Noise invades every part of boarding school life. Banging, laughing, slamming. Shrieks and tears. Music playing softly or bass shaking the floor. Even after lights out, the noise continues. Wind rattles the windows, alarm clocks bark angrily, clandestine footsteps sneak along the hallway.
Normally, I don’t hear those things. They’ve become background noise against which my life plays out. But tonight is different. I don’t sleep well. Even with my head stuffed under a pillow and my headphones on, the howling wind lashing my window invades my dreams. It fills me with anxiety, and by the time my alarm goes off, I’m a total wreck. Not the best way to start the new school year.
I reach for my phone, technically a contraband item, and turn off the alarm. With a groan, I roll out of bed and grab my shower supplies. The one drawback to my room is the communal bathroom. Not a bad thing really, if the school’s idea of communal shower wasn’t a large public area with a complicated series of plastic curtains dividing the whole thing into private “chambers.”
Showering requires vigilance. If you’re in the back stall, you have to walk through the others to get out. If you’re in one at the front, guys either wait or are dicks and pull the curtains apart, leaving you cold and exposed.
Thankfully, the showers are empty, so I entrench myself in the one at the back. If someone comes along, I’ll just walk through. That’s what they get for not getting here first.
Luke warm water trickles over my skin reminding me yet again water pressure is not high on the school’s list of necessities. I crank the handle completely to the left, hoping to force out something marginally warmer than spit, but I only get tepid drizzle.
I soap my face, my hand running over the pathetic blond stubble dotting my chin. Even with Harker’s strict dress code, I don’t bother to shave since I can go for days and it’s barely noticeable. I squirt a blob of shampoo into my hand and begin scrubbing my hair.
My head snaps up at the sound of a girl’s voice. This is the boy’s bathroom. I finish rinsing my hair before yelling, “Yeah?”
“I thought you were in here.”
My breath lodges in my throat. Be calm. Indifferent. “You found me. What do you want?”
There are only six or seven layers of shower curtain between us. And no towel. Not the best situation to be in.
“I want to talk to you, silly,” she says playfully.
The semi-warm air of my shower quickly dissipates and goose bumps cover my body. “Cal, can’t it wait until I’m out of the shower? Besides, you’re going to get us both in trouble if you get caught.”
Her laugh bounces off the hard tile surface of the bathroom.
She clearly isn’t worried about being heard.
“Come out and get your towel. I know you’re freezing,” she taunts.
I have no choice. With one more dunk under the now cold water, I turn off the faucet and work my way through the labyrinth of plastic until I stand, wet and naked in front of Calista. She gives me a look I know too well and holds my towel up over her head, which is at about my eye level.
“Come get it.”
I hold out my hand, in no mood for her games. “Just give it to me. I’m freezing.”
The bathroom door swings open and Kyle Bennett walks in carrying a copy of Sports Illustrated. Surprise flits across his face, but he gives me a thumbs-up before retreating back into the hallway.
Cal frowns and tosses the towel at me. “This isn’t as much fun.”
Fun? Torturing me is fun? The knot in my gut contracts and squeezes itself tighter together.
I wrap the towel around my waist, just over my hip bones, because as much as it this whole thing sucks, I still want her. And I want her to want me. “What’s up?”
“I need to talk to you. Alone. Without Brady hanging around. I figured this was my best chance.”
I clench the towel. “If this is about yesterday and Hannah, I told you, it won’t happen again. I’ll keep all juniors, sophomores, and freshman well away from you.”
She wags her finger at me. “You know that’s not why I’m here.” The playfulness is gone, replaced by something sadder. Something I’m responsible for.
I motion for her to follow me, but before stepping out into the hallway, I take a quick look to make sure my RA isn’t around. “C’mon.”
She scampers after me. My room’s at the end of the hall. About halfway there, I realize I can’t have her over. It would give her the wrong impression – that I’m at her mercy. I’m going to have to do this in the hallway, dressed only in a towel and dripping water all over the floor.
I spin around, and she bumps into me. Her warm hand touches my side, and my body shifts into auto-response. I adjust the towel so that I’m holding it a little farther way from me.
“Sorry,” she says. Hope fills her blue eyes, and a tentative smile pulls at her lips.
I let out a heavy breath and bite my upper lip. Why does she insist on making everything so difficult?
She reaches for my hand, the smile growing more confident, and I recoil. Shock flits across her face, and in that one moment, I understand: I need to stop this.
“You’re going to make us both late for class. You should get going.” I start back toward my door, but she grabs my arm.
“Do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate you.”
She creeps closer to me until she’s standing just inches away. “Why is this so awkward? We slept together. It was a summer thing.” Her breath tickles my bare chest. If I don’t do something immediately, we’re going to end up in my bedroom. And late for class.
I harden my voice. Stay distant, Fletch. “There’s nothing left to say. That was made clear.”
Disbelief clouds her face. “Stop it. Why are you being so cold? I know you like me.” She stares into my eyes, daring me to look away. “You know it’s true.”
I bristle and pull my towel tighter around me. “It doesn’t matter, Cal.” I recite the lie I’ve practiced everyday for the past week. “You’re like a sister to me, and hooking up with you is gross.”
She clenches her jaw, and she shakes her head slowly, as if giving herself time to digest my words.
“You’re such a liar.” Tears well in the corner of her eyes but don’t fall.
Don’t cry, Cal, please don’t cry. I want to reach out and dab the frozen tears. I want to pull her to my chest and tell her I’m sorry. But I don’t. I stand here, half-naked, shivering, with my hand firmly clenching my towel. I make no effort to comfort her.
Calista drops her head. I watch the small vibrations of her trembling lip, and wonder if she hates me.
“Why are you doing this?” she whispers. Without warning, her fist slams into my bare chest.
“Why?” she screams. Calista never screams. She doesn’t rage; she doesn’t throw fits. She’s steady and calm.
My mind spins, trying to make sense of what she’s asking. “Cal, it’s not like that. I didn’t mean to-“
“What is it, Fletch?” She waits for me to say something, and when I don’t, she turns and runs down the hallway to the stairwell. I stand there, listening to her footsteps echo as she runs farther away. I don’t try to stop her.
I notice, for the first time, a few students watching me. But I don’t care. Let them think what they want.
I slam my door shut and kick the garbage can next to me. It flies across the room and strikes the opposite wall.
This needs to stop. I can’t have her running around school causing scenes. Hell, what am I saying? I can’t start fights. Not over Calista.
It’s freaking senior year. I shouldn’t be dealing with this crap. I’m supposed to be meeting the new girls, stressing about college, and smoking weed with my friends to take the edge off. Not worrying about Calista.
The night before my first move-in day, when I was fourteen, Dad came into my room, sat in my desk chair, and told me, “High school is for testing the limits. It’s where you begin to figure out who you really are. Don’t worry about what others think, Fletch, just worry about you. It’s your time to experience things and live.”
Maybe I’ve taken his advice too literally. Maybe I don’t care about other people at all.
My hands shake, shake, shake. I knot them together and press them into my forehead.
I can do better than this.
All seven-hundred-and-fifty Harker students fill the Quad. My friends are gathered in a loose group, near the benches, comparing schedules for last minute changes. There’s an open space where Calista should be.
“Oversleep, Fletch?” Paige asks as I saunter up.
“I was dreaming about you and didn’t want to wake up,” I joke.
She holds the back of her hand against her forehead and pretends to faint. “Oh my God, I can die happy.”
I study Paige for a minute. She doesn’t seem upset with me. Maybe she doesn’t know Cal came by to see me? Yet. She doesn’t know yet. Because once she does, no doubt she’ll give me the evil eye and tear into me.
Brady snatches my schedule from my hand. “Looks like we have American Lit together.”
Paige plucks my schedule away from Brady and compares it to hers and Reid’s. “Nothing here, either. You’re on your own this year.”
Fantastic. In three years, I’ve always had at least one friend in each class. Can my day get any better?
The ten-minute bell rings, and my friends and I scatter. With my backpack slung over my shoulder, I fall in with the crowd headed toward the brand-spanking-new science building. Construction started last year, even though some old guy left his entire fortune to the school years ago. Apparently, his relatives were so pissed, they sued Harker. Or so my dad says.
He would know, being in charge of alumni giving and all.
Hall signs indicate Physics Room A is at the end of the left wing. I find it easily enough.
Everything about the room smells new, and its shininess reminds me of those staged college brochure pictures that are supposed to convince me the college is a scientific or theatrical or business powerhouse.
Mr. Smits, an injured Desert Storm vet, hops around the front of the classroom on his pogo stick of a prosthetic leg. He messes with the video camera trained on his desk, and behind him, a huge screen shows the image. High-tech teaching at its best.
Since the start bell hasn’t sounded, most of us stand around talking. Kyle Bennett, the guy who walked in on Cal and me, is telling everyone about his less-than-interesting summer.
“So, what about you, Fletch? Did you have a fun summer?” he asks. I’m surprised he doesn’t ask about this morning. But then again, he is what Brady calls a ‘boy scout-type.’ He probably thinks it’s rude or something.
I flick at a piece of lint from my Harker School navy sweater. “It was fine. I went to San Diego.”
The unbuttoned collar of Kyle’s dress shirt pulls away from his neck, revealing his gross chest hair as he nods enthusiastically. I wonder if he’s ever gotten laid? Probably not. How sad would it be to start college and never have gotten a piece of anything?
“That sounds great! Did you look at colleges? I’m thinking about applying to UCSD.”
“No.” I want to be snarky, but what’s the point? Kyle’s not hurting anyone. “I was visiting my cousin Reilly. I go every year.”
It was. We surfed everyday, hung out with a group of extremely hot girls, drank beer on the beach, and just lived. “It was okay.”
“Good morning, everyone.” Mr. Smits’s monotone voice echoes off the cold, hard surfaces of the room. “Please line up against the wall.” He points to the bank of windows, as if we can’t figure it out.
I shuffle, along with my classmates, across the room. Despite my general lack of interest in science, Mr. Smits’s classes are usually exciting. In chemistry, we spent about a month learning how to blow things up, and I’m pretty sure I could make a mean pipe bomb if I wanted.
“When I call your name please take the next available seat. Starting with this one.” He pats the corner of the workstation nearest him.
Alphabetical seating. I swing my eyes around the room trying to figure out who I’ll be paired with. There are only twenty of us in the class. I do not want to sit with Kyle.
“Allen.” Seat one taken.
“Alvardo.” Seat two.
“Baumgarten and Bennett.” Kyle drops his stuff at the second table.
A bunch of girls are left along with a few guys I’ve never really hung out with. I pray I get a girl.
“Colson.” I take a chair at the third table and hold my breath.
“And Diaz.” Exhale.
Sarah Diaz slides into the seat next to mine. Luck is on my side. She’s the hottest girl at Harker – all long blond hair, curves and legs – the kind of girl you want to do stuff to and then exaggerate when giving details to your friends.
“Hey, Fletch.” She tosses her hair over her shoulder, in that way girls think is cute.
“What’s up?” I lean back in my chair, trying to look nonchalant.
Sarah rolls her eyes and drops a glittered notebook on the desktop. “Still the same Fletch, I see.”
I’m not sure what exactly she means. Sure we hooked up sophomore year, but we’ve barely talked since then. Doesn’t mean we can’t have a repeat performance.
“If you say so.”
Sarah flips her notebook open and diligently copies Mr. Smits’s whiteboard scrawls, outlining as she goes.
I don’t bother to take notes. Chances are it’s all in the syllabus. Why make more work for myself?
“Do you like physics?” she whispers, taking a break from her fervent note taking.
“Don’t know. Never took it before.”
Sarah gives a low laugh. “Dumb question.”
“Not at all. I think some over-achievers, like Kyle, do physics on Friday nights for fun.”
She draws her eyebrows together and plays with the end of her ponytail. Her hair matches the honey color of her skin. “He’s so annoying,” she whispers.
I nod. Actually, he’s not bad. Just a little over-enthusiastic. But whatever, if she doesn’t like him, I’ll play along.
Kyle hands back a stack of syllabi. I take one for myself and give Sarah hers before passing them on to the next table.
Mr. Smits scratches some dates on his tablet with a special hi-tech pen thing, and the words appear on the overhead screen. “This is also in your syllabus. Memorize it.” He bounces to the front of the room and taps the whiteboard with the pen. “These are the three dates of the three exams on which seventy-five percent of your grade will be based. The rest of your grade comes from lab work. And only because it’s the first day of class, I’m going to ignore all the extraneous talking.” He glares in our direction.
Sarah runs her finger down the paper, scanning the list of assignments. “We need a study group if we want to pass this class.”
“Okay.” It doesn’t look harder than any other Harker class.
“Seriously, don’t you think this is going to be a hard class?” I half-shrug, thinking it’s the end of her freak-out, but it’s not. “I have to get an ‘A’ if I want a chance at Columbia.”
Suddenly, having Sarah Diaz as a lab partner seems like a pain-in-the-ass. But I say, “Yeah, it does,” and crumple the paper before dropping it into my bag. “Just let me know when you want to study.”
She turns my unopened notebook over and neatly prints a number across the back. “Call my room later and we’ll set something up.”
Nice. It’s not even second period and I’ve already scored a phone number. Brady’s gonna be pissed.
The bell trills. Mr. Smits does his half-walk half-hop thing to the door and pushes it open, giving us permission to leave. At Harker, even if the bell rings, you still have to wait for the teacher’s dismissal.
While Sarah places her stuff in her bag, I wait. Maybe because I don’t want to see Calista between classes. I don’t know. Waiting just seems like a good idea.
Sarah starts toward the door, looks back over her shoulder and asks, “See you later, Fletch?”
I nod. “I’ll call you.”
CRUSH releases December 11, 2012. Add it to your Goodreads account.