Fifteen-year-old Wren has been content to stay in her best friend Allie’s shadow. It doesn’t bother her that Ally gets the cutest guys, the cutest clothes, and even a modeling gig—Wren is happy hanging with the horses on her family’s farm and avoiding the jealousy of other girls. But when Tim, the most intriguing guy in school, starts hanging out with Ally and Wren, jealousy is unavoidable, but not the kind Wren expects. Because even though Ally is wayyy into him and Wren hasn’t flirted, not one little bit, it becomes increasingly clear that Tim prefers Wren’s company above anyone else’s.
Tim’s unexpected devotion comes at the exact time Wren’s home life is about to be turned upside down. Her parents have just found out that the family horse farm is on land that was once a slave plantation and are struggling with whether to sell it. Wren aches at the thought of losing her horses and leaving town, but at least there is Tim...always a gentleman on their dates. Such a gentleman. Too much of a gentleman, even, and Wren begins to wish he’d be a wee bit less gentlemanly. And as Tim’s church becomes actively homophobic, his pressuring parents don’t understand why he won’t help “spread the word,” and he’s now a wreck. Then he tells Wren his biggest secret, and Wren must decide what she’ll really do for love.
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The Boy I Love
I could tell you that the trouble between Allie and me started with Tim Greenlaw, but that wouldn’t be completely true. If I’m going to be honest (and what’s the point of telling this story if I’m not going to be honest?), it’s never been easy having a best friend who looks like Allie. Not that I’m the worst-looking girl in the world. I’m fine, I guess, if you don’t count my thighs, or the fact that I look way younger than my age. But really that seems like the tiniest little piece of it, because Allie was beautiful a long time before any serious problems cropped up. So I would have to say that the moment everything truly began to change was my run-in with the alligator. When I say alligator, I am not talking about a school mascot, or a stuffed toy, or some kid with a corny nickname. I mean the green and scaly variety, complete with eighty sharp teeth and two beady eyes. A real, live alligator, nearly seven feet long from head to tail.
It happened at the end of my first day at Williamsport High. I’d been waiting for this day all summer, but let me tell you: huge disappointment. After six hours in that big brick building, I felt like I never should have left the Cutty River School. See, originally I’d switched schools so Allie and I could stay together, because she was switching schools, but once my parents said I could go, I got pretty amped up about it. So for weeks I’d been playing it through in my head, all the new friends I’d make, the cute new guys I’d meet, and all the fun we’d have. But that first day, the one single person who talked to me at all was Allie. I guess we should have figured that turning up as new sophomores in a school of about eighty million kids, where everyone else had started out as freshmen, would put us at a disadvantage. Stupidly I figured Allie’s prettiness would draw people to us. Then I would keep them around with my talkative good humor. That combination had always served us pretty well in the past, but today not so much. For one thing, we barely had any classes together. For another, even when we were together, hardly anyone so much as glanced in our direction.
Allie didn’t live in Leeville anymore, so I rode the school bus home alone. It let me out at the end of our dirt road, which was a good twenty-minute drive from Williamsport. On the bus it was more like forty minutes with all the stops. I was feeling mighty low and lonesome, and also mighty glad to be back home. My dad’s family has lived on this property for generations. It used to be a rice and cotton plantation, surrounded by a bunch of other plantations, but over the years most people have sold off their land and moved. So it wasn’t as wild as it used to be. In fact, just two miles away was a new housing development called Cutty River Landing, with a bunch of brick houses, plus a pool and tennis courts.
But you’d never know that suburbia lived so close, because the dirt drive to our farmhouse felt like a piece of the old, forgotten South. And I don’t mean before the Civil War. I mean about way back a thousand years ago, when there weren’t any roads at all, just native paths down by the river. Above my head the branches of live oaks curled together, Spanish moss dripping from their bark. We had longleaf pines, and trumpet tulip trees, and fruit trees—every once in a while I’d get bombed by an overripe loquat falling to the ground. In the midafternoon heat I could still smell the lingering scent of last night’s jasmine. The Cutty River ran beside the road, slow and muddy. I could hear Daisy, our big black German shepherd, barking up near the house. In a few days she would figure out my schedule and sit waiting for the bus at the end of the road. Daisy was good like that. Through the trees on the other side of the river, I could see my mom’s horses grazing on the hill. Just the sight of them made me feel better than I had all day.
And then, one of those loquats fell into the river. It hit the water with such a sharp little splash I turned my head to look. That’s when I saw it. An alligator. Just . . . floating there. Where, as far as I knew, there had never been an alligator before. And like I said, it was a nearly seven-foot-long alligator. I swear its two black eyes, floating just above the water, were staring right at me.
Dang. I dropped my backpack and ran for the house. “Mom!” I screamed. I’d never been so scared in my whole life. “Mom!” I screamed again.
She came running down from the barn, and my dad came slamming through the screen door onto the front porch. Daisy raced toward me, barking. We all met up at the foot of the porch steps.
“There’s an alligator in the river!”
And then, because I was afraid, and overwhelmed, and it was hotter than anything, I decided to be truly dramatic. I put the back of my hand to my forehead and pretended to faint, dropping to the ground like a real southern belle. My parents knelt beside me. I pushed myself up on my elbows and started laughing. For a minute we all sat there, Daisy barking and panting, the three of us laughing our heads off.
“But hey,” I finally said. “I wasn’t kidding about the alligator.”
* * *
Now, it’s certainly not unheard-of to find alligators in North Carolina. Some places have plenty of them, but only to the south and east of Williamsport. At least that used to be the case, before I stumbled upon mine. So Dad called up his colleagues from the forest service and the university, and before we knew it a reporter from the Williamsport Sun-News and a film crew from the local TV station were in our drive. Don’t get too excited about the TV part—it’s about the cheesiest news show you can possibly imagine. If I hadn’t seen an alligator, the lead story that night would probably have been about a tower of canned peas toppling over at Costco. Still, it was pretty cool, getting out of all my chores so I could stand by the river (well, as close as I dared, given that there was a seven-foot alligator in it) and be interviewed on camera.
“I was just walking down the road like I always do,” I said, pointing at the water. The cameraman scrambled down the bank, way closer than I ever would have gotten. The alligator just floated there, looking barely alive, definitely not thinking it was any kind of news. Later that evening, watching me on TV, Dad said that when I pointed at the alligator, I looked like a game show hostess pointing to a prize.
After all the excitement, we had a late dinner. “Wren,” my mother said, piling brussels sprouts onto my plate, “I didn’t even get to ask you about your first day of school.”
I shrugged and said, “It was okay,” trying not to let too much disappointment creep into my voice. But I could tell from their faces they’d already figured out it was not what I’d been hoping for, so I added, “At least Allie and I have American history together. And lunch. It would be torture to sit alone eating lunch in that huge cafeteria.”
“First days are always hard,” Dad said. “It’ll get better. You’ll see.”
I bit my lip. Dad was the kind of person who would be perfectly happy sitting alone at a lunch table as long as he could identify whatever bird was trilling outside the window.
“You just have to give it some time,” my mom chimed in. “By this time next week, everyone will know how truly and completely wonderful you are.”
It was nice of them to comfort me, especially since they never wanted me to go to Williamsport in the first place. Cutty River was the charter school here in Leeville, and it was smaller and more progressive, so plenty of people from Williamsport were willing to make the commute. But Cutty River didn’t have all the great sports and arts programs that Williamsport did. And I really wanted to try out for plays. The plays at Williamsport were a huge deal; people from all over the area would come to see them. My parents had been taking me since I was itty-bitty. They said if I was interested in theater I could take acting lessons after school, but I had begged and pleaded and finally won them over. So I appreciated them not saying right away that I could always go back to Cutty River if I wanted. I smiled at my mom and took a bite of brussels sprouts. Everyone always says they hate brussels sprouts, but she roasts them with maple syrup and fish sauce, which may sound weird to you, but it’s actually quite delicious.
After dinner I called Allie and told her to stay up and watch the news. I didn’t tell her why. “Just watch the whole thing,” I said. “Get your parents to watch it too.”
Allie said she would, but instead of asking me why, she said, “But Wren, guess who I saw at Kilwin’s after school?” And before I could answer, she said, “Tim Greenlaw.”
“Tim Greenlaw!” Tim had been a year ahead of us at Cutty River until he left to go to Williamsport in ninth grade. Even in middle school he was super athletic, and super blond, and Allie and I’d both had huge crushes on him. He never spoke to either of us, not one single time.
“He’s even cuter than he used to be,” Allie promised. “Much taller. And I think he smiled at me. I hope we see him at school tomorrow.”
“Me too,” I said. Truthfully, I had grown out of my crush on Tim. The boy I loved was my guitar teacher, even if he was in college. And anyway, even in middle school Allie had liked Tim more than I did. So I said, “You’ll have to go out with Tim. I can’t cheat on Ry.”
Allie laughed. We had a running discussion on how to make Ry forget our age difference and fall in love with me. Then Allie said, “But Tim’s so gorgeous. He’d never like me.”
I rolled my eyes at this. Allie’s always done that, pretended she didn’t know how pretty she was. In that moment I felt like she just wanted me to compliment her, and for some reason I didn’t feel like it. Sometimes I am a bad friend that way.
Even though she couldn’t see me, Allie had a way of sensing she’d lost my attention. “Come on,” she said. “Tell me why I have to watch the news.” I broke down and told her about the alligator. She whistled. “Your parents are never going to let you walk down that driveway again.”
“Sure they will,” I said, even though she was probably right. My parents are just a tad bit overprotective. They always have been. A few years ago they let Allie and me camp out at the Civil War fort down on Old Farthing Road. They promised we could go all by ourselves, but when I crawled out of the tent in the morning, there was my dad, sitting in a lawn chair, a crumpled bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts at his feet and a rifle across his lap.
“Daddy,” I said, hugely annoyed, my hands on my hips. “What do you think you’re doing?”
He blinked at me a couple of times, then said, “Protecting what’s precious, darlin’. I’m protecting what’s precious.”
At the time it’d made me mad that he’d gone back on his word. But now, sitting on my bed talking to Allie, the memory made me smile. She was right, of course. There was no way I’d be walking down that road alone tomorrow.
* * *
The next morning, sure enough, Dad and I took his Jeep down to meet the bus. He let me drive. I kind of hoped he’d let me drive all the way to school. Even though I’d turned sixteen last week, I still only had a learner’s permit, so I needed a licensed driver in the car with me. But when I suggested this to Dad, he said, “You made a deal, Wren.”
I tried not to snort at this. The deal: I’d promised that if they let me switch schools, I would take the bus every day. Dad thought it would be good for me to have to get to the end of the road on time, because in his opinion I had problems with punctuality. He also said that even after I got my license, it would be a good while before they would be comfortable with me driving into Williamsport on my own. Overprotective, like I said. Still, even if I did have my license, we didn’t exactly have money lying around for an extra car, so there hardly seemed a point in hurrying down to the DMV.
While we waited for the bus, Dad told me that the biologists and forest service people needed to decide whether they should move the alligator or let the species expand its territory. No matter what they decided, I wasn’t sure if I would ever walk down the road by myself again. And thanks to Mr. Alligator, I knew my days of swimming in the Cutty River were over for good, even if the mercury rose to two hundred degrees.
But guess what? When I got on the bus, it turned out I’d become a celebrity! It seemed everyone on the bus had heard about our alligator. Who knew so many kids watched the news? Even the people who hadn’t seen me on TV knew about it. Practically everyone leaned out the open windows, trying to look down the river and spot the gator. When I sat down and the bus pulled away, about ten kids—most of them juniors and seniors—crowded around, asking me questions. I told them about how that loquat fell off the tree and then I saw the alligator floating in the water. I held my hands out wide to show them how big it was, wiggling my fingers to show it was even longer than my arms would go.
“God,” one girl said. “I would’ve run so fast!”
“That’s what I did,” I told her. “My dad said I looked like the Bionic Woman coming up the driveway.” I didn’t mention that I’d screamed for my mom the whole way.
During this conversation, I noticed one guy hanging over the seat a couple of rows closer to the driver, watching me. It kinda seemed like he was more interested in me than what I said about the alligator. Not knowing I would be getting so much attention today, I hadn’t put much effort into what I was wearing. I had on a sleeveless Fresh Produce sundress that essentially looked like an oversize T-shirt, and my hair was in a sloppy ponytail. It took a full minute for me to realize that it was Tim Greenlaw looking at me. Not only that, but Allie had been right: He was much taller and even cuter than he’d been at the Cutty River School. Tim Greenlaw looked like he’d spent the whole summer surfing at Wilbur Beach, with this super-blond hair that flopped across his forehead, and the perfect number of freckles. And he had a very smiley way about him, even when he wasn’t smiling. That might not make any sense, but I think it had something to do with his eyes. For some reason he always just looked like a happy person, thinking secret happy thoughts.
Tim saw me staring back at him and waved. “Hey, Wren,” he said.
Because I am an idiot who never thinks before she speaks, I blurted out, “You remember me?”
He smiled, a slow and self-aware smile like he was used to turning girls into morons. “Well, sure,” he said. “I didn’t get amnesia after Cutty River.” I think he felt bad for me when my face turned red, because he added, “Also, I saw you on the news last night.”
It was nice of him to try, but that didn’t help. My cheeks burned all the way into Williamsport.
* * *
I got over my embarrassment pretty quick, though, because the rest of the morning went pretty much like the bus ride. Even the teachers stopped me in the hall to ask about the alligator. The story was also in the Williamsport Sun-News. By the time I met Allie for lunch at a picnic table outside, I was exhausted from all the attention.
“Well, hello to you, Miss Famous,” Allie said, scootching close. “Everybody’s been talking about that alligator, and seeing you on TV. I told one girl you were my best friend, and I don’t think she even believed me. She thought I was just trying to curry favor.” This last is the kind of expression Allie uses all the time, probably because her parents are professors.
Allie looked much more done up than usual. Yesterday had been just as much a letdown for her as it was for me. But unlike me, this hadn’t kept her from making an effort. She wore this flouncy little skirt that made her legs look four miles long, a tank top, and a cool string of clear and purple beads, plus she’d straightened her hair. It wasn’t like her to try so hard, and I could tell she was determined to get noticed. Allie was used to people paying lots of attention to her on account of her looks. For example, last July when she went to visit her grandmother in New York City, a modeling scout spotted her sifting through the Ralph Lauren sales rack at Bloomingdale’s. The scout wanted her to make an appointment for test shots, but Allie’s parents said no, which was probably the biggest disappointment in Allie’s entire life. Allie still carried that woman’s business card with her everywhere she went, and I noticed her tapping her fingers on the side of her little purse, probably to remind herself it was there.
But for the first time since we’d been friends, it wasn’t Allie’s looks that finally got us attention. It was my alligator. I barely had a chance to tell her she looked great when two guys helped themselves to the bench on the other side of our table. One of them was from our American history class; his name was Devon Kelly. The other one was . . . Tim Greenlaw. Allie pinched my hand under the table.
“Hey,” Devon said. “It’s Alligator Girl.”
You wouldn’t think it, but between the two of us, Allie is the shy one. She waited for me to say something back to Devon. But seriously, how much more could I possibly say about an alligator? Mostly they just lie around in the water, not even bothering to swish their tails.
This kid Devon sounded like a Yankee, but I am half Yankee on my mother’s side, so this did not bother me at all. Plus, he had this casual, friendly way about him, like everything was just a little bit of a joke. I could tell Allie was pretty thrilled that they’d come over, and I didn’t want to blow this chance for her. Or myself, for that matter. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of anything cleverer to say than, “I’m Wren, and this is my friend Allie.”
Allie smiled at Tim. She is very exotic-looking, with glossy dark hair and gigantic gray eyes shaped like Cleopatra’s. Devon stared straight at her when he said, “Well, hello there, Allie and Wren.”
I noted how he gave Allie top billing, which was pretty much par for the course. Devon asked me a couple of questions about the TV crew, then told us he was having a party on Saturday night. “It’s on the beach by my house,” he said. The invitation was for both of us, but he was still staring at Allie. This didn’t bother me as I loved Ry, my guitar teacher. Meanwhile, Allie ignored Devon’s staring. She kept zeroing right in on Tim, who kind of smiled back at her in a polite way.
“So you’ll come?” Devon said.
“Sure,” Allie finally piped up. “You bet. We’ll come, for sure.”
Devon and Tim got up and sauntered toward the gym, while Allie and I cleared our food away. “Well, well,” she said, as we tossed out the garbage from our lunch—which in both cases included most of the lunch itself. “It looks like there are all kinds of benefits to having an alligator in your backyard.” She had the happiest little smile on her face, and even though it was nearly a hundred degrees out, I could tell in her head she was already wearing Tim’s football jacket.
As we walked back toward school, Allie had a little bounce in her step. We were definitely having a better second day than first. Even though I wasn’t at all sure that my parents would let me go to Devon’s, I wasn’t going to spoil Allie’s excitement by telling her.