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I froze on command. A second later my best friend, Allie Lin, smacked me soundly on the forehead. "Ow!" I yelped.
"Mosquito," she explained succinctly.
I rubbed the spot. "Oh. Thanks."
She slapped herself on the arm, then shifted positions on the big old scratchy pine log where we were sitting. Her gaze drifted to a group of beefy-looking guys in Bermuda shorts over near the bonfire. They were pounding beers and talking football. Their loud, excited voices blended with the hip-hop music pouring out of the speakers of the battered old Chevy sedan parked on the rocky lakeside beach. The dark, still water of Lake Claus lapped gently against the car's front tires.
"I can't believe school starts tomorrow and I still don't have a boyfriend." Allie glanced from the football guys over to a couple making out furiously on the next log. "If I don't have a guy of my own before the Ball, I swear I'm going to give it up and become a nun."
In Claus Lake, there was only one thing people meant when they said "the Ball." That was the town's big Christmas Eve Costume Ball, held every year at the fireman's hall. It was a fund-raiser for some local charities, but more important, it was the social event of the season. The Christmas season, that is. And in Claus Lake, the Christmas season was the only season that counted. It lasted for a good four months, and people talked about it all year long.
"You can't become a nun," I reminded Allie. "You're not Catholic."
"Thanks, Logic Girl." She made a face at me. "My point is, I really, really, really don't want to go to the Ball stag this year."
I didn't see the big deal. The Ball wasn't a big date-night thing like homecoming or the prom. Lots of people went as couples, but plenty more went on their own or with their whole families or a bunch of friends or whatever. It wasn't important who you went with; it was just important that you went.
But I knew Allie didn't want to hear it. For the past three years, she'd gone to the Ball with me; my boyfriend, Cameron Kehoe; and my cousin Nicholas. However, last year Nick's girlfriend, Rachel, had been part of the gang too, suddenly making it feel much less like a group thing and more like a double date plus one. I guess Allie hadn't liked the feeling, because she seemed determined not to let it happen again this year.
"Senior year," she mused. "It hardly seems possible, does it? It seems like two seconds ago that we were all scared, stupid freshmen."
"What hardly seems possible is that I'll ever get everything done this fall." I stretched out my long legs, accidentally kicking over an abandoned beer bottle with one flip-flopped foot. "I need to finish up my college applications, sign up for the SATs, interview for the Simpson Scholarship "
"It's not like you have to worry about that last part," Allie interrupted, slapping another mosquito on her neck. "You have the Simpson Scholarship in the bag."
"Don't be so sure. Andrew Cole could weasel in there and get it instead of me, especially if I screw up the interview."
I frowned slightly at the thought. Every year, the Simpson Scholarship went to Claus Lake High School's most accomplished senior. Just having the highest GPA which I did was no guarantee. The committee was headed by Mrs. Alice Simpson, the town's wealthiest citizen, as well as one of its oldest at ninety-three and counting. Grades and academic achievements were very important, but so were extracurriculars, charity work, and who knew what else. Then there was the personal interview. That could make or break you with the committee especially Mrs. Simpson.
Andrew had had the second-highest GPA in our class for the past three years running. He was also kind of charming in a geeky-nerdy, Clark Kent-y, sucking-up-to-adults kind of way. If he ended up winning that scholarship, I would probably have to reconsider my choice of colleges. And that would definitely be a total disaster.
See, I had my whole life pretty much planned out. My one-year plan was to win the Simpson Scholarship and get into a top East Coast university. Five-year plan: Earn a degree in biology and acceptance to the med school of my choice. Ten-plus-year plan: Begin fabulous career in medical research, complete with exciting big-city lifestyle.
I could hardly wait. But for now here I was, sitting with my best friend, listening to a good song, on a nice albeit rather buggy and muggy early September night. Not such a bad place to be, really. At least for the moment.
Reaching back over my head, I grabbed two fistfuls of my thick, springy auburn hair, lifting it up off the nape of my neck to take advantage of the slight breeze coming in off the lake. Even though the sun had set, it was hot and sticky. Sitting so close to the fire wasn't helping matters. If I hadn't known it was biologically impossible, I might have suspected I could melt into a puddle at any moment.
If the heat was affecting Allie the same way, she wasn't showing it. Her glossy dark chin-length hair was pulled back into a tiny ponytail at the back of her head, and her heart-shaped face was sweat free. As a new song came on the car radio she started bouncing and wriggling on the log, tapping her toes and shaking her slim shoulders in time to the music.
"Sit still, will you?" I complained. "You're making me sweat just watching you."
"Can't," she said, a little breathless from all the seat dancing. "Halfway There Theory, remember?"
That's another thing about Allie. She was always coming up with all these psychological theories, mostly about love and romance. She planned to write self-help books someday you know, the kind with titles like Visualize Your Way to a Hot, Happening Love Life or It's Not You, It's Him. It was pretty much her life goal to get on Oprah with one of her bestselling tomes.
And now that she mentioned it, I did remember this particular theory. It was one of her favorites, one she'd trotted out on numerous occasions. It posited that if a girl wriggled and toe-tapped as if she were dancing right there in her seat, a guy would be more likely to come over and ask her to dance.
"Oh, right," I joked. "The Crazy Legs Theory. How could I forget? Isn't that the one we disproved at the prom? And then at Mary Zimmer's party? And then again at your aunt's wedding last month?"
"It only has to work once." Allie smiled serenely as she boogied down on the log.
I grinned. I was always amused by Allie's endless parade of new theories. That didn't mean I actually believed most of them I was too much of a hard-science girl for that sort of thing but luckily Allie was a good sport and didn't seem to mind that I often couldn't resist applying the scientific method to her so-called data.
The bonfire was dying down by now, and the crowd was starting to thin out. The football guys wandered down to the water's edge to throw rocks or something. Meanwhile couples had been slipping off into the darkness together for a while. Last chance for some carefree romance before the daily grind started up again.
That reminded me: I hadn't seen Cam in quite some time. However, it only took a quick glance around to locate him. He was over on the far side of the fire, picking up empty cans and bottles and tossing them into the public recycling bin near the fire pit.
Yeah. Way romantic. Then again, that was kind of the way things had been going with us lately.
I guess Allie heard my sigh and followed my gaze toward Cam. "What's wrong?" she demanded. "You're not still worried that you and Cam are losing your spark, are you?"
"Maybe a little," I admitted.
It was true. The closer we got to senior year, the more I thought about what came next after high school. And the more I looked forward to my carefully planned out, totally fabu future, the more I realized there was one thing I hadn't taken into account while making those plans. Namely, my almost-four-year relationship with Cam.
Don't get me wrong. Cam was a great guy. Everybody said so, from Allie and Nick to my parents to the little old ladies whose groceries Cam helped bring in every weekend. Yeah, he was that nice.
And maybe that was part of the problem. I wasn't one to psychoanalyze myself or anything, but I couldn't help wondering if there was something missing between me and Cam. I guess those thoughts might have started when Nick got together with Rachel. From the beginning the two of them couldn't keep their hands off each other. They were always hugging or kissing or just walking along all intertwined. Once I noticed that, I started noticing that a lot of other couples were the same way. Touchyfeely. Staring into each other's eyes. That sort of thing.
Cam and I weren't like that. I wasn't sure we'd ever been like that. Did that mean we were missing something? Or had our relationship run its course? Had we grown apart without really noticing? Were we just stuck now in a state of stasis? My scientific mind was pretty sure it had a strong hypothesis about that, and it was getting harder to ignore the evidence.
Allie was staring at me. She'd even forgotten to keep up her seat dancing.
"You realize you're nuts, right?" she said. "Cam is such an amazing guy. One of a kind. And you two are perfect together." She shook her head so vigorously that a strand of hair came loose from her tiny ponytail. "All this crazy talk about breaking up is probably just fear of success or something." Her eyes lit up. "Hey, I like that! I could call it the Scared to Splitsville Theory."
I rolled my eyes. "Please," I said. "Since when do I have a fear of success? I love success. I embrace it. I seek it out and coddle it and call it pet names."
"I'm not talking about school and stuff." The song on the car radio changed, and Allie suddenly seemed to remember her dancing. She started bouncing in time to the beat again while she talked. "Everybody has some kind of fear of success. Maybe yours has to do with love. Like, you didn't choose Cam through some scientific theorem, so you're not convinced that your relationship should work as well as it does, and now you're trying to sabotage it to prove yourself right. Ooh!" She looked even more excited; she always gets that way when she thinks she's figured someone out. Usually me. "That totally makes sense. You're used to always being right you know, with the good grades and stuff and so this has been eating you up inside and made you want to be wrong this time."
Before I could point out all the flaws in that reasoning, Bruce Janssen came loping over to us. Bruce was one of Cam's best guy friends, though I wasn't sure why, since he was pretty much Cam's opposite in every way. He was the type of guy who thinks other people are truly impressed that he can fart the first two bars of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He was probably planning to put that on his college applications.
He skidded to a stop in front of us. "Hey, Michaels," he greeted me.
I automatically drew in my legs as his pale-green eyes slid down them. Bracing myself, I waited for his sleazy compliment of the day. What would it be this time? Maybe how he'd dreamed about my legs last night. Or how just once before he died he wanted to know how it felt to bury his hands in my wild, luxurious hair. Even Cam had rolled his eyes the first time Bruce came out with that one. Then again, maybe he'd just call me "Sexy Lexi" and try to grope me after all, everyone loves a classic.
However, this time Bruce turned toward Allie. "Lookin' good, Lin," he said, tossing his too-long blond hair out of his eyes.
"Sure!" Allie bounced out of her seat.
I hid a smile. It was obvious that Allie was so excited that her Crazy Legs Theory had finally worked, she'd forgotten all about another of her favorite theories: the Never Dance with Losers Theory.
I watched as she and Bruce made their way over to a smooth spot on the beach where a few other couples were dancing. Allie immediately went from slapping mosquitoes to slapping Bruce's hands away from everywhere they weren't supposed to be.
Just then I saw Cam coming toward me. I guess he'd finally noticed the romantic mood. Or maybe he'd just seen me sitting alone and his Mr. Nice Guy side had kicked in automatically.
"Hey," he said, sitting down on the log beside me.
"Hey back," I replied, taking in that familiar sweet, handsome, square-jawed face, and his kind eyes and broad shoulders. Maybe Allie was right. Maybe I was silly to question being with a guy like that. I put my hand on his knee and squeezed, figuring a little romantic moment of our own might help chase the anxious thoughts away. "Having a nice time tonight?"
"Sure." Cam smiled, but he looked kind of distracted. He glanced around. "Hey, did you meet that guy Mike from Dornerville? Tall guy in the red T-shirt? I was talking to him a few minutes ago, and it turns out his mom works at the financial aid office at the campus over there. He thinks she can put in a word for me. Nice of him, huh?"
That brought me back to earth with a thud. Cam wasn't really the ambitious type. He seemed perfectly content to attend the nearest state university satellite campus to study culinary arts and business. He expected to use that education to get a job as an assistant chef somewhere, with the idea of someday opening his own restaurant right there in Claus Lake. We didn't talk about it much, but I hadn't been able to miss the fact that those plans didn't mesh too well with my own big-career, big-city dreams.
Cam finally seemed to notice my hand on his knee. He covered it with his own hand, rubbing my palm with his thumb.
"But listen," he said softly, wrapping his free arm around me and pulling me closer, "why worry about school on our last night of freedom, right?"
I did my best to push aside my worries once again. The future wasn't here yet. Maybe I could wait one more night to worry about it.
"Uh-huh." I turned and swung my legs over his lap, then leaned closer. My shoulder fit into the crook of his arm in its usual familiar way, and I could smell mint on his breath as his lips found mine.
The sound of squealing tires interrupted our kiss. I pulled back and glanced over Cam's shoulder toward the parking lot.
"Hey," I said in surprise, recognizing the car that had just peeled in and screeched to a zigzaggy stop across a couple of empty spaces. "Looks like Nick came after all."
That was unexpected. My cousin's girlfriend was a year older than the rest of us, and she was leaving for the University of Michigan the next day. Nick had spent the whole past week planning a big, romantic night that was supposed to tide them over until the first weekend visit.
But now here he was, climbing out of his car with his sandy hair standing on end and his polo shirt askew. Even in the dim light of the crescent moon and the fading bonfire, I could tell from his face that something was wrong.
Cam had turned to look by now too. "Whoa, he looks upset." Gently shoving me off his lap, he stood up and hurried toward Nick.
I was right behind him. When we reached Nick, I could see he was even worse off than I'd thought. He was practically hyperventilating very un-Nick-like. Normally Nick is the type of guy who would smile in front of a firing squad and ask for a cigarette. And he doesn't even smoke. I'd known him since birth we'd grown up next door to each other, more like sister and brother than cousins and I'd never seen him lose his cool like this.
"Lex," he choked out. "Cam."
"What is it?" I grabbed his arm, resisting the urge to shake him. "Is someone hurt? Is it Mom or Dad? Or your mom or dad? What? Who?"
Nick waved his hand around vaguely. "No. No. Nothing like that. Everyone's fine."
"Then what?" I demanded.
"Lexi...," Cam murmured soothingly.
Nick shook his head. "No," he croaked. "It's just...just...just Rachel."
Cam and I traded a confused look. "What do you mean, buddy?" Cam asked gently. "What about Rachel? Is she okay?"
Nick squeezed his eyes shut for a second, then opened them and stared at us bleakly. "She dumped me," he said hoarsely. "Just now. Said she um, she didn't want to see me tied down when she was off, you know, living her new life in college."
Cam probably said all the right things after that he usually does but I was so shocked that I couldn't react at first. Nick and Rachel had seemed like the perfect couple from day one. I'd thought those two would be together forever. Everyone had thought that. Well, everyone but Rachel, apparently.
So what did "together forever" really mean, anyway? Copyright © 2008 by Catherine Hapka