"Touch him," Natalie whispered. "Go put your hands on his shoulders."
I slid my chair back into the shadows of Earl's Country Burger Arcade. "Are you kidding?"
"No, I'm not kidding, Brigitta. Boys love it when you touch them. Don't you want him back?"
Devon sat by himself playing Darkstalkers. A curl of hair fell across his cheek, and he brushed it back, revealing a constellation of freckles. "I don't do massages," I hissed. "And I didn't come here for Devon."
It hurt to look at him: Devon, who made raspberry sandwiches for me when we were five. Devon, who knew our twenty acres better than Natalie. Devon, who won us the homeschool science fair prize in third grade for our project on animal scat (it is what you're thinking). Devon, the first friend I let in our tree house, even though my sister Mallory said, "Girls only." Devon, who started putting his arm around me last summer and saying things like, "I'd rather be with you than anyone." Devon, who now found Jazmina_of_the_Night in his stupid sci-fi/fantasy forum more interesting than me.
It was Natalie's craving for French fries that had brought us into charming downtown Kwahnesum (that's Kwa-NEE-sum, rustic Washington hamlet, population 1,054). It was supposed to be a blissful stroll through the shelves of the Dusty Cover New and Used. Just books. Quiet and reliable. No drama. No friends who betray you. No Devon.
His wiry arms flexed as he punched the buttons, concentrating the way he used to when he was helping me with a physics problem. I missed that. Natalie didn't need to know how much.
The arcade was crowded. It was midsummer hot, and we were blockaded by sweaty gaming bodies. The bottom book in my stack stuck to the table. Natalie's pile of romances was topped by Makeup Secrets: Twenty Strokes to a Great New You. She'd been giving it a try in the restroom, so now her L'Oreal Smoldering Dark Auburn curls were caught up in a silver barrette, and she'd added extra glam liner to her eyes.
I am the complete opposite of Natalie-hair: longish, blondish, straightish; eyes: non-glam; goal: to find the meaning of life. Natalie wants to "ditch this two-cow town and make it big in LA." Honest to God. But she was my best friend from the time we believed our Barbies came to life at night, and if I still have a best friend, I guess it would be her.
"By the way"-Natalie sneaked a peek toward the food counter-"that new guy they have scooping ice cream? Josh Hutcherson."
On the other hand, maybe she still believed dolls came to life. It would be at least as weird as her "sightings." Natalie spotted celebrity look-alikes everywhere: Nick Jonas making lattes at Starbucks, Taylor Lautner taking tickets at the Space Needle.
"Why would Josh Hutcherson take a job here?"
Natalie rolled her eyes. "Research," she explained patiently. "Actors are always going undercover to explore some new role. And they come to the Northwest all the time."
My Hollywood education started with Natalie-since my family doesn't own a TV. When Natalie saw my pop-culture ineptitude the year I went to Kwahnesum High School, she instituted "Media Night." It had cured me of saying homeschoolish things like "What's American Idol?" and depleting her social points.
At the Darkstalkers' console, Devon leaned toward the screen, where a nearly topless succubus was fighting a pharaoh in a giant headdress.
I shifted my body away from him. Couldn't Natalie just finish her fries?
"You should totally let me do your makeup." Natalie opened her bag.
I shook my head. "My face wouldn't know what to do with makeup."
She rummaged in her lipsticks and brushes. "Just maybe a little bronzer? I could so bring out your cheekbones."
It would be so completely Natalie to try to make me over and then present me to Devon like her 4-H project. I shook my head again. "They test that stuff on defenseless bunnies-doesn't that bother you?"
Had I heard him turn? Was he staring at my back?
Natalie poked at my books. "What did you get?" She scrutinized the top title with one of her upside-down smiles. "The Complete Poems of John Donne? You're hopeless, Brigitta." She offered me a fry.
"Donne was the greatest of the metaphysical poets."
"Ooh! How exciting!" She touched the second book. "And what's that? Sound the Shofar: A High Holy Days Handbook? You're going Jewish now?"
"Mom and Dad have a kosher group staying with us at The Center. They're biking for a sustainable planet. We're one of their stops."
"Wasn't it the alien abduction victims last weekend? Why weren't you studying them?"
"‘Abductees.' And I don't consider them a religion."
For Natalie, religion is something that runs in your family-or not. If I asked her whether she likes being Jewish, she'd say it was the same as asking whether she likes having brown eyes. I can't talk to her about how I want the Great Cosmic Mystery to let me climb on its back.
I slid the books into my lap before Natalie could look closer. Fortunately, she hadn't noticed the item folded between them: the literary equivalent of fried pork rinds. Poetry and religion were not enough to redeem it. And I'd die if Devon saw it.
"You can't just become Jewish, Brigitta." Natalie licked some ketchup off her thumb. "You have to either be born Jewish or convert."
I took another French fry. (I hoped they weren't cooked in animal fat.) "I'm only reading up, okay?"
"Whatever," said Natalie. "I like it better than your Baptist phase." She peered over my head. "He's still heeere," she singsonged.
"What's he doing?" I whispered, hating myself for giving in.
Natalie patted my hand. "Sweet Brigitta." She stood up. "You'll just have to turn around, won't you?" She wiggled her eyebrows. "Do you want some ice cream?"
I shook my head. Natalie headed for Josh Hutcherson. I would so not turn around.
Devon's parents stopped homeschooling and stuck him in Kwahnesum High School in ninth grade because it had a chess club. A chess club. Why my parents decided Kwahnesum High School was a good idea after they'd carefully cultivated counterculture children, I'll never know. Mallory begged to go when she was a freshman and stayed through graduation. I lasted (barely) through one awe-inspiring year. Then I went back to the woods.
In September Devon was back at KHS and I wasn't. In October he quit chess club. And as fall moved into winter we were (I think) a couple. On Valentine's Day he gave me a card, but it didn't say "I love you" or anything. It didn't even have hearts on it. It had a picture of Arthur Schopenhauer with a quote that said, "Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training."
He never did get around to kissing me.
I shifted, ever so slightly, in my chair.
Did his head whip back to the screen? I peeked furtively. The pharaoh turned the succubus into a mummy. Had Devon fumbled the joystick? I had a rush of sympathy. I could make it easier on him. I could walk over there. I'd smile and in that smile would be Divine Forgiveness. He wouldn't have to speak. He'd take my hand, and...
Devon's cell phone rang. "Hey!" His face broke into a grin. "Nothing much." He laughed a goofy, unDevonlike laugh and leaned back in his seat. Beneath the pharaoh flashed the words, "You misbegotten spawn of a jackal! Crawl back to your hole."
"I've got all the time in the world," said Devon. "For you."
Thoughts of saintliness vanished.
Natalie zipped over with a bowl of Cherry Garcia. "I gave Josh my phone number." She shivered. "God, he's beautiful. I have a good feeling about this."
Devon closed his phone like he'd just been named Beefcake of the Year. Natalie glanced at him. "So," she said, still flushed with her own victory, "why are you still huddled over your books, Brigitta?"
Before I could run, she was beside him. "Devon!" she trilled. "Guess who's here?"
There was no way to hide.
"Brigitta Schopenhauer," he said as if I was a distant acquaintance.
"Hey." I felt wobbly. Did I have big wet spots under my arms? Why did I care?
Devon slid his phone into his pocket. "I meant to come by," he said. Was that, just maybe, regret in his eyes?
Natalie seized her matchmaking opportunity. "You should come by. Tonight. We're getting together in the tree house, and you haven't been in forever."
His irises had little gold flecks in them. He'd said he meant to come by. "Coming by" had meaning for him: it meant-
"I left my jacket the last time," he said.
I imagined strangling him with said jacket.
"There'll be pizza," said Natalie while I stood there like an idiot.
"Um, okay," said Devon. He looked caught. He pulled on his hoodie. "See you around." He beat it fast out the door.
"Huh." Natalie frowned. "Don't worry, Brigitta. He's just nervous around you. It's obvious he still likes you. We just need to-"
I didn't stick around to hear what "we" needed to do. I made for the cave in the back. No one played the '80s games. Space Invaders faced the wall, making a phone boothsized hidey-hole. I threw myself in.
I landed, hard, in someone's lap. "Hey!" he yelled.
I jumped off him as my books hit his feet and his third life dematerialized on the screen. He sprang up, his hands in fists. "What the hell?" Clearly, I'd invaded his space.
He looked a little older than me-dark hair, scowling eyebrows. And better looking than I wanted to notice. Maybe I could dematerialize.
He bent and began gathering my books. He smelled good. He had very broad shoulders. He handed me the Donne, the Jewish festivals...
Too late, I dove for the floor. I groped for the rest in a last-ditch attempt to save my dignity, but it was useless. The boy reached under the console and retrieved the last item: the National Enquirer, flopped open to shout, "Pamela's New Boy Toy Needs Penis Implants." He slapped it on my stack with an expression of pure disgust.
He offered me a hand, but I ignored it. Fake gallantry I could do without. I straightened as loftily as possible and pitched the Enquirer into a garbage can.
The boy's scorn melted into amusement. "Who are you?"
"Never mind," I said as Natalie sailed in calling, "Brigitta!"
She stopped as soon as she saw him. "God," she said, "you look just like Trent Yves."
Maybe a hole would open up in the floor.
The boy shoved his hands in his pockets. "I'm Luke," he said.
"Did you see Trent in Rocket?" Natalie babbled. "He should win a Golden Globe, I think."
"I don't follow movies," said Luke.
"Really?" Natalie flashed her pearly whites at him. "What are you into? Music? Football?"
He smirked and looked at me. "Tabloids," he said. "Love those tabloids."
I wanted to brain him with my Donne.
He glanced at the clock. "I have to go," he said. He edged past the still-chattering Natalie.
I squeezed my books tight so my arms wouldn't shake. Natalie didn't notice. "What was that about?" she said when he was gone.
"Let's just leave." I scanned tables for my purse. Mom wanted me home. Mallory was coming back from college so she could help us with The Center for the rest of the summer.
"He's so hot," said Natalie. "God, those muscles. And the long lashes? Didn't you think he looked like Trent Yves?"
I shrugged. Trent Yves was definitely not a star I kept track of.
"What is wrong with you?" said Natalie. "Did you look at that face? That gorgeous, gorgeous face?"
I had looked at that face, and it had looked back at me, and seen-what? Poet-and-violinist Brigitta? Seeker-after-truth Brigitta? Brigitta-who-knows-the-origins-of-hundreds-of-words? No. He'd seen vapid Brigitta. Easily entertained Brigitta. Sellout Brigitta.