18 Months


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Chapter One

The bell rang and I stood, gathering up my notebook and pen as the teacher called out a last minute assignment.

“Excuse you,” Madison said as she nudged me out of the way more forcefully than necessary. After her Genny did the same thing, knocking my notebook to the floor.

“Oops, sorry,” Genny said in a sing-song voice as she flicked her long red hair over her shoulder.

“You know, you really should be more careful, Alissa.” Madison stood with one hand on the size zero waist of her cheerleading uniform. They giggled together as they walked away.

“You okay?” Nick asked as he bent and picked up my notebook.

I nodded, taking the notebook when he held it out to me. “Honestly, I barely hear them anymore.”

“Good for you.” He grinned and I felt a swell of gratitude that we’d become friends again.

Nick Pathos had pretty much been my only friend since starting senior year last month. He’d lived around the corner from me our whole lives, so we played together when we were little. Anything resembling friendship had ended at the end-of-year camping trip in eighth grade. I led him away from the campfire on a dare and suggested we skinny dip in the lake. As soon as he was naked, Madison and Genny darted from the woods and took his clothes.

We ran laughing back to the campfire, waiting to see what he would do. Almost a half hour later, a pudgy, sobbing form streaked past the group. He wasn’t fast enough to escape notice. That night solidified my friendship with Madison and Genny. I started high school as one of the cool kids. Nick had not. We’d barely spoken again until after I’d come out and lost all my old, cool friends. Since middle school he’d turned into a good-looking guy with his absent father’s caramel complexion and his mother’s wide, dark eyes.

“I wish I’d started ignoring them sooner.” We stepped out of the classroom and turned toward my locker.

“Me too.” He laughed. “Got any big plans this weekend?”

“I’m going to Hannah’s tonight, and we’ll hang out this weekend.”

“Cool,” Nick said, but I could sense disappointment.

“Maybe we can catch up Sunday?”

He grinned again. “Yeah, sounds great. I’ll text you.”

“Are you hitting on my girlfriend again?” Hannah was leaning against my locker. She wore a salmon colored sweater that hung off her shoulder to reveal a hint of smooth dark skin, and skinny jeans tucked into boots. Standing beside her in my navy and white striped hoodie and Converse I wondered for the five hundredth time what she saw in me.

“Ha ha.” Nick backed away. “I’ll catch you later.” He nodded to me and disappeared into the crowd of students thronging toward lunch.

“Hey.” Hannah reached over and tugged at my hoodie pocket. “Can I steal you for lunch?”

I reached up to corral my unruly mass of blond waves, twisting it into a quick bun. “Sure, but we have to be back for next period this time.”

She rolled her eyes. “One time we’re late.”

I dumped books into my locker. “One time?”

“One time this week?” She leaned in, tilting her head and smiling. I pressed my lips to hers, enjoying the tart scent of her tangerine lip gloss. I ran my hand through her straightened black hair. She pulled back, smiling at me.

“Come on.” Hannah took my hand and dragged me down the hall. We shoved through the doors into a sunny October afternoon. A scattering of orange and red leaves covered the lawn in front of the school, most of the trees just starting to drop leaves in earnest.

We kicked through the leaves and darted across the parking lot to Hannah’s blue Mini Cooper. Five minutes later, we’d picked up drive-through burgers and fries and set up a picnic near the creek that ran through the center of town. The sun tried to warm our shoulders, but the autumn breeze overpowered it.

“I’m going to miss this.” I popped a fry in my mouth.

“What?” Hannah dipped a fry into her chocolate milkshake. She held it out to me. I bit it, running my lips over her fingers, tasting the salt there.

I smiled and wiped my mouth. “This.” I lay back on the dying grass. “Summer was perfect.”

“It kind of was.” She set the remainder of her milkshake aside and lay on her stomach beside me. I tucked one arm under her and rested my hand on her hip.

“I don’t know how I would make it through one more year here without you,” I said.

She laughed. “Well, you wouldn’t have come out, so it would just be more of you pretending to like boys and doing whatever Madison told you.”

“Hey.” I tickled her side and she squirmed, which only brought her closer. “I didn’t do everything she told me.”

“Please.” Hannah gave me a skeptical look. “She ran your life.”

I sighed and nodded. “Yeah, and it was killing me. I can’t believe how dumb I was.” I covered my eyes with my other arm. My mind briefly darted to Lana Meyers. She’d been the biggest casualty in my desperate attempt to remain in the cool kids’ circle and firmly in the closet. Maybe if I’d taken a chance for her things might have ended differently. Then again, maybe I wouldn’t have met Hannah.

I felt Hannah shift beside me and smelled tangerine a moment before she kissed me. I still couldn’t get used to the feel of it, different than kissing anyone else. When Hannah kissed me, the world seemed to slip away. I didn’t think about what my parents thought about us, or kids at school, or strangers for that matter. With her all that mattered was us. We could get through it all as long as we were together.

I pulled Hannah, tugging her on top of me. I loved the feel of her body pressed against me. She pulled away too soon, sitting up and straddling me. She took my hands in hers and smiled down at me.

“What?” I asked. With her hair falling over one shoulder and sun beaming down on her, she was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.

“I was just thinking how much more fun this could be if we didn’t have to get back to class.” She leaned down and gave me a quick peck on the nose before climbing off me, laughing.

I groaned and rolled over to push myself up. We gathered our trash and headed for the car. We rode back to school without talking, hands twisted together between the seats as some new band she had fallen in love with blared through the speakers and out the open windows. I leaned my head back against the seat and closed my eyes, trying to memorize every scent, sound, and feeling of the moment so it could last forever.

Chapter Two

“So you just twist this knob here until it comes into focus.” Lana pressed her eye to the microscope.

I watched, paying more attention to the way her hair fell around her face and the nimble movements of her fingers than what she said about the microscope. This was probably why we’d been doing these tutoring sessions for almost a month with barely any improvement to my grades. Neither of us had been happy with the arrangement at first, but that changed.

I flushed, thinking about our first kiss. It had been an awkward kiss, full of need and excitement. I’d never expected to kiss her. She was Lana Meyers. Her clothes came from thrift stores or Hot Topic. Her eyes were rimmed with too much makeup and her nail polish was always chipped. She hated the popular kids and I was one of them. But once it was just the two of us, we started opening up to each other. I found myself noticing how pretty she was.

Smart too. She didn’t look up from the microscope as she continued explaining something about the cells she was looking at. I was useless when it came to science, but all of it seemed to come naturally to her. Absently, she pushed her dark brown hair behind her ear. I grinned when the chunk of red hair at the front fell forward again. I reached out and brushed it back. I trailed my fingers down her neck, tickling her warm skin.

Lana pulled away from the microscope. “Alissa, are you listening to a word I’m saying?”

“I’m sorry.” I leaned forward, resting one hand on her upper thigh and squeezing gently. “I can’t help it if my mind’s on other things.”

Lana raised an eyebrow and glanced toward the classroom door. It was closed. I had an hour to kill before leaving for a basketball game with the rest of the cheerleaders, so we were practically alone in the school. With the afternoon sunlight still strong, we hadn’t bothered to turn on the overhead lights and our back corner of the science room was enticingly shadowed.

“You do remember we’re in school, right?” Lana reached forward and gently tugged a piece of my long blond hair. It sent a shiver through me.

“No one’s around.” I scooted my stool closer and moved my hand to her stomach. I could feel it tense through the thin fabric of her shirt. “We could just take a little study break.”

Lana pulled my hand away, setting it on my leg. “Never in school, remember? Your rules, not mine.”

“Stupid rules.” I brushed aside her hair and leaned over to kiss her neck. She let out a small gasp and I smiled. “Want me to stop?” My lips brushed her throat and she lifted a hand to pull me close again. Her fingers brushed the skin between my cheerleading top and skirt. The scent of her cherry shampoo filled my senses, outweighing the industrial cleaner smell in the room.

My hand returned to her stomach, sliding under her skull printed top and brushing the underside of her bra. She pushed my hand back down and I smiled as she turned to kiss me. Her lips were chapped against mine and I reminded myself to make sure I didn’t leave for the basketball game with her dark lipstick on my lips.

She broke the kiss with a smile and I rested my forehead against hers. Her breath was warm on my skin. “Why did you stop?” I asked.

“Because I don’t want to ruin this by getting caught.” She turned back to the microscope.

I caught her hand and lifted it to my lips, kissing her knuckles. “Let them catch us,” I said brazenly. Briefly, I imagined a world where Lana and I walked down the hall holding hands and went to prom together. Not that she would go to prom.

She laughed and shook her head. “I wish you meant that.”

I tugged on her hand, pulling her closer. “Maybe it’s time we told people.”

She shook her head. “Don’t tease.”

“I’m not.” I shrugged. “I don’t know, maybe no one would care.”

She shook her head. “They would care.”

I leaned toward her again. “Maybe I wouldn’t care.”

She half smiled, wrapped one hand behind my neck and pulled my lips to hers. I let out a muffled gasp of surprise and balanced myself on her thigh, feeling its warmth through her jeans. In that moment I really didn’t care if anyone found us.

“Oh, my God.”

Those three words changed everything.

I pushed Lana away, wiping furiously at my lips. Her eyes were wide, mirroring my own shocked expression. Somehow I’d always imagined a smug smile on her face if we were ever caught. I turned to see Genny Warner standing in the now open doorway. Her usually vivid red hair was dull in the dim light.

“Oh, my God,” she repeated. “Was she kissing you, Alissa?” Her nose wrinkled at the words.

“What?” Madison Chan stepped up beside her. “Wow, so gross.”

I stood, almost knocking over the stool in my hurry to put distance between Lana and me. “What the hell?” I glared at Lana. It was the only way I could think to salvage the situation. “I don’t know what you were thinking, but I’m not a lesbian, okay?”

Hurt flashed across Lana’s face, but only I knew her well enough to recognize it. A second later, her usual mask of anger and disinterest fell into place.

“Could have fooled me.” She shrugged and began to gather up her notebook and pencils. “Sorry, I thought I was getting vibes.”

“Ew, that’s so disgusting.” Genny stalked across the room, arms crossed. Madison followed right on her heels. “Who knew crazy Lana was also a big dyke?” Genny looked at me. “How do you attract these people? First Nick and now Lana? Gross.”

“Screw you, Genny.” Lana tried to push past them. Madison and Genny formed a wall though, unwilling to let her through until they were done.

“I’m sorry, isn’t it clear that we’re not into the idea of screwing you?” Madison tilted her head. “Alissa, come here.”

I walked to her side, feeling like a jerk, but unsure what else to do. Lana glared daggers from under the same piece of red hair I’d tucked behind her ear moments before. I could still feel her lips on mine and I knew I should just admit that I’d wanted to kiss her. I couldn’t though. My world would unravel. Besides, just because I liked kissing her didn’t mean I wanted to date her or anything. At least that’s what I told myself.

“Tell her she’s disgusting,” Genny said.

“You’re disgusting.” I tried to make it sound true. I didn’t know how Genny and Madison missed the pained look in Lana’s eyes.

“We don’t want to see you near her again. And you can bet we’re going to tell everyone what sort of creepy lesbian stalker you are,” Madison said.

“Seriously, you just about mouth raped her.” Genny shivered with exaggerated fear.

“Whatever.” Lana shook her head and pushed through us, using me as the weak link in the wall. Her body pressed past me and I knew I would miss the feeling of it against mine.

“We said don’t touch her.” Madison grabbed Lana by the arm. It was almost funny to see. Madison was a head shorter than Lana was. Still, she managed to look fierce as she narrowed her eyes. “Are we going to have a problem with you?”

Lana yanked her arm free. A self-satisfied grin spread over her face. “Problem? Nah, no problem. Have fun cheering for the big manly basketball players. Alissa?” I looked up at the sound of my name. “I’ll see you around.”

She walked out of the classroom before Genny or Madison could say anything else. My face burned.

“God, the friggin’ nerve of that girl.” Madison pushed her pin straight black hair over her shoulder. She reached out and rubbed my arm. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” I nodded. It was a lie. I was more shaken than I’d ever been. I’d managed to keep my secret, but Lana would be in for it when the rest of the school heard what happened. “Let’s catch the bus.”

“No way.” Madison shook her head. “We should tell the principal. She can’t just go around kissing whoever she wants.”

“No, really,” I said. “That’s dumb. If it was some guy kissing me, I’d never tell the principal.”

“But it wasn’t.” Genny’s eyes gleamed with the idea of the trouble Lana would be in. When she and Madison got together, there was no stopping them. “She needs to know she can’t just shove her freaky lifestyle on anyone.”

In the end, I let them lead me to the principal’s office. I didn’t think anything would come of it. I figured Mrs. Wagner would blow it off. Maybe if I’d gone alone she would have, but Madison and Genny were Walnut Grove royalty. Their parents belonged to the country club with Mrs. Wagner and if they said something needed to be done, something would be done.