When Jordyn Michaelson's autistic brother joins her at her elite school, she's determined not to let anyone know they're related. Even if that means closing herself off to all her closest friends, including charming football stud Alex Colby. But she just can't shake the memory of kissing Alex last summer, and the desire to do it again.
Can Jordyn find the courage to tell Alex how she really feelsand the truth about her familybefore he slips away forever?
Chosen by readers like you for Macmillan's young adult imprint Swoon Reads, Karole Cozzo’s heartfelt debut novel How to Say I Love You Out Loud will stay with readers long after they have finished reading.
Praise for How to Say I Love You Out Loud:
“A budding romance with family drama and a feel-good ending.” School Library Journal
"A book of acceptance, bravery, and most of all, love. ” Bibliophile Soprano
"An impactful story about love, compassion, and the power of your voice.” Snuggly Oranges
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How to Say I Love You Out Loud
By Karole Cozzo
Swoon ReadsCopyright © 2015 Karole Cozzo
All rights reserved.
There's a particular kind of energy radiating from school on the first day, part nervous freshman energy, part rambunctious senior energy, and part look-how-I-reinvented-myself-over-the-summer energy. The vibe is the same every year, at any given school, even as the students change, as the timid freshmen become bored sophomores and a new graduating class takes over. The excitement will, very predictably, dissipate by Friday, but on the Tuesday after Labor Day, the return of students turns the school and parking lot into a veritable beehive alive with the buzz of frantic activity and socializing.
As I walk toward the front door, Erin Blackwell struggles to catch up with me while holding her Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup steady, her designer flip-flops slapping the concrete. "Hi, Jordyn," she greets me tersely.
"Hey, Erin. What's wrong?"
It's only 7:42 a.m., and we haven't even stepped into the building yet. I don't know how or why she already looks stressed, but she does. Erin is sort of perpetually stressed. As are a lot of kids at Valley Forge High School.
As am I a lot of the time, if I'm being honest. Stress is absorbed through osmosis around here.
"Ugh." Erin shakes her head in disgust. "It took me forever to get my contacts in, so my hair started to frizz, and it's so humid that the waves wouldn't hold when I finally did get around to doing it. The drive-through at Dunkin' was backed up, like, a mile, and they forgot to put the caramel in my cappuccino anyway. Which is all really unfortunate because now I'm late, and I look a hot mess, and I have A.P. Bio first period. I think Bryce is in my section, and it would have been really nice to actually feel like I have my shit together before walking in there." Finally she remembers to breathe. "How can I be so far behind before the day's even started?"
Erin's anxiety is so potent, I need to take a deep breath of my own.
Erin is a doe-eyed Bella Thorne look-alike, and I assess her long, strawberry-blond locks. "Your hair looks gorgeous. You look gorgeous. We still have twelve minutes before the homeroom bell. And I thought things were getting better with Bryce?"
She'd had a rough summer as she tried to move on from their dramatic breakup in June.
"They are. It's just hard being back at school." She frowns. "Makes me feel like things should go back to the way they were last year. Plus, I don't really feel like hearing him join in on all that BS where the guys rate the hottest freshman girls, ya know?"
"Well, I think you're one of the hottest junior girls." I smile and tug on the bottom of one impeccably curled strand of her hair. "He's going to see you and regret everything."
"Everything" being the girl from the Shipley School he hooked up with behind Erin's back.
Erin stops in her tracks and looks at me, chewing her lip. "Really? You think he'll even notice?"
I take a final deep breath as we approach the front door. It's only 7:43 and already I'm exhausted. "Positive."
We push into the fray and are swept up in the tide of students moving through the lobby. Dana Travers, senior cocaptain of the varsity field hockey team, rushes past us, sending a reminder over her shoulder. "Practice starts on time today, ladies. No first day excuses."
I nod, even though I lack Dana's zeal for competitive team sports. But I need some kind of athletic activity to round out my college applications and I'm a decent midfielder, so hockey it is.
A group of students from the exclusive Musicians' Guild are already disassembling their instruments after what must have been a very early morning rehearsal. As we move through the shifting crowd, which emits loud voices and sweaty energy, I notice a serious-looking kid leaning against the wall and pushing his glasses up his nose as he reads a physics textbook, one overachiever of many. We haven't even been to homeroom yet.
The atmosphere in the lobby leaves me feeling dazed and sluggish, and I struggle to wrap my head around the frenzy. I'm still on summer time. Life was much more relaxed when I was peddling Philly soft pretzels at the tennis club poolside snack bar, chatting with Alex when he appeared at the side window covered in dirt and grass clippings during a break from the hot sun and the demands of keeping the golf course pristine with the rest of the grounds crew.
To be honest, though, there's a part of me that has a hard time keeping pace with the student body at Valley Forge regardless of the season. This will be my second year at Valley Forge High School. My family moved to Berwyn from Lansdale, a town about thirty minutes away, last summer. At my old school, most kids didn't really care that much about their grades or extracurricular activities, knowing they'd end up in nearby state schools. My new classmates always seem to be looking over their shoulders to see who might be gaining on them. Last year, I felt like at the same time people were sizing me up as a new friend, they were assessing me as some kind of potential threat. To their class rank. To their first-chair position in orchestra. To their acceptance letter from Princeton.
I don't get it, or maybe they just don't get me. I prefer to fly under the radar, and I'm sure as hell not trying to steal anyone's spotlight. I hate the feeling of eyes on me, always have. I've had way too many eyes on me over the years, even if they weren't on me, per se. Even after a year, I'm still not sure how well I fit in here. Crammed like a sardine in the small upper lobby waiting for the homeroom bell, I feel strangely alone and disconnected.
Then I catch sight of something familiar, propped against the foot of one of the old wooden benches. It's a worn black JanSport, with ALEX written in Wite-Out across the front pocket. I perk up at once, instantly feeling more grounded. Alex is around here somewhere. He'll throw me my favorite smile — the one that makes it seem like we're laughing at some joke no one else gets — and this place won't seem as serious or intense.
Suddenly, I can't wait to see him. We haven't talked much in the past few weeks, because his family was on vacation and he stopped working at the club when two-a-days started for the football team. Sometimes I'd see him down by the field after our evening practices, but most nights he seemed kind of distracted, überfocused on football, I guess. Alex isn't the best player in the world. No matter how many wind sprints he runs or how much time he spends in the weight room, he's perpetually second string. You can tell it annoys the crap out of him, this one thing Mr. Perfect can't be perfect at. I find his frustration sort of endearing. And the rest of the team must find his persistence admirable, because they elected him cocaptain, second-string skills and all. He's just got those natural leadership genes, like a young, half Hispanic Barack Obama or something.
Alex is good people. And as if to prove my point, he walks through the door closest to the teacher lot, barely visible behind the tall stack of books he's carrying for Mrs. Higgins, our ancient librarian, who hobbles alongside him, smiling up in admiration.
I bite my lip to keep from giggling. My friend is such a Boy Scout. Seriously. I'm not kidding — he's an actual Boy Scout who's been working on this big Eagle Scout project in whatever spare time he has, which isn't much. But on a daily basis, he seems to go around earning merit badges in Helpfulness and Nobleness and all that good stuff.
"I'll be right back," I tell Erin, and take off in his direction.
He notices me over the top of the books and grins instantaneously. "Air Jordan, there you are!"
I smile in response to today's selection from his litany of ridiculous nicknames: Air Jordan ... M.J. ... Twenty-three ... or as he called me for a while in Spanish class last year, Veintitrés.
I can't think of a single thing I have in common with the basketball icon Michael Jordan, other than my name, which is Jordyn Michaelson. I'm five foot three, with hazel eyes and wavy dark shoulder-length hair cut in layers. Female. And white — sadly so, being that summer just ended. But for whatever reason, Alex is amused by the stupid nicknames. Thing is, as stupid as I find them, it's impossible to look at his face when he's busy cracking himself up and not feel amused, too.
His brown eyes get all sparkly, and his wide grin of even white teeth gets all goofy. Combined with the close-cropped black hair and slight widow's peak, all I see is a little boy looking for mischief. Alex is one of those people who looks right at you, for real, and practically dares you to make mischief with him.
Hurrying toward him, I realize I'm opening my arms to give him a hug, even though hugging isn't something we usually do. There are unspoken boundaries we have not dared to cross, not even dared to approach, since last year. I'm so focused on Alex that I don't even notice Leighton Lyons, our other hockey cocaptain, trotting across the lobby from the opposite direction, until we have a full-on collision. Our shoulders slam into each other's and I stumble backward, off balance, my heavy backpack nearly pulling me down.
I right myself and rub my shoulder, grumbling inwardly. Girl really needs to learn that other people inhabit this planet. Where is she headed in such a hurry?
When I look up, I get my answer, even though it's not one that makes sense. Not. At. All. I see her arms wrapped around Alex's torso, beating me to the punch with a hug. Then I watch as she does one better and plants a quick, flirty kiss upon his lips. "Hey, babe."
I stand and stare in disbelief, like an idiot, waiting for it to compute. Which it doesn't. Leighton hugging Alex. Leighton kissing Alex. Leighton calling Alex babe. What? When? How?
But none of it cuts as deeply as him casually looping his arm around her waist and turning to talk to me like none of this requires an explanation. Like none of this should bother me in any way. At least he has the decency to ask if I'm okay, which Leighton does not. "You alright, Jordyn?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Even though suddenly I'm not. There's a sick feeling in my gut as the realization sinks in that suddenly everything is different.
"Please," Leighton interjects. "She takes harder hits than that on the field every day." Pinching Alex's side, she smirks at him. I notice how they stand exactly eye to eye, the same height, and I feel small and insignificant. "We're just as tough as you guys, right, Jordyn?"
"It's so good to see you," he says, smiling all the while, but rubbing her hand with the pad of his thumb while he says it. "I was so pissed I had to miss the staff party. You'll have to give me the recap."
I swallow my feelings and try not to bat an eye. "Yeah, it was quite the event. They added karaoke this year. And to be honest, I really would have been okay with summer ending with out having to see Mr. Jacoby perform 'Happy' in a bathing suit."
Alex throws his head back and laughs, his full belly laugh, the one that always makes me feel like tiny seeds in my heart are blooming. His laughter nurtures some kind of longing that has no business being rooted there. His arm around Leighton's waist makes those little sprouts of wistfulness wilt and topple as quickly as they sprang up.
"Please tell me you were a backup dancer for him at least."
"Absolutely." I smile in spite of myself, in spite of the Leighton-shaped elephant in the room, and shake my head. "You know me so well."
"Did Petersen show up really drunk again?" he asks, referring to the president of the club. "Hit on any of the lifeguards who aren't even legal yet?"
Leighton tugs on the bottom of Alex's shirt before I get a chance to answer. "Hey, listen, I need to talk to you about some Athletic Council stuff real quick and I've got to run to the ladies' before homeroom, so can we ..." She's talking to Alex but looking at me, waiting for me to make myself scarce.
"Yeah, sure, babe." He nods quickly, the word sounding even more wrong coming from his lips than hers. Alex tightens his grip on her and turns in the direction of the side hallway, where there's some space. He talks over his shoulder as they walk. "We'll catch up in history, okay, Michaelson?"
I nod, ignoring the tightness in my throat. Before, his use of my last name used to feel intimate. Now it reminds me that I'm a buddy and nothing more.
This is what you wanted, I remind myself as I turn away from the train wreck and walk back toward Erin, who's talking with our friend Tanu. Just friends, right? You're lucky you walked away with that much.
But I guess I'd thought ... I guess I'd thought that somehow, by keeping him as a close friend, I could still call Alex mine. It was easy enough last year when he wasn't dating anyone. Having Alex as a best friend was an acceptable consolation prize when I couldn't have anything more. I'd grown comfortable with the idea and never given much thought to how things might change.
I sneak a quick peek over my shoulder. Leighton's back is against the wall and Alex has one arm above her head, keeping her in place, his body pressed against hers. I wonder what Athletic Council business has anything to do with their mouths mashed together like that.
Erin is much less discreet. She gapes, openmouthed, at the happy couple. "Wow, Leighton and Alex, really? When did that happen?"
"Oh, sometime this summer. Someone posted a picture on Facebook," Tanu says.
I wonder how many hours each day Tanu spends on Facebook. I also wonder if I'm the last person to know everything.
"It was this superhot picture," she continues, causing the sick feeling in my gut to flare up. "He's in his football jersey and she's all blond and tan. They're like ... Tyler and Caroline from Vampire Diaries, that's what it makes me think of. Or more specifically, you know when Tyler and Caroline kissed for the first time? Season two, episode twelve?"
"No, I don't know." Erin laughs. "We don't all have a photographic memory like you do."
"Anyway, that's what the picture looks like. They look so good together. And I want a boyfriend."
Now Erin is frowning again. "Me too. The two of them are just so perfect. That really makes me miss Bryce."
I square my shoulders and bite back my irritation. "Let's talk about something else." If campus is a beehive, Leighton is definitely its queen. And maybe I secretly call Alex Mr. Perfect. Somehow it doesn't translate into them being perfect together. At least not to me.
I engage them in other mindless gossip, trying to keep my thoughts away from the truth of the matter, which is that the sight of Alex and Leighton kissing really makes me miss someone, too.
But how can you miss someone you never really had?
What right do you have to miss someone when you were the person who walked away from them?
We continue on toward our respective homerooms.
I became friends with Erin and Tanu last fall, when we were all in the same English class together, and they're my best friends here at Valley Forge High School. But I'm not the kind of girl who shares every little detail about herself, even with my closest friends. School and home are two separate parts of my life, and as long as it stays like that ... I don't know how "close" my girlfriends will ever really feel.
"Considering how humid it is today, does one of you have time to drop me off before practice? I really don't feel like walking."
Hockey practice is a bit of a sore subject with Tanu. She was also looking for a sport to complement the impressive academic and artistic sections of her résumé, but she didn't make the cut after tryouts in July.
Erin shakes her head, strawberry-blond curls flying. "Oh, hell no. You know I would if I could, but I'm not going to be the person walking onto the field late. Leighton would have my ass. She thinks it's really important for us to be on time."
Most things that are important to Leighton are important to Erin. Leighton is sort of her role model. Maybe even her idol.
"It's, like, a six-minute round trip!"
"Still. I don't feel like chancing it. Leighton says ..."
I clamp my lips together to keep from groaning. Erin, God love her, starts way too many sentences with "Leighton says."
"... everyone always takes the guys' sports teams so much more seriously than the girls'. If we want to be taken seriously, and given as much credit for our hard work, we have to take ourselves seriously."
Excerpted from How to Say I Love You Out Loud by Karole Cozzo. Copyright © 2015 Karole Cozzo. Excerpted by permission of Swoon Reads.
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