered away from the bag, straightening up. “How much do these things weigh?”

“Fifty pounds,” I told her.

She arched her eyebrows. “They didn’t look that heavy when you were doing it.”

“I have a better idea.” I leaped off the truck. “You slide them to the edge and I’ll haul them in.”

“Help me up.” She extended a hand.

I grasped it. Long, slender fingers. That electric charge surged through me again. Xanadu clambered onto the bed and stood for a moment, surveying the pallet. “I can do this,” she said, sounding determined. She tucked her hair into the back of her shirt and got to work.

We finished the job in fifteen or twenty minutes. By then Xanadu was looking withered and I was soaked with sweat. She sank to the end of the truck bed and slumped forward. I hopped up next to her.

Why’d I do that? I had to reek. Wiping the rivulet of sweat running down my ear with the bottom of my muscle shirt, I snuck a sniff under my pit. Whoa. Kill a moose.

“You’re strong.”

I turned. She was eyeing me, my arms. “You must work out.”

“A little. At the gym.” A little? I was obsessed. Now I knew why. Unconsciously—or consciously—I flexed my bicep.

“There’s a gym in this podunk town?”

“At the VFW, next to the tanning salon.”

“Tanning salon? What is it, like a chaise lounge under a lightbulb?”

I smiled.

She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I’m just—” She expelled a long breath.

“It’s a real tanning salon,” I told her. “Well, there’s only the one tanning bed and my friend Jamie’s usually in it. But I can get you in for free.” Why’d I say that? It’d be taking advantage of Armie. Taking him up on his offer.

“That’s okay,” Xanadu said. “I’m not into melanoma.”

That was the truth. Her skin was white as summer clouds.

“What’s your real name?” she asked.

I felt as if someone had sucker-punched me. Why’d she have to ask? I didn’t want to say. I hated my name. On my eighteenth birthday, I was legally changing it.

“Come on.” She pressed against me with her shoulder. “I won’t tell.”

She had to know how funny that was. This was Coalton. Her elbow nudged mine and stayed touching. Why was she always touching me? Not that I didn’t like it; she was driving me crazy. I exhaled a long breath. “Mary-Elizabeth,” I mumbled. “If you ever call me that, I’ll kill you.” The moment I said it, I wished I could take it back. I’d never hurt her.

She laughed. “You should have my name. Xanadu. How stupid. Call me Xana, by the way.”

No, I didn’t think I would. She was Xanadu. Exotic, enchanted, poetic.

“God,” she went on. “I wish my parents were crackheads or something; at least I’d have an excuse why they did this to me. To me and my sister both. Know what her name is?”

I shook my head.

“Babylon.”

Did I snort?

“Yeah.” She grinned. “So Mary-Elizabeth is, like, ordinary, normal.”

Not to me. “I just don’t like it,” I said. “It isn’t me.”

She met my eyes and nodded. “I get that. I so get that.” She held my attention. Vibes passed between us. Something. Intense. We both looked down. I saw her eyes skim my bicep, my forearm, settle on my hand. My filthy work glove. I pulled it off, along with the other, and stuffed them both in my back pocket. Xanadu’s gaze gravitated to my Timex. “Seven thirty-eight,” she said. “Let’s see, I’ve only been here three days, four hours, and thirty-eight minutes, and already I regret my decision to come.”

My heart sank. I wanted her here. I needed her here.

Looking off into the wheat fields, she added, “I just needed to get my head straight, you know? See if being away for a while would make things better. I was going to blow off the rest of the school year, but it’s so freaking boring out here, I figured I might as well go. Hook up with some people, maybe. I don’t know.”

Hook up with me, I thought.

“You’re probably wondering why I’m here, right?” She spread her hands out beside her and clutched the edge of the truck bed. She had delicate hands, girl hands.

“Right,” I said. I didn’t really care why. Just stay.

“My parents gave me an ultimatum. I could either exile myself at Aunt Faye and Uncle Lee’s in Kansas or enter this diversion program in Englewood. I’ve known a couple of people who did the program and they say it’s like a prison. Worse than a prison. You can’t leave your house at night or call your friends. I mean, what choice did I have?” She reached behind her with one hand and lifted her hair out of her shirt, letting it cascade over her shoulders.

I had no idea what she was talking about. But I wanted her to keep talking, keep playing with her hair. “Where’s Englewood?” I asked.

She blinked at me. “Denver. The suburbs. I mean, I understand where my parents are coming from. I was definitely headed for trouble. It wasn’t my fault, though, or even my choice. Okay, maybe it was my choice.” She glanced away. “And my fault. What choice do you have, though, when everyone does it? E, I mean. Or worse. And if they’re not doing drugs, they’re getting stoned. I hate smoking pot; it makes me sleepy and gives me a headache. Does it do that to you?”

I was so enthralled in watching her body language, the way her lips moved, her eyebrows danced, her eyes expressed every word, that I’d tuned out the content. I suddenly noticed the quiet, her staring at me. “Huh?” I said.

“Oh, never mind.” She shook her head. “You’re so removed from the real world, you’ve probably never even gotten stoned.”

“Yeah, I have,” I said. “Once. With Jamie.” Once was enough.

“Who’s she?” Xanadu asked. She wiggled her eyebrows. “Your girlfriend?”

I choked. “Not hardly.”

Xanadu leaned back, propping herself on her elbows. She raised one leg, the one closest to me, and bent it so that her knee was eye level with my face. Her legs were unbelievably long. And smooth. She must shave, I thought. Well, duh. Most girls shaved. Femme girls.

“The ecstasy was bad. I admit that. But everybody does it. That or dust. But dust’ll mess you. You don’t want to do dust. You have to do E, though. I didn’t think it was dangerous or anything. Not until…” Her voice changed. “Until…”

I twisted my head around to look at her.

She swallowed hard and met my eyes. “Until Tiffany died.”

“What?” I shot up straight and whirled on my butt. “Someone died?”

“God.” Xanadu’s head lolled back. She closed her eyes and released a thin, shallow breath.

“What happened?” I asked.

Through the globs of mascara, a tear glistened on her eyelashes. She hunched forward in a ball, clutching both knees to her chest and rocking a little. “I didn’t know her that well,” she said. “Tiffany. She was a senior. It was her birthday party at her house, her eighteenth birthday. Her parents weren’t even there. Okay, that doesn’t matter. Even if there are adults around, someone always manages to sneak in a bag of E and sell it. Maybe it was a bad batch or something. I don’t know. Tiffany took too many. Who knows? She just passed out in the bathroom and everyone was too scared to call 911. Someone should have called, you know? They waited an hour. A whole fucking hour.” Xanadu exhaled a long breath. “By the time the paramedics arrived, she was already in a coma.”

I was trying to absorb all this. Tiffany, ecstasy, coma.

“I can’t believe she died.” Resting her cheek on her kneecap, Xanadu picked up a chunk of horse chow and flung it off the side. “None of us could. I mean, God. I’ve never known anyone who died. Have you?”

My stomach clenched.

“You have?” She lifted her head and looked at me, through me.

“A couple of people,” I said.

“It’s freaky, isn’t it? It makes you realize, you could be next. That it could happen anytime, anywhere. Without warning.”

No warning.

“Mom and Dad got all I-don’t-know-you-anymore, how-could-you-do-this-to-us?” Xanadu mocked in a sing-songy voice. “I don’t know how they even found out I was at the party. Or who told them I was doing E. Mom went ballistic, of course. She was ready to turn me over to the authorities and, like, have them put me in lockdown. Whatever.” Xanadu released her legs and stretched them out in front of her. “She always overreacts. Is your mom like that?”

I let out a laugh.

“What?”

“Nothing.” I hunched forward.

“Come on. I just revealed my whole life to you.”

She was right. I never talked about my stuff. Who cared? “I’d be happy if my mom could react,” I muttered.

Xanadu’s eyes widened. “What do you mean?”

Why’d I say that? I couldn’t do this. Not yet. “Forget it.” My eyes raked the ground and I twisted away from her.

Xanadu said, “I’m sorry. I talk too much.”

In my peripheral vision, I saw her gaze out across the fields into the deepening sky.

“No,” I said. “It’s just, I don’t want to go there. I’m sorry.”

She nodded. “That’s fine. You don’t have to. You don’t even know me; why should you trust me? It’s strange, but I already trust you. It usually takes me a long time with new people. There’s something about you, though. You’re so… open.”

Me? I wished I could be. I wanted to be. She trusted me. I felt honored.

We watched the sky together. After a minute Xanadu said, “They were right. Mom and Dad. I was on the road to ruin, in Dad’s words. With the drugs, though, yeah. I mean, I didn’t do that much, but my grades were shitty and I was ditching a lot. I was in trouble already. Then… Tiffany.” Xanadu blinked to me. “I’m sorry. I keep telling you all this.”

“It’s okay. It’s good.” Get it out, I thought. “So you came here,” I said.

“Yeah. Like I had a choice.” She let out a bitter-sounding laugh and nudged me again with her elbow. “I definitely needed a change of scenery. I wasn’t exactly prepared for this.” She swept her arm out to the side, as if indicating the entire planet. Another planet, which, I suppose, Coalton had to seem to her.

Leland trudged out of the barn, humped over, obviously in pain. “You two still here?” He arched his back and grabbed his spine.

“We finished the unloading,” I told him, in case he thought I was slacking off.

He eyed the storage shed, the neatly stacked bags of feed. “Nice job. Thanks.” He smiled at me, at Xanadu. His eyes warmed to her. “Well, I’m all done in, girls.” He smacked his dusty hat against his leg. “Headin’ back to the house. You coming, Xana?”

She ran a fingernail over a freckle on her leg. She had exactly fourteen freckles, that I could count. “I’ll get a ride back with Mike, if that’s okay.”

Please let it be okay, I prayed.

“Fine by me,” Leland said. “Stop by the house on your way, Mike, so the missus can write Everett a check.”

“Will do.”

He puttered off in his boat-sized Buick. The hearse, Jamie called it. A cloud of dust billowed across the road in his wake. “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” Xanadu said. “I am so not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” She tilted her head at me and grinned. “Neither are you.”

She got that right. “Since I’m a townie, I wouldn’t qualify anyway.”

Her smile widened. She had perfect teeth, white and straight.

The sun was beginning to descend behind her, illuminating the sky in a color wash of gold and orange and peach. “So, okay,” she said. “I’m stating the obvious here, but you’re gay, right? Is this like your total butch look?” She passed a hand down my body.

All my muscles seized at once. I felt the blood drain from my face.

“God.” Xanadu covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh God. I’m sorry, Mike. I didn’t mean…” She reached over to touch my leg, but retracted her hand. “I have a big mouth. You can’t shut me up. Someone should wire my jaw shut or better yet, remove the language chip from my brain. I didn’t say that, okay?”

I flexed my quads. I could move, at least. Run if I had to.

“I know a few gay people back home,” she kept on. “It’s no big deal. Not to me. But maybe here… I’m sorry. I’ll shut up. I won’t tell anyone.”

My eyes rose to fix on hers.

“So, um, listen.” She flipped her hair. “Change of subject. What does one do on a Friday night in Cans Ass, USA?”

I swallowed the lump in my throat. She knew gay people. Guys or girls? How well did she know them? What did she think of me really? I think she liked me. Forcing a light tone, I said, “Usually we hang out at the Dairy Delite and chug-a-lug Mr. Mistees.”

Xanadu frowned. Then she burst into laughter.

Jokes, I thought. She likes to laugh. “Or we drag Main, which takes about ten seconds. Sometimes we run the service road on both sides of the tracks and pitch cow pies in each other’s windows.”

Xanadu laughed louder. I smiled, and wished it was a joke.

She slugged me on the arm. The sun grew to a huge red orb and set the world on fire. Xanadu gasped. “Wow,” she breathed. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

I felt proud, as if the beauty of nature originated here. A Coalton creation. A reason for her to stay.

There were no words. Speaking would’ve spoiled it. We sat on the flatbed watching the sun sink slowly off the horizon and vanish into space. I wanted so much to put my arm around her, have her lay her head on my shoulder.

“What’s the best time you’ve ever had in Coalton, Kansas?” Xanadu asked quietly.

“I’ll have to think on that,” I answered. I didn’t have to think at all. Sitting here on a flatbed truck sharing a sunset with the most beautiful girl in the world? It doesn’t get any better than this.



Continues...

Excerpted from Pretend You Love Me by Peters, Julie Anne Copyright © 2011 by Peters, Julie Anne. Excerpted by permission.
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