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[3 of 5] Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu (2017) Chapters 11-15

Author: Jennifer Mathieu

Mathieu, Jennifer. “Chapters 11-15.” Moxie: A Novel, Square Fish, Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2017.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

It’s early November and chilly enough that my bathrobe over my jeans and T-shirt feels good and not too hot. But my cheeks are still burning from nervousness as I walk toward the front doors of East Rockport High. On my morning walk to school, I stopped half a block away to slip the bathrobe on over my clothes before immediately taking it off, then walking a few more steps, and finally stopping to put it back on again. Now that I’m getting closer to actually walking into school dressed like this, I have to fight the urge to rip the bathrobe off one more time.

As I approach the campus, my eyes scan the clumps of students in front of East Rockport, checking if I’m the only one who looks like she forgot to get dressed before coming to school. My heart skips up to my throat. I scan left to right and spot jeans, skirts, jeans, skirts, and then, thankfully, a tight circle of what looks to be some sophomore girls all dressed in bathrobes over their outfits. They keep peering over their shoulders like they’re checking to see if anyone around them matches.

My heart slips back down to my chest where it belongs. I exhale. I want to walk by them so they’ll see me and know they’re not alone, but just then I feel someone collide into my left shoulder.

“You did it!”

It’s Lucy, and she’s wearing not only a puffy pink bathrobe that makes her look like a Hostess Sno Ball, but also fuzzy pink slippers that match.

“Oh my God, you look awesome,” I say, and Lucy grins and shrugs like she knows.

“I saw a few other girls by the gym entrance who had them on, too,” she tells me. “I think there are already more girls doing this than the hearts and stars thing.” She eyes the campus carefully. “I wish I knew which girls were the Moxie girls. I mean, they’re here somewhere.”

The irony is too much for me to handle with a neutral face, so I just urge Lucy along so I don’t have to make eye contact. Along the way into school, we wave to a few other girls who have bathrobes on. I spot Kiera Daniels, and she has on fuzzy slippers just like Lucy, only her getup is lavender. Kiera and I wave at each other. More than half of the girls she’s with have bathrobes on.

Inside all the buzz is about the bathrobes. I overhear a few guys asking each other what’s going on and some people talking about “that newsletter.” It’s a zine, but whatever, I think as I start toward history. Lucy says she’ll see me in English and we split off.

Heading into class, I see Claudia in the back row. No bathrobe, just a pale pink top and jeans. She waves at me as I walk in.

“Hey,” I say, sliding into my desk next to her.

“Hey,” she answers, and it’s very obvious we are both Not Talking About It. I’m disappointed she didn’t do it, and she’s probably disappointed in me for the opposite reason.

“I’m so tired,” she says, pushing out a little yawn. It’s forced and weird between us, like it almost never is.

“Yeah, I’m tired, too,” I say. “I didn’t really sleep well last night.” That’s the truth, actually. I spent most of the night in a half-awake, half-asleep state, hearing Bikini Kill songs in my head and imagining an army of girls in bathrobes, complete with curlers in their hair and wielding blow dryers as weapons.

Just then Sara files into class, and my heart leaps when I see she’s wearing this dark blue bathrobe with daisies on it that she’s had since we were in middle school.

“You did it!” I say, grinning. I don’t look at Claudia because I don’t have to. The disconnect between us is almost tangible.

“I decided at the last minute,” Sara says. “Kaitlyn did it, too. But not Meg.”

Claudia coughs a little and the bell rings. Mrs. Robbins walks in carrying a stack of papers—no doubt some brain-melting “graphic organizer” for us to fill out using our textbook while she stares at her computer screen. As she sets the papers down on her desk, she looks up at us for the first time and her eyes pop open like she’s finally awake.

“What’s going on here?” At least five other girls in the class are wearing bathrobes in addition to Sara and me. There’s tittering at Mrs. Robbins’s question, but nobody says anything. I stare down at my notebook, glad I’m in the back row.

When no one answers Mrs. Robbins’s question, she takes a step closer to us and peers carefully. “Are those … bathrobes? Did y’all not get dressed this morning?”

More giggles. Kate McGowan in the first row cracks a wide grin. She’s wearing an obnoxious plaid number that must belong to her father or older brother or something.

“Do you think this is funny, Miss McGowan?” Mrs. Robbins says. “Take that ridiculous bathrobe off right now.”

“Sure, no problem,” Kate says.

Kate has always been sort of a badass, talking back to teachers when they won’t let her go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. I’m not sure if she wore a bathrobe just to stir up trouble or if she honestly thinks the dress code is bullshit. But then she drops the bathrobe down to her waist.

Kate is wearing a bright red bikini top underneath.

“Miss McGowan!” Mrs. Robbins shouts, barely heard over the hoots and gasps coming from my classmates.

“See, Mrs. Robbins,” Kate says, like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, “I wasn’t sure if I was following the East Rockport dress code because it’s so weird and unclear, you know? So I decided to be safe and cover myself with this bathrobe so as not to distract any of our precious male students.”

The class erupts into more hoots and laughter, and of course Mrs. Robbins has no choice but to make Kate put her bathrobe back on. By the time we all calm down Mrs. Robbins’s face is as red as Kate’s bikini top. She pinches her mouth up tight and passes out the graphic organizers, slamming Kate’s on her desk, and then demands that we work quietly and independently.

The entire time I fill in the meaningless and pointless exercise, I think about the Riot Grrrl Manifesto in my mom’s zine. It said girls are a revolutionary soul force that can change the world for real. My chest feels heavy with something that feels scary and good at the same time. I picture myself running up to Kate McGowan after class and telling her how cool she is. The urge is so strong that maybe I’ll actually do it.

But right now, there is one thing I can do for sure. In pencil, in the bottom right-hand corner of my desk, I carefully print the words MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK. The letters are only half an inch or so high, but I trace them over and over until the tip of my pencil is dull. I smile approvingly at my artwork as the bell rings.

I hope a girl is sitting in this desk second period.

* * *

All day long girls walk around East Rockport in their bathrobes. Through the grapevine I hear of a few girls being forced to take them off in class, but they put them back on once they file out into the hallways. As we take our seats in English class, Lucy tells me that when her chem teacher asked her about it, she followed the script in Moxie.

“I just said I wanted to make sure I wasn’t in violation of the dress code, and I didn’t want to tempt any boys,” Lucy says, her eyes triumphant. “Mr. Carlson got so confused. It was hilarious.” She leans over the back of her desk as she turns to talk to me. “And do you know what? I’m pretty sure some girls brought their bathrobes to school and hid them in their lockers until they realized they wouldn’t be alone. I think we’ve doubled in number since this morning.”

I think Lucy’s right about some girls joining in late, but I don’t know if we’ve doubled in number. The bathrobe-wearing girls are still in the minority. But it’s not a tiny minority. It might be as high as 30 or 40 percent of all the girls in the school. And it’s not just one type of girl but all kinds. Jocks and loud girls and girls on the yearbook and quiet girls and black girls and white girls and brown girls.

Except for Emma Johnson. Not that girl. She walks in a minute or so before the bell and takes her seat, flipping her hair over her shoulder in her signature move, lining her pens and notebooks up on her desk. She’s wearing a blindingly white hoodie with the words EAST ROCKPORT CHEER stamped across the back in bright orange. When Mitchell walks in he pauses by her desk, leaning on it with his big hand that reminds me of a hunk of ham.

“You didn’t join the bathrobe brigade?” Mitchell asks.

Wow, Mitchell Wilson knows how to use the word brigade correctly. Shocking.

“No, I didn’t,” Emma says, peering up at Mitchell through her perfectly made-up eyes. “I’m not sure I understand it, to be honest.”

Of course you don’t. You would never get caught for dress-code violations because Principal Wilson knows his son has the hots for you so you’re, like, protected.

Instantly, I feel bad for thinking this. Emma is gorgeous and demure and all these other things I’m not, but she’s never been anything but nice to people. If anything, it just feels like she’s not one of us. Like she’s actually an actress on a television show about high school, and she’s twenty-five playing sixteen.

“Well, I’m glad you’re not wearing a bathrobe,” Mitchell says, raising one eyebrow, “because it would be a shame to cover you up.”

Oh gag me.

Emma pinks up a little but smiles carefully, then flips her hair over her shoulder again. The bell rings and Seth runs in after Mr. Davies, who starts in about being on time to class.

“Sorry,” Seth says, taking his seat, and my eardrums melt a little at the sound of his voice.

Mr. Davies ends up putting us into groups to go over comprehension questions for the short story we were supposed to have read last night. By some miracle, I get put in the same group as Seth, and when we begin the awkward process of dragging our desks into a circle, he catches my eye.

“Cool bathrobe,” he says to me.

“Thanks,” I answer, willing myself not to blush.

As we go over the questions Mr. Davies has written on the whiteboard, it strikes me that Seth is pretty smart. The story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” which I’ve read once before because my mom told me it was her favorite short story. Everyone in the group is saying how screwed up it is, but Seth says that’s the point.

“It’s about, like, realizing that just because something is a tradition, that doesn’t make it good,” he says.

I bite my bottom lip. I never talk in these things. But I want Seth to know I’m smart, too.

“Some people might say tradition is a good thing, though,” I offer, doodling a tiny circle over and over in the corner of my paper, not looking up. “Some people would argue that tradition is part of what holds us together as, you know, a community.”

Did any girls get pulled out of your classes for dress code? I type.

A few moments later she writes back.

No!!!!!!! Not a single one!

I can’t believe it worked

I know right? So awesome

Stopping under a big pecan tree, I grin at my phone and type out one more text.

MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!!!!!! I add a few heart emojis for good measure.

Lucy texts back right away.

MOXIE GIRLS KICK ASS AND TAKE NAMES!!!!!

I read the text and laugh out loud, standing there in the middle of the sidewalk.

CHAPTER TWELVE

It’s been three days since the bathrobe stunt, and not a single girl has been called out for dress-code violations since it happened. It’s gone down like this before—these weird, cavalier explosions of dress code “checks” on girls by the administration that evaporate into nothing after a few days—but I’d like to think Moxie had something to do with it this time. And that means that I had something to do with it because I started Moxie. Last night after I brushed my teeth and washed my face, I caught myself standing in front of the mirror for a full two minutes looking into my own dark eyes. I grasped my hair and pulled it up into a high ponytail. Squinting, I thought maybe I looked a little like Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill.

But by today’s Friday football pep rally, I’m beginning to feel like the whole thing was some sort of fantastical dream. The band plays the same songs. The cheerleaders do the same flips. The only thing that’s different this time is that if the Pirates lose the game tonight, they’re out of the playoffs.

“Wait, is that a freaking fog machine?” Sara asks as we sit down in our usual spot, high up and away from the action. All of us peer down at the billowing clouds of smoke enveloping the entrance where the football team is about to make their appearance.

“Oh my God, it is,” Claudia says, rolling her eyes. The pirate mascot is in a fancy new uniform, too, and there’s even someone dressed as a bobcat, representing the opposing team’s mascot. The pirate is pretending to slice the bobcat’s neck with a sword as the bobcat writhes around in mock terror. These aren’t Halloween costumes either, but full-on, college-level mascot gear.

“How much does all this shit cost?” Lucy asks out loud. “Have you ever considered that?” She scowls. “Last I checked, the Bunsen burner in the chem lab runs on coal or something, it’s so ancient.”

“What the football team wants, the football team gets,” Claudia says. “It’s so dumb.”

“Totally,” agrees Lucy, and I relish this moment where my best friend and my new friend are in harmony with each other. Since bathrobe day I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to Claudia—sitting next to her at lunch, waiting for her by her locker in the morning before history—even while I’ve been sucked into long periods of texting with Lucy after school where we talk about everything from what Moxie might do next to music we want to share with each other. (Unbelievably, she’s never heard of Bikini Kill or any of the Riot Grrrl bands, and after I make her a playlist, she’s hooked.)

After the rally is lunch, but I eat quickly so I can leave a few minutes early and go to the main office to drop off my permission slip for Driver’s Ed next semester. As I walk down the nearly empty hall, I catch Principal Wilson approaching the office from the opposite direction, barking into his cell phone. I’m the only other person in the hallway, but he doesn’t smile or even nod. I’m a student at his school, and I was in his mind-numbing Texas history class way back before he became Mr. Muckety-Muck at East Rockport High. But I’m not his son or on his son’s team or a cheerleader like Emma Johnson or even a member of the pep band. I’m a nothing on his radar. His jowls quiver a little as he speaks in his thick Texas twang, and he brushes right past me as he enters the office, zooming by like I’m a mosquito or fly.

I scowl at his back and revel in the tiny rush it gives me. He continues through the labyrinth of secretaries and assistant principals as he heads back to wherever his lair must be.

After I turn in my permission slip to one of the secretaries, I head back toward my locker to get my books for my next class. At the end of the hall, I spot Seth Acosta, leaning up against a wall, fooling around on his phone. My heart skips.

“Hey,” I manage as I walk by, wanting to stop but not sure I can or should. So I just slow down a little.

He looks up. There are a handful of other students at their lockers way down at the other end of the hall. The bell to end the lunch period is a few minutes away.

“Hey back,” he says, sliding his phone into his back pocket and standing up straighter. All signs that make me think it’s cool if I stop. That he really does want to talk to me.

“So…,” I start—because I’m the one who should be speaking next, I realize—“… thanks for not saying anything. About … you know.” I raise my eyebrows like we’re in some movie about the Mafia or a government conspiracy, and I immediately feel like an idiot. But Seth just nods and grins. I love that he’s taller than me if only by a little. Ever since those sweaty, awkward middle school dances where I loomed head and shoulders over all the guys and no one ever asked me to partner up, I’ve always been self-conscious of my height.

“I wouldn’t say anything,” Seth says. “Not even if you covered me in fire ants or forced me to listen to, like, I don’t know … smooth jazz.”

I grin. “What’s smooth jazz?”

“Garbage,” Seth says, not missing a beat.

We stand there for an awkward moment, and when Seth speaks again, he looks down at my feet.

“Hey, do you feel like … I don’t know … hanging out tonight or something?”

My heart is beating inside my throat. I hope Seth keeps looking at my feet because if he looks up, he’ll see it just below my chin, all four chambers pulsating at an astonishing rate of speed.

“You’re … not going to the game?” I finally manage. Great. Now I sound like Suzy School Spirit.

Seth frowns a little. “No, I’m not. But … you’re going, I guess?”

“No!” I answer, louder than I’d intended. Of course, I had been planning on going to the game. What else is there to do? Even Lucy was going to come. But that was before Seth Acosta turned my life into an episode of a television show I would totally binge watch.

“So you’re not going, then?” he asks, confused. He brushes his hair out of his eyes with one hand.

“I wasn’t really, like, sure what I was doing tonight. But if you want to hang out, that would be cool.”

I’ve never hung out with a boy or gone on a date with a boy or been asked to a dance by a boy or kissed a boy. Nothing with boys. Ever. And now this. It’s too astonishing to be real.

But it must be real because Seth is saying something about coming by my house around 7 p.m. and maybe going to get something to eat, and then he is typing my phone number into his phone and saying he’ll text me later.

“Cool,” I say, like this has happened to me every day of my life since sixth grade.

Just then the bell rings. I mumble out a goodbye and Seth says goodbye, and as I make my way to my locker, I am totally positive I’m not walking but floating.

* * *

Claudia has to be the first person I’m going to tell about my … is it a date? A hangout? A … what? When I find her at her locker at the end of the day, she squeals at my news, gripping my hand and literally jumping up and down with excitement.

“I hope you don’t mind this means I won’t be going to the game with you,” I say.

“Screw the game!” Claudia answers, tugging me along after her. The entire walk home she helps me plan what to wear, what to do with my hair, whether I should wear lipstick. (I normally don’t, but it might be fun to this time, maybe.) Claudia has more experience with boys than I do. She kissed a few in middle school—I think her pocket-sized self and her adorable ski jump nose made her nonthreatening to boys in early puberty—and she dated this guy Colin O’Malley for a few months last year before he moved to San Antonio because of his dad’s job. In late night phone calls and texting marathons, she’d told me how she let him touch her under her bra and that it hadn’t felt particularly great—only like he’d been trying to squeeze the air out of a deflating birthday party balloon.

The difference is Colin O’Malley was just ho hum. Even to Claudia.

Seth Acosta is not ho hum or meh or vanilla or blah.

He’s a stone fox.

“What about your mom?” Claudia asks as we approach my house. “Hey, isn’t that her car in the driveway?”

I frown. “I thought she’d be at work.” My mom is not something I’ve considered until Claudia mentions it. Since I’ve never had any interest from any guy, this isn’t a topic my mom and I have ever had to navigate.

“I’m sure she’ll be cool with it,” Claudia says, and I hope she’s right. I mean, isn’t that who my mom is? The cool mom?

After Claudia hugs me and practically makes me take a blood oath promising to tell her everything that happens immediately after it happens, I walk in and find my mom in the kitchen, making a sandwich.

“You’re home early,” I say, setting down my backpack on the kitchen table. I thought I’d have at least an hour or two of getting-ready time in which to practice expressions and witty repartee in the bathroom mirror with my music blaring in the background.

“Hey, sweetie,” my mom says, coming over to give me a kiss on the cheek. “Power went out at work. Something about a screwed-up electrical box. So I get a free afternoon off.” She walks back to the kitchen counter and spreads mustard on a piece of whole wheat.

“So,” I start, my heart thumping. I’m actually kind of embarrassed to talk about Seth with my mom. I mean, don’t get me wrong. My mom has always been 100 percent straight-up amazingly honest about sex and puberty and all that hormone shit, but it’s a lot easier to have those conversations when it’s all just theory, not practice. I mean, not that I’m going to be doing it with Seth tonight or anything. I’m not even sure he likes me Like That. Even though I totally pray that he does.

“So … what?” my mom asks. She stops making her sandwich as she listens to my plans for the night. When I finish talking she gives me a small smile, but her eyes are wide with surprise.

“So, I can go, right?” I can’t believe she’ll say no, but I realize I’m holding my breath.

My mom presses her lips together, thinking for a second. “Oh … sure. Yes, of course you can go. I mean, I’d like to meet this guy first, of course.” She pauses, then laughs and shakes her head a bit. “Listen to me. I sound like a mom in a John Hughes movie.”

I exhale. “Well, he’s picking me up around 7.”

“So you’re not going to the game?”

“No … we’re just going to get something to eat, I think. You’re going to the game, right?”

“I was going to go with John, but I can meet him there later.” She glances down at her half-made sandwich, like she’s just remembering it’s there. I stand in the middle of the kitchen. We’re in uncharted territory, and everything feels a little off-kilter.

“You don’t have to wait or anything,” I say.

“No, I want to,” she insists. “And as far as what time you should be home … have I ever even given you a curfew, my obedient, well-behaved daughter?” She laughs again, but it’s almost a nervous laugh.

I shake my head no and bristle a bit at her description of me. It’s true the only places I go are my girlfriends’ houses for sleepovers. Or sometimes to cruise the Sonic or the DQ on Saturday nights. My mother has never had to give her duitiful Viv a curfew. It makes me feel like a dork.

“Let’s say 10-ish, okay? I’ll be home from the game by then.”

I nod. Anyway, I’m not sure I’ll even be able to find enough to talk about with Seth for three hours without passing out from anxiety.

“Well, I hope you have a great time,” my mom says, and this time her cheer seems more sincere. I head to my room to contemplate outfits, trying to shake off the awkwardness between us.

Butterflies is too small a word to describe what’s going on in my stomach when Seth pulls up to my house at five minutes after seven. I peer through my bedroom window, my heart hammering. I see him get out of the car, slam the door to the red Honda he’s driving, and head up the front steps. I blink and swallow. How can he be showing up to my house? To see me?

“Viv!” my mom calls out from the kitchen. “Your friend is here!”

Your friend? You’re making this sound like a playdate, Mom.

I walk out, hoping my black jeans and my mom’s old Houston Oilers T-shirt are cool but not trying too hard.

“Hey,” I say.

“Hey,” Seth says back, nodding.

“Mom, this is Seth from school.” What kind of a ridiculous introduction is that? Where else would he be from? The bus station downtown? The meth house?

“Hi,” Seth says to my mom, who’s stretching out a hand. She and Seth shake and she’s pretty normal, actually, only asking how long it’s been since his family moved to town. He gives sentence-long responses, but not kiss-ass answers, which is good because my mom could see through that in a heartbeat.

“Well,” my mom says as Seth and I start to scoot toward the door, “have fun then, and I’ll see you by 10.” As she walks us out, she presses something into my hand. Once we head outside I peek down and see it’s a twenty. I slide it into my jeans pocket and catch my mother’s eye. She gives me a smile, and I smile back.

“So, I get the sense the town’s going to be dead, huh?” Seth says, pulling out onto the street. “Because of the game? I didn’t think about that before.”

“Yeah,” I say. “All the fast-food places are closed. Most of the restaurants, too.” Seth is driving out of my neighborhood, heading up Broadway toward town. He can’t have had his license for too long, but he drives cool somehow, his head back and his hands casually resting at the bottom of the steering wheel. After we get going, he adjusts the volume. The tinny sound of some band I don’t recognize but that sounds pretty catchy starts to spill out of the speakers.

“Are you hungry?” he asks.

“Not really,” I say. The truth is I’m too nervous to eat, but I forced myself to down a granola bar before he came so my stomach wouldn’t start grumbling. “Maybe later after it opens we can cruise the Sonic.”

“Wait,” Seth says, pulling up to a stop light and turning to look at me. “What’s ‘cruise the Sonic’?”

I grin, and my eyebrows pop up.

“Cruising the Sonic and the DQ is, like, what we do here on weekends. It just means driving aimlessly around those places to see who’s hanging out there and who you can talk to or whatever.”

“Really?”

“Yeah,” I answer. “You didn’t cruise the Sonic in Austin I’m guessing.”

Seth laughs. “No. Definitely not.” His eyes glance out the driver’s side window at the empty strip malls and storefront churches and resale shops. “I’m still getting used to this place.”

It feels easier, somehow, to talk when we’re in a moving car. I don’t have to look Seth in the eyes. I can glance out my own window instead.

“You must miss it, I guess?” I ask. “Austin, I mean.”

“That’s an understatement,” Seth says. He twists his mouth a bit like he’s considering what to say next. “The things is, my parents are artists. I mean, honestly, they can call themselves that because my mom comes from a shitload of money, if I can speak frankly. My grandparents are loaded and she lives off this trust. So she and my dad spend all their time prepping their art for different gallery shows. They do stuff with, like, textiles. My mom said she wanted to get away from Austin since it’s growing so fast and it’s not like it used to be in the ’80s or whatever. Like she needed some authentic small-town experience to be a real artist.”

“So they picked here?” I ask, incredulous. “Of all the small towns in America?”

“Yeah,” Seth says, his voice heavy. “I don’t think it occurred to them that it wouldn’t have killed them to wait two more years until I was done with high school. But whatever.” A tiny frown crosses his face.

“Do you at least like their art?” I ask, glancing at him.

“I guess,” he says. “I mean, it gets shown and stuff. I think they’re big names in the world of abstract textile art, which is, unbelievably, a world. People pay a lot of money for it. But to be honest, to me it just looks like a bunch of bedsheets folded weird.”

I laugh out loud and Seth laughs with me. Just then we pass the U COPY IT with its OPEN sign flashing. I think of Frank in his red vest inside, flipping through a paperback.

“Hey,” I say, pointing out the passenger window. “That’s where I make the copies of Moxie.”

Seth peers out the window and nods approvingly. “Cool. That bathrobe thing seems to have worked.”

“Yeah,” I say. It feels so strange to be able to talk about making the zine out loud with someone. But really good, too. “I’m not sure if I’m going to make another issue. But I kind of want to.”

“You totally should,” Seth says.

As we drive through town without a destination, the sun setting around us, I find myself telling Seth about my mom’s Riot Grrrl past and how it inspired Moxie. Then we start talking about bands. He’s heard of Bikini Kill but never heard them, heard them, so at Seth’s prompting I pull up “Rebel Girl” on my phone. From the opening beats, he likes it. I can tell.

“That lead singer sounds like she could kill you with her voice,” he says, his fingers drumming on the steering wheel. “But, like, kill you in a good way.”

“Totally,” I tell him, and my heart swells.

We go back and forth on bands for a while, and Seth describes a couple of live all-ages shows he got to go to in Austin. I’ve never seen a band play live except for the East Rockport High School pep band, and I’m super intrigued as he describes how his ears rang for days afterward and how cool it was to get to talk to the band members while they were selling their own merchandise (only Seth calls it “merch”) at the shows. After I’ve stored up a list of bands in my head to check out later, Seth drives by Eternal Rest Funeral Home on Front Street. A small sign displayed in the front lawn under a floodlight reads DON’T TEXT AND DRIVE! WE CAN WAIT!

“Wait, is that for real?” Seth says, nodding toward the sign.

“Yeah,” I answer. “It’s this thing they do. They change it out every once in a while. Once they had one that said ‘It’s a beautiful day—look alive!’”

“Are you shitting me?” he asks. “And people still give them business?”

I shrug. “They’re the only game in town, so yeah.”

At this, Seth makes a sudden right turn and pulls into the funeral home parking lot. He turns up the music a little bit and starts bobbing his head back and forth to the beat as he spins circles over and over.

“Um,” I begin, turning to face him, totally perplexed, “what are you doing?”

Seth grows serious. “I’m cruising the funeral home.”

I explode with a loud laugh. “Cruising the funeral home? Seriously?”

“Yeah,” Seth insists. He mimes waving at imaginary cars, chin-nodding at invisible people nearby. “This is so dope,” he says. “I feel like I’ve finally figured out what East Rockport is all about. This is such a scene, man.”

The nervousness from earlier has drained from me, replaced with aching cheeks from smiling so much.

After we cruise the funeral home for a while, Seth says he’s getting hungry, and we find an open Jack in the Box on the outskirts of town. As we pull through the drive-thru, I offer Seth money, but he says he’s got it “this time.” (Does that mean there’ll be a “next time”?) I order a milk shake and some fries.

“Y’all left the game early?” the scrawny, redheaded cashier asks as she hands us our food. She looks like she graduated from East Rockport twenty years ago and has been working at the Jack ever since. Her name tag reads SHAWNA.

“We never went,” Seth answers.

“Well, you’re missing something terrible,” Shawna replies. “I’ve been listening on the radio and they’re down 35–7 at the half.”

“Damn,” I reply, my small-town instincts kicking in, ready to express dismay anytime the home team loses. “That’s a serious beating.”

“I have faith they’ll come back,” Shawna says with a disapproving frown. “Go, Pirates.”

“Go, Pirates,” Seth answers, holding his Coke up in a salute.

Seth parks the car in the Jack in the Box parking lot and between slurps of his drink and bites of food, he asks, “Is football this big every year or just, like, this year?”

I snort into my milk shake. “You are new,” I say. “The answer is every year. Every fucking year.”

“You know, I played back home,” he tells me.

I whip around, my eyes wide. “Now you’re shitting me,” I say. He might as well have told me he was studying to join the priesthood.

“No,” he says. “I’m not shitting you. I mean, I was the kicker. I’m too skinny for any other position. But I was the kicker on the junior varsity team, and I was going to go out for varsity this year until we had to move.”

I slap the dashboard to emphasize my shock. “You were a football player? And you listen to Black Flag?”

Seth’s smile cracks his face wide. “Yes! I’m not making this up. I can show you pictures when I’m done eating.”

I try to visualize Seth in those weird short pants and huge shoulder pads football players wear and my mind goes blank. I never thought I’d have a crush on a football player. For a split second I feel a little like my mom on a date with Republican John. If this is even a date, I remind myself.

“I’m sorry, I guess it’s just that … I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but here … here the football players are … like…”

“Total assholes?” Seth offers, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, I’ve noticed. But just because a guy plays football doesn’t make him an asshole. Unless, you know, you think I’m an asshole, and you’re just hanging out with me because you feel sorry for the sad new kid at school.”

I glance down at my milk shake. “You’re not an asshole,” I murmur, then take a loud slurp. You’re just a hilarious and totally good-looking guy who listens to cool bands and likes my zine, and that basically makes you the boy of my dreams, but you know, whatever.

“That’s good,” Seth says, grinning. “That I’m not an asshole. Back home football was a sport people were into and everything, but it wasn’t the only thing people cared about, so players were more chill, I guess.”

“Well, people aren’t chill about football here,” I answer. “Those players are the reason this town and this school exist. I mean, they’re what people get excited about around here. They’re what makes East Rockport worth living in for some people. The chance that this year we’ll make it to the playoffs, you know? The hope. You watch. Starting next week the talk will already be about the next season and how that will be the year we take state.”

“Damn,” Seth says, taking a long drink from his soda.

We talk for a while in the parking lot—I tell him how my dad died when I was a baby and how it’s just me and my mom with my grandparents next door. He tells me that his parents are nice enough, just occupied with their art, and that in addition to playing football he wrote a music column for his old high school newspaper. It’s an easy conversation, each of us stepping on the ends of the other’s sentences, wanting to chime in or add something or agree with something. My body hums with the sure sense that I’m the coolest girl in the world. Sitting there in the front seat, the fluorescent lights of the Jack in the Box parking lot shining on us like the moon on steroids, it’s weird to remember that this afternoon in the hallway when Seth asked me to hang out I could barely make eye contact with him because I was so anxious.

After a while, Seth takes my wrappers and empty cup and gets out of the car to throw them away. I lick the salty tips of my fingers as he walks back toward the car, and I realize that the night is coming to a close. It’s 9:30.

Seth suggests we head back, and as he drives toward my neighborhood, the Jack in the Box parking lot disasppearing behind us, my breathing starts to tighten up and my heart begins to hammer.

Seth Acosta is going to kiss me. I know it.

As he pulls onto my street, I glance into the rearview mirror, pretending I’m checking for something in my eye. My lipstick is still holding steady. Is that a good thing or a bad thing when you kiss someone?

Seth slides into the driveway. Here, in the inky darkness of his car, he’s going to kiss me. Remember this, Vivian. Remember everything about this.

I wait for him to shift the car into park. How can you kiss with the car in drive?

But he doesn’t shift the car into park. He only turns to me and says, “I had a lot of fun hanging out with you tonight, Vivian.”

It’s definitive, the way he says it. There’s no question that this is The End of the night.

“I had fun, too,” I say, forcing a smile while dying inside. “Thanks for asking me to hang out.”

“Honestly,” he continues, “I haven’t really, you know, made a lot of friends since I got here, so, you know … this was really cool. I’m going to check out some of those bands you told me about. Especially more of that Bikini Kill one.” He sort of looks over my shoulder when he says it. Like maybe he can’t wait for me to leave.

“Cool,” I say, my hand on the door handle and my hammering heart twisting hard.

I haven’t really made a lot of friends since I got here.

Friends.

FRIENDS.

“See you Monday?” he asks.

“Yeah, see you then,” I answer, itching to get out of the Honda and into the safety of my bedroom.

“And I promise I won’t say a word about Moxie. I mean it.”

“Thanks,” I answer, “I really appreciate it.” I get out, slam the car door, and race up the front steps, grateful my mom is still at the game and the house is empty. Seth waits until I’ve let myself in and then drives away, and as I step into the living room and shut the front door behind me, I can’t help it. I start crying. Not heaving sobs or anything like that. Just a few warm tears peek out of my eyes and slip down my cheeks.

“Don’t be stupid, Viv,” I say out loud. “You still had a great time tonight, right?” Joan Jett saunters in at the sound of my voice, purring as she loops herself around my legs. I pick her up and bury my face into her fur. Then I put her down and get ready for bed, eagerly sliding under my covers, wrapping self-pity around myself with the blankets.

The truth is I did have a great time with Seth. And maybe we will hang out again. But I don’t want to just hang out with Seth. I want to know what it feels like to have a boy’s lips on mine. I want to press my entire body up against his and kiss him. I want a hot, cool, smart boyfriend, not a hot, cool, smart boy friend.

As I climb into bed, my phone buzzes from my nightstand. I reach for it, hoping for the tiniest second that it’s Seth.

It’s Claudia.

We got our ASSES KICKED tonight—lost 42–7 … but who cares HOW WAS YOUR DATE?!?!?!?

I know Claudia will hate me for not responding, but I toss my phone onto the carpet and slide deeper under the covers, hoping I’m asleep before my mom gets home. I don’t think I could stand one more person asking me how the night went.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Claudia and I are in Claudia’s bed staring up at the ceiling. It’s the morning after one of our Saturday night sleepovers, and she’s listening to me talk over my “date” with Seth for the ten millionth time. It’s been a few weeks since I was left kissless in his car, but that hasn’t stopped me from analyzing the night over and over. At least Claudia humors me. A little.

“Maybe he was just intimidated by you,” she says, stretching her arms out and yawning.

“I feel like that’s what you’re supposed to say so I don’t feel bad for being rejected.”

“Vivian, come on.”

“Well, I’m serious. I was sending him signals. I was alerting him to my lips. So what the hell happened?”

Claudia rolls her eyes and yawns again. A buzz interrupts us.

“Hey,” she says, nudging me. “Your phone.”

I reach toward Claudia’s nightstand. It’s my mom.

“Hey, Mom.”

“Hey, sweetie,” she says. Something in her voice sounds weird. Off.

“Is everything okay?”

“Oh yeah, everything’s okay.”

“Good,” I say. I peer over at Claudia, who is picking at her cuticles.

“The reason I’m calling … well, this is awkward, but I know I can be up front with you, Viv,” my mom begins, sort of clearing her throat.

“Yeah?” I ask.

“Well, John is here.”

Nothing else really needs to be said. My mother knows I’m old enough to understand that John didn’t just show up at our house at nine in the morning to catch up on old times. And I know she knows I know. I squeeze my eyes shut as the idea of my mother and John having Sexual Intercourse invades my brain.

“Uh, okay?” I say, my voice flat. What else is there to say?

“Anyway, we’re getting ready to go out to get a bite to eat, but I wasn’t sure when you were coming home and I didn’t want you to be … surprised. I’m sorry, Vivvy, I didn’t know if you would still be sleeping or walking home when I called or what.”

“No, it’s fine,” I say. “We’re not sleeping, we’re awake. I’ll see you when I get home.”

And then I do something I’ve never done in my life. I hang up on my mom without waiting for a response.

As I fill Claudia in, she squirms appropriately at the idea of my mother and John Doing It. “It’s just so gross,” I say. “And I think she could do a lot better.”

“Is this guy that bad?” Claudia asks.

I don’t want to have to make my case to Claudia. She should be on my side automatically. So I just sigh dramatically and say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Okay,” she says, her voice quiet. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” I say, offering up an exaggerated sad face so she gets how fine it is—even if it isn’t. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.”

“No, it’s no big deal,” she says, throwing back her bedspread and jumping out of bed, signaling the end of the conversation. “But I’m hungry. Let’s go make pancakes, okay?”

“Do you have chocolate chips?” I ask, quickly falling into our familiar script.

“Duh,” says Claudia.

I eat breakfast at Claudia’s house, dawdle a little, and then head home, walking at the pace of a snail. By the time I get there, there’s no sign of John. Just my mom reading in the den.

“Hey,” she says, when I walk in. A little too eager.

“Hey,” I say, wandering over to the refrigerator even though I just ate.

“Viv, can we talk?” she says.

Her simple question seems strange to me. My mother and I have always talked without having to say “Can we talk?” first. We just talk. There’s never any prologue.

“What’s up?” I say, shutting the fridge and leaning up against it.

“Well, come over here. You’re too far away.” She pats the couch next to her.

I give in and slide in next to her, trying to ignore the mental picture of her and John that keeps threatening my mind.

“Viv, I’m sorry about this morning,” she says, quietly. “I shouldn’t have sprung that on you like that. It just … the situation was … unexpected.” She reaches out to touch my arm, but I shrink back a bit.

“It’s okay, Mom,” I say. “It’s fine.”

“But is it really fine?” she asks, her voice soft, her mouth a small frown.

“I mean … it’s…” I hesitate. What is there to say? How disgusting? What do you see in him? How could you do it in our house? But she’s looking at me with such sincere concern—I can’t be the brat who makes my mom miserable. “It’s weird, a little. But if he makes you happy…”

“He’s a really nice guy, Viv,” my mom says. “I wish you’d give him more of a chance.”

I can be nice, but I can’t be her BFF who acts all giddy over John. “I am giving him a chance,” I say.

“Yeah?” she asks. Her voice is hopeful but her eyes seem skeptical.

“Yes,” I say. “Now I’m super tired because Claudia and I stayed up too late, so I’m going to lie down, okay?”

My mom nods, but she doesn’t smile. Just shifts a bit in her seat as I get up off the couch and walk toward my room.

“Hey,” she says when I reach my bedroom door, “we never even talked about that Seth guy. He came around a few weeks ago and I never saw him again.”

Oh God, now? Really?

“We’re just friends, Mom,” I say, my hand on my doorknob. “It’s nothing.”

My mom’s eyes go wide. I know my voice sounds harsher than necessary, but I don’t care. She doesn’t say anything else. I try to block out her hurt expression as I fling myself on my bed and pull out my phone.

Without really deciding to, I find myself texting Lucy.

I’m in a crap mood

She writes back immediately.

Why?

My mom had her boyfriend spend the night last night—I wasn’t here or anything … but she told me about it and it’s just gross.

Is this that super conservative dude you told us about at lunch? Who basically like told your mom what book to read that one time?

Yeah

Grooooooosssssss

I knoooooow

I smile and keep going.

Then she asked me about seth … like two weeks after our “date” or whatever …

Damn … knife in the heart

Seriously

I’m sorry that didn’t work out …

I kick my shoes off and settle in for a nice long back and forth with Lucy.

I mean … he hasn’t been an ass to me or anything … since we hung out that one time he says hi to me in the hallway and we talk about music sometimes in English …

Ugh. Cold comfort.

Seriously. I didn’t want a study buddy … I wanted more.

The heart wants what it fucking wants

I almost think it would have been better if he’d ignored me from the start …

After more back and forth about Seth, Lucy texts me, I can cheer you up … I have a secret

My eyebrows pop up.

What??? Is it about a boy?

Blerg no. No dude at East Rockport has caught my eye … but it’s something pretty kick ass

I’m finally genuinely smiling for the first time all morning.

WHAT IS IT?

WAIT UNTIL TOMORROW AND YOU’LL FIND OUT

I try wheedling it out of her for a few more minutes, but Lucy resists and finally says she has to go. After our last text, I toss my phone aside and grin at the ceiling. For the first time in ages, I find myself wishing for Monday to come.

* * *

When Monday does arrive, it arrives cold and wet. I’m simultaneously thinking about Lucy’s secret and counting the days until winter break when I spot it. Taped to one of the side door entrances.

I read it once. Then read it again. First I’m confused—for a split second I wonder if I’ve had some sort of short-term memory loss and I actually made and taped Moxie flyers up while I was in a trance or something—but as I peer at it, reading the words over and over, a sense of glee settles over me.

image

Because I’m pretty sure I know what’s really going on.

Inside, I spot more flyers on lockers and by water fountains, pinned up on message boards with brightly colored pushpins. When I get to my locker, I find one taped to the door.

Just then my phone buzzes.

I look down. It’s a text from Lucy.

Okay I was going to wait till English to tell you but what do you think of the flyers?!

My hands jump, ready to text right back, but then I have the foresight to use the situation to provide myself with some cover.

WAIT—YOU started Moxie?!?!?

I grin as I hit send.

No! I still don’t know who did the newsletters … but I figured whoever it was wouldn’t care if I added to the ranks … like adopted the brand, right?

Students push past me, heading to first period. Shoes squeak on wet, tiled floors and voices holler from one end of the hallway to the next, demanding answers to last night’s homework or securing a promise to meet somewhere after class. Standing there, staring at Lucy’s message, I realize Moxie doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to every girl at East Rockport High who wants to be part of it. I text Lucy back.

I totally love it and I know whoever started Moxie is going to love it too

But if Lucy is aiming for anonymity with this soccer team fund-raising bake sale, she’s going about it all wrong. In English class she tells me about making the flyer last night at home and then coming to school early to copy it in the library, but she whispers so loudly she might as well be talking at normal volume, and I’m pretty sure people around her hear. Then at lunch in the cafeteria, she goes ahead and dishes when the topic comes up.

“Okay, so, Viv already knows, but … I did it!” She squeals a little and covers her face with her hands, then peeks through her fingers. “I really did.”

“Wait,” Sara starts, her eyes wide, “you mean you made the newsletters? You organized the bathrobe thing?”

“No, I swear I didn’t do that,” Lucy insists. “But I just wanted to, I don’t know, like, take on the whole vibe.”

Claudia sips on her Diet Coke and eyes Lucy like she’s not sure she believes her. But she doesn’t say anything.

“So why the soccer team?” Meg asks. “You’re not on it.”

“No, but they’re supposed to be so good, right? And they get, like, zero attention. Their uniforms are practically falling apart from what I’ve heard.”

I nod. “Kiera Daniels was telling me they’re the same uniforms her mom wore in the ’90s.”

“That can’t be possible,” Kaitlyn argues.

“Well, maybe they’re not the exact same uniforms, but they are really old,” I continue. “And we never do a single thing for them even though they’re so great. Marisela Perez made all-state last year and the only reason I even heard about it was because my mom saw some tiny little article in the paper.”

“Yeah, it is pretty ridiculous,” Sara chimes in.

Claudia shrugs. “I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer or whatever, but how much money can one bake sale raise?” She shakes her Diet Coke can as if she’s trying to measure how much is left. No one says anything for a second, and an awkward silence settles over us. Lucy’s visible glow of excitement fades just a bit.

“Well, I was thinking we could keep doing fund-raisers for them,” she says, not making eye contact with Claudia. “We wouldn’t have just one bake sale. I mean, we could keep supporting them all season long. Kind of like what the rally girls and cheerleaders do for the football team.”

Claudia nods, her expression still uncertain. But just as I’m about to get really pissed at her, she says, “Well, I can make some lemon bars. They’re really good. Viv knows.”

I nod enthusiastically. “They are good. Super good. We could charge at least fifty cents per bar. Maybe even a dollar.” Geez, I sound spastically psyched about these damn lemon bars.

“Okay, don’t oversell the lemon bars, Viv,” Claudia says, giving me a look. But she’s smiling.

* * *

Right after school on Thursday I pull out Meemaw’s recipe for Magic Squares. It’s a struggle to read her slanty, old-fashioned cursive. When I call her to ask exactly how many cups of butter I need, she practically shouts into the phone with excitement.

“How perfectly ladylike of you, Vivvy! Your mother never liked to bake, you know.” Meemaw may be queen of the Stouffer’s frozen dinner, but give that woman a pie recipe and she’ll make something so good you’ll want to slap someone.

“Well, it’s for a fund-raiser at school,” I tell her. “For the girls’ soccer team.”

Meemaw pauses. “Well, that’s … nice. I didn’t know there was a girls’ soccer team.”

“They almost took state last year,” I say. I’m kind of enjoying blowing Meemaw’s mind.

“Well, bully for them,” she says. “Do you want to come over for dinner later? Or do you want me to come over and help with the squares?”

“It’s okay, Meemaw,” I say, pulling open a bag of chocolate chips and sneaking a few into my mouth. “But thanks.”

By the time Mom gets home late from work, the Magic Squares are cooling on the counter. They smell pretty delicious if I do say so myself. My mother gives a little cheer and heads over to grab one.

“One!” I shout from the couch where I’m doing my homework, scaring Joan Jett, who bolts from the den and down the hallway. “They’re for a fund-raiser at school.”

My mom is already taking a bite as she collapses on the couch next to me like she might faint because the Magic Squares are so good.

“Deeeeeelisssssshhhhh, Vivvy. Seriously.”

I smile. Since the awkwardness the morning after John slept over, we’ve been tiptoeing around each other like parents around a sleeping baby. But right now feels like old times.

“What’s the fund-raiser for?” she asks. When I tell her about the girls’ soccer team and how no one supports them, my mom’s face brightens.

“That is so cool, Viv,” she says, leaning over to push some hair out of my face. “Was it your idea?”

Not really, but kind of yes if you think about it.

“It was my friend Lucy’s.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re doing it.”

I squirm a bit at the compliment before sliding under my mom’s arm, snuggling up close like I did when I was little. She kisses me on top of the head.

“Sorry if I smell like strep throat,” she says.

“No, just like hand sanitizer,” I reassure her.

“John says there’s no way to get the smell off, even if you take two showers when you get home.”

I don’t want to talk about John right now. And I really don’t want to think about John in the shower. My mom threads her fingers through my hair, pushing it back off my face. I try to focus on the coziness of it but suddenly my mom’s arm seems suffocating.

“You know, I should get ready for bed,” I say, forcing a yawn. “I think baking wore me out.”

My mom laughs, oblivious to any weirdness between us.

“Okay,” she says, letting me loose. “And I really think it’s cool about your fund-raiser.” She smiles and I smile back, but the old times are gone.

I brush my teeth and get ready for bed.

* * *

Lucy has put up more Moxie bake sale flyers all week long, and I’ve helped, too. I think Sara put up a couple. But I’m still not sure how many girls will come out with food. Lucy and I make plans to get to the cafeteria right at the start of lunch, and we commandeer the table in the corner that student groups often use for fund-raisers.

“I even filled out the stupid school group fund-raiser form in the office, so we’re totally street legal,” Lucy says.

“Wait,” I say, pulling back the aluminum foil from my Magic Squares, “did you actually put down on the paper that Moxie is a club?”

“Yeah,” Lucy says with a shrug. “Well, I mean, I just put my name because you only need one person as club representative. But do you think Principal Wilson or anyone in the administration has even noticed that newsletter or even put together that the bathrobe thing was connected to it? Please.”

“I guess,” I say, my heart fluttering. Something about Moxie being official—even just on a fund-raiser permission form filed away in the office—makes me anxious. But I can’t do anything about it now.

At least I don’t have to be anxious about the fund-raiser. Claudia brings her lemon bars and Sara brings banana bread and lots of girls from the soccer team show up with plates of cookies and brownies. Once the sale starts, Lucy grins at every transaction, sliding the dollar bills and coins into an envelope.

Halfway through lunch, Kiera Daniels walks up with her friend Amaya.

“Hey,” Kiera says. Both girls eye the spread.

“Hey, Kiera,” I say. “Hey, Amaya.”

Kiera asks for two lemon bars. She hands over a five dollar bill, and Lucy makes the change while I wrap the bars up in a pink paper napkin.

“So wait,” Kiera asks, “are you the girls who made the newsletter thing? With the bathrobes and the hearts and the stars?” She eyes me, confused. She has to be remembering our conversation in the bathroom the day we marked our hands. When I acted like I didn’t know anything about it.

“No,” I answer, maybe too quickly. “We didn’t. But Lucy decided to do this bake sale and just, like, adopt the name, I guess.”

Amaya slides the napkin out of Kiera’s hands and unwraps the lemon bars. She takes a bite out of one and smiles. “These are so good,” she says, her mouth full. Powdered sugar spills down her chin.

Kiera rolls her eyes at Amaya. “You cannot even wait until we get back to the table, can you?” Amaya shoots Kiera a look, but Lucy snorts at Kiera’s comment.

“Y’all planning on doing another one?” Kiera asks. “I mean, like another bake sale.”

“Yeah, I guess,” I say. “I mean, you guys need new uniforms, right?”

Amaya nods vigorously, her mouth full of lemon bar.

Kiera nods, too. She opens her mouth, then closes it, then opens it again. “I guess I was wondering,” she starts, “if this club is … like … open to new members?”

“She means is it just white girls,” Amaya says, finishing her lemon bar.

I’m instantly uncomfortable and not sure how to answer, but Lucy doesn’t miss a beat. “Well, my dad’s Mexican,” she says, “so take that for what it’s worth.” Kiera grins a little when Lucy says that.

“I think everyone should be able to do this,” I say. “I mean, it’s for everyone. I don’t think whoever started Moxie wants, like, a leader. If a girl wants to hold another bake sale, or anything like that, she can just … do it.”

“And call it Moxie?” Kiera asks, arching an eyebrow.

“Sure, why not?” Lucy answers. A group of freshman boys collects around the table to buy what’s left of my Magic Squares, and Lucy turns to help them.

“Well, that’s cool,” Kiera says. “Okay.”

“Okay,” I say.

Kiera gives us a small wave, and she and Amaya make their way back to their table.

When the freshman boys leave the table, I whisper to Lucy, “That was kind of awkward.”

“What’s awkward is how this place is as fucked up when it comes to race as it is about anything else,” she tells me, flipping her fingers through the money envelope, doing a quick estimation of how much we’ve raised. “I mean, look at this cafeteria.” She motions at the tables in front of us. The Latina girls who speak mostly Spanish hang out together, and they don’t have much to do with the Latina girls like Claudia and Lucy who speak mostly English. And the black girls have their own cliques that I don’t fully get. And the few Asian kids and the biracial kids and the kids who don’t fit any particular box unless they play a certain sport or something go with whoever will take them. It’s messed up.

“At my old school, at least the teachers brought up racial issues in class sometimes,” Lucy continues.

I’m glad Claudia’s not around to hear Lucy tell us again how advanced life is in the big city. For the first time Lucy makes me feel a little prickly, too. We hardly ever talk about race stuff at East Rockport. Hell, we hardly ever talk about it at home either. The night we watched that documentary about Kathleen Hanna, my mom talked about how Riot Grrrl was mostly white girls, and she was sorry they weren’t as welcoming to other girls as they could have been. That it was one of the few regrets she had about the whole thing. But that was as far as she’d gone. East Rockport High isn’t just white girls, for sure. I glance over to where Kiera and Amaya are sitting. I think about how in this one way, maybe Moxie could be even better than the Riot Grrrls. Even stronger.

As the bell rings to end lunch, I help Lucy throw out the garbage from the sale.

“We made over a hundred dollars,” she tells me.

I frown. “I thought it would be more. That’s enough for, like, one uniform.”

“Okay, Miss Negative,” says Lucy. “We have to start somewhere.”

“I know,” I answer, my irritation fading a bit. “You’re right.” Lucy seems so sure of herself. So confident. Standing there in that moment, I can almost convince myself that she’s the one who started Moxie, not me.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The few weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break are just, I don’t know, such an exercise in futility. No one wants to be at school, and that includes the teachers. It’s a three-week countdown until a precious, blessed break when we can sleep in, numb out on television, and forget about worksheets and grammar exercises and chemistry labs.

And as far as the girls are concerned, holiday vacation will be a break from the bump ’n’ grab.

The bump ’n’ grab started not long after the long Thanksgiving weekend. Just like “Make me a sandwich,” it started small at first. A few boys did it—boys like Mitchell and Jason and their buddies—and then it started to spread like a match to dry kindling, with so many boys playing along that making it down a hallway was like picking your way through a minefield.

The bump ’n’ grab is exactly what it sounds like. A boy bumps you in the hallway. Maybe quasi-gently with a hip. Maybe more forcefully like he’s enjoying himself a little too much.

When you stumble, there’s a grab. Sometimes you get goosed around the waist. Sometimes you get pinched on the butt. And as quickly as it starts, it’s over, and the boy is off down the hall, maybe squawking that he’s sorry. Maybe laughing at the top of his lungs.

The whole thing really gets you into the holiday spirit. Ha, ha, ha.

This morning, as I make my way to English, it happens to me. I can’t even get a sense of which guy does it, he’s so fast, but his fingers manage to make it just under my shirt, cold and rough on my waist.

I want to yell out, chase him down, scream out loud. But I’m frozen from the shock of it, standing so still that some kids behind me whine that I’m blocking the hallway.

My cheeks burning, I make my way into class. With just a few days left before break, Mr. Davies has decided to show the film version of Romeo and Juliet (even though we’ve never read the play, so go figure), and I collapse into my seat, thankful for the cool darkness of the classroom. Lucy leans toward me over her desk.

“You okay? Your face is all red.”

At the front of the classroom Mr. Davies seems appropriately checked out, so I lean in and in a quiet voice tell Lucy what happened. She listens, frowns, and then mutters, “Asshole!” a little too loudly. A few kids around us laugh.

“Shhh…,” I whisper. But in the same breath, I want to scream Asshole! out loud, too.

“I don’t get this,” Lucy argues. “Is it some kind of game?”

The sappy music from the Romeo and Juliet movie drones on. Several kids around us are nodding off, and Mr. Davies’s chin is resting on his chest. In a few minutes he’ll probably be audibly snoring. Considering permission granted, I explain to Lucy that the bump ’n’ grab is one of many games some of the boys at East Rockport like to play.

“Last year, they started this thing where they tried to take pictures up girls’ skirts and then posted them online,” I explain. “There was this whole point system to it, too.”

Lucy mock faints, collapsing into her desk. Then she sits back up again.

“I can’t wait for Friday. I need a vacation from this retrograde nightmare.”

“Me, too.”

“Maybe the Moxie newsletter girls will do something about it,” she tells me.

“But what?” I ask. It strikes me that I’m open to suggestions.

“Advocate for kneeing them in the balls,” Lucy says definitively. “They can call it the knee-in-the-nuts.”

I grin back, imagining the scenario. Mitchell Wilson would get it so bad he wouldn’t be able to father children. Now that would be a win for human evolution.

After forty more minutes of Romeo and Juliet, the bell rings. As we head out of class, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I guess I’m a little jumpy from the bump ’n’ grab, because I spin around, a glare on my face.

It’s Seth. He blinks his eyes a bit as they adjust to the light of the hallway.

“Hey,” he says, pulling back. “Sorry if I scared you.”

“Oh,” I say, glancing down, embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I thought you were … I don’t know.”

“It’s cool.”

Lucy gives me a quick wave and a knowing look before ducking into the crowded hallway, and I find myself walking with Seth, my heart keeping double time. At one point we’re squeezed up against each other, shoulder to shoulder. He doesn’t fall back or pull forward. His shoulder is warm. Sturdy. I didn’t know shoulders could be so sexy.

“I listened to that album you told me about,” he says.

“Did you like it?”

“Definitely. Especially the lead guitarist.”

“Yeah, she’s great.”

“Are you going anywhere for break?” he asks.

“No, just staying put. Hangin’ out with the grandparents.”

“Cruising the Sonic?” he asks.

“And the funeral home, naturally,” I answer, pleased I don’t miss a beat.

“Very funny,” Seth says, and we look each other right in the eyes and grin. Seth is super tall like me, but I kind of like the fact that I don’t have to peer up at him like I’m some little kid.

We approach my locker, and I tell him I have to stop to get my lunch. He doesn’t keep walking, though. He sort of leans up against the locker next to mine, resting on one of his incredibly sexy shoulders. I fumble with my combination and finally open my locker on the second try.

“So … what about, like, over the break?” I hear Seth’s voice saying as I dig through my stuff for my bag lunch. “What if you let me take you out? Like on a real date? Like eating real food together or whatever. Not just a drive-thru.”

Blood pumps in my ears. My hand is clutching my brown bag lunch as if it’s the only thing keeping me from collapsing on the tiled floor. I manage to turn to make eye contact with Seth, but as soon as I do he glances past me for a moment and then briefly back at me and then at his shoes.

“Uh, like … okay?” I say. “Like, that would be … great.”

“Cool,” Seth says, looking up at me and smiling. I’m still clutching my damn lunch, trying to steady myself. “I’ll text you. Or call you. Okay?”

“Okay,” I say.

“Okay,” he says.

Just as I’m wondering if I should say okay one more time, Seth grins and heads off down the hallway, and I’m feeling all spinny and silly and sure I’m about to pass out. I close my locker and scan the faces around me, looking for Claudia or Lucy.

Bump.

I gasp, catching my breath. It comes from behind, and just as I try to catch my balance, I feel a hand on my back. Snap! My bra strap slides back against my skin with a sting.

“What the…,” I start, catching a glimpse of what I’m pretty sure is the back of Jason Garza’s pointy, pea-brained head as he races off.

“Sorry!” he yells.

A fuck you is buried in my throat, but all I can manage to do is make it into the nearest bathroom. I catch a glimpse of a few girls preening at the sinks. I nod at them briefly and slide into one of the stalls, my eyes on the floor, and shut the door behind me. The shock of what Jason’s just done makes me want to scream. I think maybe I want to cry, too, but tears don’t come out. There’s just a buzzing, sharp rage coursing through me. Any good feeling I got from Seth asking me out has been switched off. I can still sense Jason’s hand on my back. I can still feel the snap of my bra. I can still hear him shouting out a fake apology.

Outside, the girls’ voices are light and lyrical, chatting about Christmas and the upcoming break. I want to make sure I have it together before I leave the stall, and I turn just a bit and take a breath. That’s when I see it. Written in black Sharpie on the back wall. Just over the toilet.

MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!

I don’t recognize the handwriting. I don’t know who did it. It wasn’t me, and Lucy wouldn’t have been able to keep it quiet if she’d been the one responsible. That means some girl—a girl I don’t even know—has written those words.

MOXIE GIRLS FIGHT BACK!

I take a deep breath and smile at the graffiti as if I expect it to smile back.

* * *

That night as I’m zoning out in front of the television, my phone buzzes on the coffee table. I reach for it.

Hey—what’s up? It’s Seth. I grin.

Hey—not much just watching tv

I watch the text bubble pop up and my breathing tightens a little in anticipation.

So about going out … what about this friday?

My eyes pop open. That’s the very first night of break.

Yeah that would be great

Maybe that Mexican place … Los Tios? Went there with my parents a few times right after we moved here

Yeah it’s pretty good

I bite my lip. Joan Jett jumps up next to me on the couch and starts pawing at me to pet her. With one hand I reach for her absentmindedly, my eyes glued to my phone.

Listen you probably think I’m an asshole …

“Huh?” I say out loud. Joan Jett purrs in agreement.

Uh … no … should I? I write back.

There’s a long pause before a message pops up. My eyes try to take it all in at once, and I have to force myself to slow down and read word by word.

Like … I asked you to hang out that one time and then we didn’t hang out again … I was seeing this girl back in Austin and I felt kind of like a dick hanging out with you when I hadn’t really ended things with her … which I did recently btw …

“Oh,” I say out loud, like Seth can hear me. My brain is struggling to process this information. I’m already imagining going through it syllable by syllable when I call Claudia later. Maybe Lucy, too. I take a breath and think of how to respond.

I didn’t think you were a dick …

Seth responds immediately.

Yeah? Btw I’m worried that last text makes me sound like a fucking player … and that is actually not the case

That text makes me smile. I tap out a response.

No it’s okay … I guess I was just wondering what was up

Pause.

You’re going to make me say it?

Reading this text makes me sit up straight, and I accidentally knock Joan Jett off the couch. She saunters away, irritated.

Say what? I type back. My heart flutters.

Pause.

Another pause.

Say that I think you’re one cool girl

I blink. This doesn’t happen to me. I’m not the kind of girl this happens to.

Yet it is happening.

To me.

I think you’re pretty cool too…, I type back. I’m smiling so hard my cheeks hurt.

Yeah?

Yeah.

So … Friday night?

Yeah … Friday night

Okay … cool … goodnight Vivian

Night Seth

I’m still staring at the phone when I hear my mother’s keys in the front door. A few beats later she walks in, throws her purse on the kitchen counter, and opens the refrigerator to look for what I know is an ice-cold Coke.

“Hey, Vivvy,” she says, her back toward me.

I think I’m breathing, but I’m not sure. I’m glad my mother isn’t looking at me or she’d wonder why I’ve gone catatonic.

“Hey, Mom,” I finally manage.

She fishes a can from the back of the fridge and turns to smile at me.

“How was your day?” she says.

Two asshole guys bump ’n’ grabbed me and one not-asshole guy told me he thinks I’m one cool girl. So I guess you could say, it was a day of extremes.

“It was fine.”

“That’s good,” my mom says. Just then her phone buzzes. She smiles at the screen, and I know it’s John. She reaches to answer it.

“I’m getting ready for bed,” I mouth to her as she presses the phone to her ear and starts talking.

“’Night, sweetheart,” she mouths back, pulling me close to give me a brief good-night hug.

Later, as I slide under the covers, I think about boys. Mostly about Seth, of course, but Jason Garza and Mitchell Wilson and John, too. Some boys piss me off and some annoy me and some of them make my body go electric in the best way ever. I toss and turn and toss some more, and when I finally fall asleep, I dream about driving in a car with John and my mother and Seth around the Eternal Rest Funeral Home until my mom says it’s time for Seth and me to go on our date, but when we show up to Los Tios restaurant, Seth turns into Mitchell Wilson, and when I see him, I promptly punch him in the face.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

There are a million things I want to know about Seth Acosta, and as we sit in a back booth inside a dimly lit Los Tios, white Christmas lights strung around the windows, queso and tacos in front of us, I keep discovering them like little treasures.

Like he’s left-handed.

Like his dad speaks Spanish and German.

Like his dog is named Max after this old jazz drummer his mother loves named Max Roach.

I think it’s going to be scary, going on a real date with Seth Acosta. And at first, of course, I’m a little nervous. But soon, it’s as easy as the last time we hung out, driving around the funeral home and eating Jack in the Box in an empty parking lot.

From the minute we sit down, we start having one of those conversations where we keep jumping on the ends of each other’s sentences.

“And did you read…”

“And have you heard…”

“And did you ever watch…”

And sometimes our knees bump under the table. And once our fingers touch in the chip basket.

And the entire time I’m wonderinghopingthinkingpraying that when this night is over, Seth is going to kiss me.

Please to the God I want to believe in, please let me get my first kiss from Seth Acosta.

After dinner’s over, it’s still early—not even 9 o’clock.

“What else can we do?” Seth asks as we slide into his car and pull out of the Los Tios parking lot.

“There’s a party at this girl’s house,” I say. “But to be honest, I don’t really feel like a party.”

“Me neither,” Seth says. “What about the beach? Too cold?”

“I brought my jacket.”

We head down to the public beach on the bay, right by the Nautical and Seafood Museum of the Gulf Coast and the Holiday Inn. It sounds all romantic and gorgeous to live by the beach, but the Gulf Coast isn’t exactly a bastion of moonlit walks on white sand. Seth parks his car and we sit on some ratty old picnic tables on the perimeter of the thin strip of sand, staring out at the mucky Texas water as it laps against clumps of seaweed and a few empty plastic bottles. At least we’re the only ones here.

“Kind of sad how there’s so much garbage,” Seth says, peering at the water line.

“Once in sixth grade our class came down here to do a beach cleanup as a community service project,” I say, drawing my knees to my chest, controlling a shiver. It is cold. “And my friend Claudia found a condom, but she didn’t know what it was, so she asked our science teacher, who was a guy, and he was so embarrassed that he ended the cleanup and we went back to school early.”

Seth laughs out loud. I’m not sure if it’s weird to bring up a story about a condom in front of Seth, but I feel kind of bold and funny doing it.

“So you want to leave East Rockport or stick around?” Seth asks. “I mean, after next year?”

“I don’t know, honestly,” I answer. “I mean, I want to go to college, I guess. That’s what I’m supposed to say, right? But my mom can probably only afford in-state tuition, so I don’t know … wherever I go I doubt it will be far from here. What about you? What do you want to do when you graduate?”

Seth tucks a strip of his black hair behind his ear and scratches his chin with his thumb, and it’s just the most delicious thing.

“Honestly? I have no idea. Literally zero clue.”

“God, that’s so nice to hear,” I say. “Like, I’m sixteen, right? How the hell can I possibly know?”

“Exactly,” Seth answers.

It’s quiet for a while, and I get up the guts to ask the question that’s been on my mind since Seth asked me out.

“That girl you were hanging out with in Austin. Was she … mad? That you ended things?”

Seth glances down at his knees. “I don’t think so. I mean, she was a nice girl and everything, and we’d known each other for … forever, before we started going out last spring. She was fun to hang out with but it was like we were together because we thought we were supposed to be, I think.”

“Oh,” I say. “What’s her name?”

“Samantha,” Seth answers. “She was my first real girlfriend, I guess you could say.”

I nod, and I wonder not for the first time if that means he’s Done It, but I can’t ask that. All I do is say that I think that Samantha is a pretty name.

“Yeah, it’s okay, but not as cool as Vivian,” Seth answers, and he kind of knocks his body into mine a little and I grin and look down into my lap, reminding myself for the tenth time this evening that this is real and not track number seven of my mental album titled My Fantasy Boyfriend—Greatest Hits!

“What about you?” Seth asks. “No boyfriend?”

“Nope,” I say, staring out at the dark water. “Never.”

Seth draws back and his eyebrows fly up. “You? But you’re, like, the Moxie girl.”

I flush. “Yeah, well, remember you’re the only one who knows about that. And anyway, that’s not exactly a plus around here. Most boys of East Rockport would consider that very un-girlfriend material.”

Seth shakes his head. “Just proves the guys around here are dumb.”

“They’re gross, too,” I answer, and I start telling him about the bump ’n’ grab.

“That is gross,” he says, “but it’s not all the guys, right? I mean, I’ve found a few guys who aren’t complete assholes. Like the guys who hang out in the quad before class. They talk about obscure baseball stats and I literally don’t get anything they’re saying, but they’re not dicks anyway.”

“Yeah, but those guys might as well not even exist at East Rockport,” I answer, curling up into a tight ball as a brisk wind pushes past us. “Mitchell Wilson, Jason Garza, those dudes. They’re the ones who matter. They, like, set the tone.”

“So that’s why you started Moxie.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I guess that’s why I did it. It felt like a way to fight back but quietly. The only way I knew how to.”

“Well,” Seth says, “just remember that not all guys are like Mitchell Wilson. Not all guys are dicks.”

I nod, but I feel prickly. My mouth slips into a little frown.

“Hey.” Seth nudges me. “You okay?”

I look at him. He’s amazing, but he isn’t a girl. I take a deep breath. “I know all guys aren’t dicks,” I tell him. “I get it. But the thing is, when there are so many dickish dudes around you, it gets hard to remember that, you know?”

Seth nods slowly, like he’s chewing over the words.

“Yeah,” he says finally, “I hear you.”

“But you’re not a dick,” I say in a rush.

He looks at me and smiles broadly, stretching out his arms wide. “Thank you! I gladly accept the honor of not-a-dick.” Suddenly, he pops off the picnic bench and races a few feet in front of me into the sand. “Ladies and gentlemen of East Rockport, I’d like to accept this Not-A-Dick Award on behalf of all the guys out there who recognize it’s gross as hell to do the bump ’n’ grab,” he shouts. “I’d like to thank my mother for raising me with the knowledge that she would disown me if I ever did something like that, and I’d like to thank my dad for backing her up.”

He does a couple of bows as I applaud furiously before calling out, “You’d better hurry up, the orchestra is playing you off the stage.”

“Just one more thank you,” Seth says, like he’s trying to fight off some imaginary awards show host pulling him into the wings. “I’d like to thank Vivian Carter for being such a cool girl and agreeing to go out with me, taking a chance that I might be not-a-dick in a town full of actual-dicks.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” I say, waving my hands in front of me, my face full of false modesty. “Honestly, no need to thank little old me.” I’m laughing now, and hard, too.

Seth races up to me, and in the moonlight and the fluorescent lights of the nearby Holiday Inn, I can see his cheeks are red. He’s breathing more quickly. He’s looking at me in a way he hasn’t all night. It’s the look Meemaw started warning me about in the seventh grade.

A look that’s full of Want.

“Hey.” He takes my hand in his, his voice all husky. “Come on.” He tugs at me, and I stand up and we head back to his Honda, and I’m not sure if I can make it there without passing out. We slide into the front seats and just after we slam the doors shut, Seth turns to me and says, “Vivian, I want to kiss you.”

The small part of my brain that’s left to process anything briefly realizes that I always thought my first kiss would happen standing up. But we’re in a car, which for some reason seems more grown up.

“So…,” Seth asks, leaning in, his dark eyes looking right at me. “Can I kiss you?” His voice is soft, which makes everything he’s saying sound dreamier and sweeter, if that’s possible. I am memorizing his words. I am already playing them over and over in my mind.

“Yeah,” I answer, my heart flooding. My face numb.

And Seth leans in. His hand slides up and around the back of my neck and his mouth is on mine and at first I can’t help but think about the mechanics of it. Like the sense of his tongue against my tongue, soft and gentle and alive. Like the subtle pop! of our lips pulling apart before they go back together again almost immediately.

But it takes just a few milliseconds before those thoughts escape me and I’m kissing Seth Acosta and how do any two people who like each other not just kiss constantly? How do you do this and stop? Ever?

So the answer is we don’t stop. Not right away, anyway. There in that Honda on the first night of winter break in the parking lot of the East Rockport public beach, Seth Acosta and I kiss and we kiss and keep kissing.

* * *

Lucy sends me texts full of explosions and firecrackers and little yellow heads with eyeballs bugging out.

Sara writes one long OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Meg demands every detail including the color of Seth’s car (like that matters).

Kaitlyn sends a selfie of herself screaming in joy.

But Claudia?

Nothing.

A full two hours after I get home from my date with Seth, my oldest best friend in the entire universe sends nothing in response to my gushing, excited texts. I eventually call her, but it goes straight to the freaky lady’s voice telling me that the number is unavailable.

At midnight I give up, tossing my phone to the side. I sink deep under the covers, replaying all the kissing in my mind—in the car at the beach, and on the drive home when we kissed at the stoplights, and when Seth walked me to the front door and we kissed standing up. But at the back of my skull is a little voice that wonders where Claudia is or if she might be mad at me for some reason.

I can’t figure it out. This isn’t Moxie stuff, which has been what’s seemed to irritate her lately. It has nothing to do with Lucy. And she was happy for me the first time Seth and I hung out and just as happy when I told her Seth and I had plans for Friday night.

Then I realize that Friday after school I never saw Claudia after lunch. I was too tripped up with my own giddiness over my upcoming night with Seth.

I reach around in the darkness until I find my phone on the floor.

Just let me know you’re okay … I’m scared something’s wrong … sorry I blabbed on about myself so much

I wait and wait and nothing, and finally I fall asleep with my phone in my bed, my mind alternating between thoughts of kissing Seth and worrying about Claudia.

And then, before I know it, I feel a hand on my shoulder, gently shaking me awake.

“Vivvy, hey. Viv.”

I blink, trying to sense what’s going on. Sun is streaming in through the blinds.

“Am I late for school?”

I realize my mom is next to me, seated on the edge of my bed.

“No, sweetie, it’s Saturday. It’s Christmas break.”

I rub my eyes, trying to wake up. “Oh, yeah.”

“But Claudia’s here to see you.” My mom looks at me, her face clouded with concern. It’s then that I look past my mother and see my best friend since forever standing in my bedroom door. She’s dressed in black leggings and an oversized East Rockport Track sweatshirt. Her eyes are rimmed red. Her mouth is a tight line.

“Claudia?” I say, now wide awake. Claudia sniffles a little and holds her hand up in a tiny wave, and my heart breaks for her without even knowing why.

“I’ll leave you two alone,” my mom says, standing up and giving Claudia a squeeze around her shoulders before shutting my bedroom door.

“Come here,” I say, crawling out from under my covers. I pat the bed and in a moment there she is, facedown on my comforter, head buried in my pink cowgirl sheets. She starts sobbing.

“Hey, hey,” I say, cuddling up close. “What happened, Claudia? Please tell me what happened.” But it’s clear that I need to let her cry first—that I need to let her sob—and so I sit and run through a list of horrible, awful things that could make my best friend break down.

Did somebody die? No, my mother would have heard about it already from Claudia’s mom or Meemaw or someone else in the East Rockport gossip loop.

Did her parents split up? No, they’ve been together for a bajillion years and Claudia is always complaining about how they kiss with tongue even in front of her and her brothers.

Did she get in trouble at school? No, Claudia isn’t a Goody Two-shoes, but she’s not a troublemaker either.

Finally, she sits up and takes a big, shaky breath, then wipes the last few tears away from her cheeks.

“I’m sorry … that I didn’t text you back last night.”

I frown. “Claudia, fuck that! That doesn’t matter. Don’t apologize. I want to know what happened to you!” I squeeze her hands and then wrap my arms around her. I’m so much bigger than Claudia that I can always get a really good hold on her when we hug, and right now I’m especially grateful for it.

I wait for her to want to talk.

“Okay, so something happened to me yesterday. After lunch.” She looks down at her hands. Her cheeks are pink. Blotchy hives are exploding on her neck and chest.

“What?” My heart is hammering.

“Remember how I left the cafeteria early? Because I had to get my gym clothes out of my gym locker to take them home and wash them over break?”

“Yeah,” I say, nodding. “I remember.”

“Well, when I was walking out of the girls’ locker room, I ran into Mitchell Wilson.” She sort of spits his name out—all four syllables. Then she shuts her eyes and shakes her head.

Something heavy starts descending over me, and I know I could be an actual giant and I would still feel like I’m being crushed.

“You know that hallway, right outside of the locker rooms?”

The hallway that’s not that well-lit. The hallway that’s usually empty. The hallway with no classrooms or coaches’ offices or teachers hanging out, gossping with each other in the corners.

I nod, starting to feel sick.

“Well, Mitchell walks up to me, just, like, comes right at me, and does that fucking bump ’n’ grab bullshit,” she says. “Only … when he grabs me, he just, like, pins me up against the wall and he actually slides his hand up under my shirt. And he, like…” She pinches up her face, wincing. “He, like, grabbed me. Grabbed one of my breasts and squeezed it.”

That motherfucking asshole.

“Oh, Claudia,” I say, my voice soft. “Claudia, I’m sorry.”

Claudia is crying again, and I realize that I’m crying, too.

“It gets worse,” Claudia says, wiping the tears sliding down her cheeks with her fingers until she just gives up and lets them fall. “I told him to stop it. That he was hurting me. And he just, like, laughed it off, you know? He just made me stand there like that for what felt like forever, just pawing at me. I could feel his hot breath on my neck. And it hurt. It hurt so much.”

My Claudia. The closest thing I have to a sister. The girl I’ve spent countless hours with collapsing in giggles and screaming in laughter and whispering in hushed voices about our hopes and our dreams and our very worst fears.

“How did you get away?” I ask.

Claudia closes her eyes. “I didn’t. He just stopped, eventually. And he, like, walked off.” Her brown eyes open, and she looks at me again. “And you know what was so creepy? While he was messing with me, he had this look on his face. This dead look. Like I could have been anyone. Or anything.”

I slide my hands around Claudia’s again and squeeze them.

“That’s not even the end of it,” Claudia says. She sniffles.

I stare at Claudia. “Oh my God, did he come back?”

Claudia shakes her head. “No, it’s not that,” she says. “I went to see Mr. Shelly.”

Mr. Shelly, one of the assistant principals. The one who got all over Jana Sykes for her dress-code violation. Principal Wilson’s right-hand man.

“And what happened?” I have an awful sense of what the answer will be.

“Well, I went into his office,” Claudia says. “I still can’t believe I did that. Maybe I was just operating on autopilot, I don’t know. But I went in there and I told him, well … I didn’t go into the details, exactly. I just told him Mitchell had done the bump ’n’ grab game to me and it upset me.”

“Did you call it that? I mean, like, use that term? The bump ’n’ grab game?”

Claudia nods.

“And he, like, knew what it meant?”

Claudia nods again. “Oh, yeah, you could totally tell he knew what it meant. I think they all know. I think they know it goes on and that’s what those guys call it and nobody cares.” Her voice is flat.

“So what happened after you told?” I ask Claudia.

Claudia twists up her mouth into a frown.

“He looked at me and told me that Mitchell was probably just joking and that I should take the break to relax and forget about it,” Claudia answers. She’s not crying anymore. She’s just still. Mad. “And then he said I should probably take it as a compliment.”

“Holy shit,” I say.

We just sit there for a moment in silence. My mind can’t help but pull back my memories of last night—of kissing Seth, of talking to him and just enjoying being with him. And now this. From so wonderful to so horrible in less than twelve hours. From drooling over an Amazing Boy to fuming over an Asshole Boy overnight.

“Did you tell your parents?” I ask.

Claudia shakes her head again. “No. When I was upset last night I just told them I wasn’t feeling well. My mom would flip out and my dad would … I don’t know what he would do, to be honest.”

“You don’t think he would want to murder Mitchell?”

Claudia shrugs, uncertain. “Maybe. I don’t know. He loves the East Rockport Pirates. He used to play defensive end.”

I want to tell Claudia she has to be wrong, that there’s no way her dad would choose to support some small-town football team over his own daughter. But how can I even know I’m right?

“I’m tired of talking,” Claudia says all of a sudden. “I just want to lie here and not think about anything.” She flops back on my bed and stares at the ceiling. “But I feel bad. I should be asking you about your date.”

I give her a gentle push. “Stop apologizing. Whatever. I can tell you about it later.”

Claudia looks up at me and gives me a soft smile. The first one she’s had since she walked into my bedroom.

“Just tell me if he kissed you. And if he was nice.”

I grin. “Yes,” I say. “And yes.”

Claudia smiles a little bigger now. “Good,” she says. “That helps.”

I crawl off my bed so I can play a song for Claudia. It’s another one by Bikini Kill, but it’s one of their few slow ones. It’s called “Feels Blind” and something about the way Kathleen Hanna’s voice cries out—demanding to be heard as she sings about women and hurting and hunger and pain—makes me want to cry each time I hear it. But cry in a way that makes me feel good, like I’m confessing a scary secret. Or abandoning the heaviest load.

As the song plays, I can feel the drums thud in my chest, and I slide back into my bed and lie down next to Claudia. She’s still staring at my bedroom ceiling, but I can tell she’s listening.

“This song,” she says, “it’s pretty great.”

“Yeah, it is,” I say, and I scoot closer and loop my fingers through hers, and I squeeze her hand hard and I hope she feels in her heart that the squeeze means I’ll be there for her. Always.

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DMU Timestamp: June 13, 2022 01:33