Maggie Mills, my best friend since freshman year, hip bumps me then leans against the cold metal lockers that line B-hallway of Ridgewater High School. Her lips pull down into a frown, disapproving dark eyes narrowed into slits. “You’re staring again.”
I force a smile and close my locker door, forgetting the chemistry notes I opened it for. I leave the spiral bound paper inside, tucked between my English Lit book and my Pre-Calc folder. Grabbing them now will affirm Maggie’s suspicion that I was indeed staring at Liam Heiter and press play on her broken record of disapprobation. “Was not.”
Maggie turns her head to me, ruby red lips pressed into a thin line. She’s quiet, watching me scrutinize the expression that’s clear as day on her face. Whatever she’s about to say, I’m not gonna like it. “Did you hear? Liam asked Corah to prom. Seems like things are getting serious between them.”
I choke on air that lodges itself in my throat but twist the sound into a meager laugh. Liam Heiter—my other best friend, the one I’ve known since diaper days—doesn't do serious. After a month, two tops, he breaks things off because those girls can’t offer him what I can. Family. History. Love without strings.
I twist the cap off of my water and take a sip to settle my nerves. Corah Raymond is no different than any other girl who has tried to settle Liam down. She’s the flavor of the moment, whereas what Liam and I have goes beyond words. Our relationship has built every year we’ve been together, blossoming from a booming friendship into an all consuming fire.
“There’s only one way to find out if the rumors are true.” I toss my water bottle at Maggie and pull my phone out of my back pocket.
I talk a good game, pretending that watching Liam with every girl who bats her eyes in his direction doesn't bother me when, really, it does. Even knowing he and I are endgame, the few weeks his arms wrap around anyone else is nothing shy of hell. I live for the moments he’s single, when we can be together.
“Lee.” I beam at the nickname I’ve used since before I could form real words. The nickname no one else is allowed to utter. I hold my phone up, pretending to record our conversation for the school paper I don’t actually write for. I take pictures that never get used, but the extracurricular looked good on my college applications. “Comment for the paper?”
Liam lifts one corner of his lips into a lopsided grin. My heart flutters as his emerald eyes lock onto my boring browns. High school has been his playground because, not only does his personality demand attention, his good looks attract it.
While Liam grew into a walking god of a man the past few years, I, unfortunately, stayed the same lanky beanpole I’ve been since middle school.
My boobs came in and filled a smaller than average bra in the seventh grade but they forgot they were supposed to keep growing; my butt has just enough cushion not to hurt the chair; and my shoulder-length hair hasn’t figured out that when I spend forty-five minutes straightening, blow-drying, and sticking every product known to man in it, it’s supposed to stay pretty. I blame the Florida heat for that last one.
Most days I look like a pubescent boy who stuck his finger in a light socket. At least, that’s what the popular girls tell me. The same popular girls who are currently glaring, wordlessly reminding me that I am not worthy of breathing the same air as them.
“Only for you,” he declares. Always for me.
“Elaine,” Corah purrs with a chastising smile.
I hate her. I hate her perfect hair and toned body. I hate how Liam’s muscles flex beneath the sleeve of his shirt when he pulls her close. Most of all, I hate that she’s at his side while I’m three feet away trying to remind her, and me, that I am important.
“Football season is over. What could the paper possibly need to know about my Lee Lee?” Corah pinches Liam’s chin between her fingers and pulls his lips to hers. The kiss, while quick, is strategic. A show of power on her part. I may be reminding Corah that l was here first, but she’s not going to let me forget that, for the time being, he’s all hers.
My stomach twists inside itself. I usually avoid Liam when he’s got a girlfriend, keeping our interactions to lunch and the confines of my bedroom. Watching him with someone else is too painful. And yet, here I am. Keep it together, Lainey. “Rumor has it, you two are going to prom together. Tell me how that happened.”
Liam pulls back from Corah’s embrace and narrows his ember eyes on me. He knows this conversation won’t make it into the paper. This is for me. Sure, I could have texted to ask my burning questions, but I want to hear the truth straight from the horse's mouth. Most importantly, I want to hear that Maggie is wrong.
“I asked. She said yes.”
“Don’t be modest, Lee Lee.” Corah giggles. She leans into him and presses her perfectly manicured fingers against his chest. Corah may be dense, but she is not stupid. She intentionally digs her knife deeper into my wounds, pouring salt with each detail I’ve yet to hear. “If the people want to know, let’s tell them.”
Corah pauses, waiting for Liam to spill the beans. When he doesn’t, she is more than happy to do it for him. “It was last Saturday. Lee Lee picked me up for our night on the town like he always does, but I immediately knew something was off. He was too quiet in the car and he would barely hold my hand. When he pulled into Riverside, my gut twisted because everyone knows that is his breakup spot.”
I stare at Liam, my eyebrows nearly kissing my hairline. Riverside Park is our special place and has been ever since we were kids. Every relationship he’s been in has ended there because he was thinking about me.
Coming back to me.
I wait for some silent explanation as to why Liam would bring her there, of all places, but he breaks eye contact with me to stare at the floor.
“And when Lee Lee took me to the playground, I thought for sure we were done,” Corah continues. “I followed him out of the car, practically tripping over my feet because my eyes were blurry with tears. And you know what he said to me?”
“What?” Please tell me, because I can’t fathom why he would taint what’s ours with this trash.
Corah looks up at Liam, doe-eyed, and smiles. “He said it was on the playground that he first fell in love.”
Her voice fades into the background. My pulse thunders through my body with loud, almost deafening thrums. It takes every ounce of willpower I have not to run and jump into his arms but I can’t do that because no one knows about Liam and me. We chose to keep our unorthodox relationship a secret so high school doesn’t ruin it. Things between us aren’t ideal and, to keep appearances, Liam has to date. I could see other people too, but it’s easier if I don’t.
I chew on the inside of my cheek and silently plead to the universe for Liam to look at me. He needs to understand that I love him too. I don’t care if it took three years of secretly pining after him and another five years of him sneaking through my window late at night for us to get here, but his gaze is glued to the ground.
“That’s why Liam took me there, because that silly playground was where he found his first love, and he thinks I might be his last.” Corah clasps her hands over her heart, feigning happy tears.
Dark spots cloud my vision but, at the moment, they are better than tears because my internal compass is spinning in circles and I’m a ball of emotions. I want to scream. I want to yank Corah by the hair out of Liam’s arms and then, of course, I want to cry.
Somehow I manage to force it all down—the humiliation, the self-pity, the tears, and most of all, the anger— and make myself smile again.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Corah beams.
No. I highly doubt she does. If she did, she wouldn’t be hanging on the arm of the man I love. Gloating. She would be running, because the things I want to do to her, to both of them, aren’t legal in fifty states.
“It wasn’t a big, fancy promposal, but I didn’t need anything glamorous. The way Lee Lee asked, it came from the heart and that’s what matters most.” Corah snuggles into Liam’s side and looks up at him like the sun rises and sets because he exists.
I know it does in my world. I shiver, feeling a chill as the actual sun dips behind a cloud. Ironic considering we’re inside and its rays barely shine through a nearby window. Still, I feel the darkness nonetheless.
“You must have been thrilled.” I force the words out, dying a little with each syllable.
Liam finally lifts his emerald gaze to meet mine. There’s no remorse in his expression. No regret for breaking my heart into unmendable pieces. What I find is worse.
The bell rings and, for once, I couldn’t be more grateful there are only two and a half minutes between classes. If I have to stand here any longer pretending to be happy for these two, I might crack.
“We should go,” Liam says, leading both him and Corah towards A-hall. The same hallway I should be going to, but I can’t seem to make my feet move. I can’t bring myself to walk behind them and watch their happiness. Their circle of friends follow like peasants, eager for the attention of the king and his new queen. A few steps down the hallway, Liam looks over his shoulder at me. “See you tonight.”
“Are you okay?” Maggie asks once Liam has turned down the hallway. Her hand reaches out and I watch her fingers touch my arm. I feel nothing. My mind is too busy keeping my head above the swell of tears and holding onto a smile to process anything else.
“Yeah.” I don’t sound like myself. My voice is strained, cracking with emotion while coming out an octave higher than normal. “I just need a minute.”
Maggie’s perfectly plucked eyebrows knit together. Everything she wants to say is written on her face.
Don’t let that jerk get to you. He never deserved your heart. You’ll get through this. Everything will be okay.
But she keeps it all to herself. “Alright. I have my extra credit thing with Mr. Alverson today, but I’ll try to be done in time for lunch.” She pauses, studying me a little longer. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
I nod, my lips stretched tight across my face. The smile couldn’t be faker, but Maggie doesn’t press the issue.
After what feels like an eternity, she sighs and says, “Okay, sweetie. I’ll see you later, but text me if you need me.”
The moment she rounds the corner of B-hall, the dam of tears I was holding together with scotch tape and band-aids cracks. The world around me blurs into starbursts of light as liquid pain trails down my cheeks.
I run into the nearest bathroom and press my back against the wall. I squeeze my eyes shut, forcing myself to take slow, steady breaths—a tactic my therapist taught me back in middle school when my social phobia controlled my life. Deep breath in. And let it out. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. It takes a few cycles for the pressure in my chest to decrease and the waterworks to dry up, but eventually I start to feel better.
A toilet flushes in a nearby stall and the nervous needles under my skin spring back to life. I can’t bring myself to look at who is here and see either a smug smile or a look of pity from someone who thinks they know what has happened. I keep my eyes closed, using eight-year-old logic of, if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. I know that’s not how the world works, but it makes me feel better.
The lock on the stall door slides open, metal scraping inside itself. Heavy footfalls take one step, and then two, and then stop. Silence eats away at my resolve to stay strong and keep my eyes closed. After the slowest five seconds of my life, I hear, “You look like shit.”
You’ve got to be kidding me!
My eyes snap open at the deep rumble that is uniquely Asher Anderson’s. He’s got this smoked-a pack-a-day rasp, paired with knee-knocking baritone pitch. If Snow White and the Prince ever had a son, it would be him. With hair as dark as a starless sky and moon kissed skin, the contrast is striking. But then you add in his eyes, a unique shade of amethyst that looks too perfect to be real. The girls around here all but melt at the sight of him. Liam may be the shining king of the school, but Asher is the prince wearing a crown of thorns.
Asher crosses the bathroom to wash his hands in the sink, shaking loose water droplets into the porcelain bowl when he’s done, never breaking eye contact. Not even when he reaches for a paper towel from the dispenser.
“Get out!” I scream, unable to take his patronizing stare any longer. This is the girl's bathroom for Christ’s sake. Is this man so heartless as to beat me here just to inflict more pain on my already bleeding heart?
Wouldn’t put it past him.
I’ve known Asher all my life. Our parents—mine, Liam’s, and Asher’s mom—used to be friends. I still remember the stories my mother would tell about how excited she was for all of them to be pregnant around the same time. We were a heartbeat away from being a B-rated version of the sitcom Friends if they’d all had kids.
Until one day when everything imploded.
As for Asher and I, we drifted apart in the sixth grade after he ridiculed me for getting my first period. As if I wasn’t embarrassed enough to find a puddle of red when I stood to jump into the pool, Asher let everyone at that birthday party know what happened. He even went as far as calling me shark bait the rest of the year. Liam thought it was hilarious. I wanted to die.
“Perhaps I should say the same to you.” Asher chuckles and leans his ass against the sink, crossing his long, muscular arms.
My jaw drops. This is my bathroom. He… My train of thought is lost as I take in my surroundings. The girl’s bathroom has more than two stalls and it doesn’t have urinals.
No. No. No! I cover my face with my hands, mortified. Could today get any worse?
“It’s cool,” Asher guffaws. “No one will walk in on us if that’s what you're worried about. Besides, it looks like you need a moment.”
I let my hands fall to my sides, shoulders rolling forward. I know Asher’s sympathy will come with a price, but I do need a minute’s peace. I don’t know how I’m going to make it through lunch and my next three classes. Everyone is talking about prom and now all I’ll be able to think about is Liam and his stupid promposal. “It’s girl shit. I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine.” Asher steps closer, crossing the tiny bathroom in only three strides.
I turn my head and stare at a phone number someone scribed onto one of the stalls. I hate looking at Asher. He makes my stomach jump and my heart flutter at the same time. One a feeling of irritation. The other… not going there.
Asher tucks his knuckle under my chin and lifts, forcing my gaze back to him. “You look like Liam stomped all over your heart. Again.”
I jerk my chin free of his grasp and lean back against the wall. I’d rather touch the cream-colored tiles with all its grimy germs than him. I hate him. I don’t hate him. I don’t know how I feel about Asher. Things between us are… complicated. Always have been.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t I though?” Asher chuckles again. The dude laughs a lot, only it never sounds happy. There’s always a hidden layer of darkness or sorrow or something straight up evil in it.
Asher steps back and grabs the door’s handle. He tugs it open and steps out, leaving me alone in the boy's bathroom. I take a second to gather my thoughts, grateful to finally be alone.
I shake my head, irritated that he thinks he knows me. Knows what I’m feeling. Asher doesn’t know jack shit about having a broken heart. He’s the heartbreaker, just like Liam, leaving a trail of tears wherever he goes.