Authors: Heather Smith Meloche
We shouldn't be here.
“Probably not,” Jack says.
I startle, realize I've said the thought out loud. “It's just a storage room,” I say. “We've seen it. Can we go?”
He leans in, his lips and silver ring grazing my ear. He whispers, “Tessa, relax. Just wait. It's so much more than a storage room.”
Chills sweep through me before I realize he's slipping the strap of my bag from my shoulder. Panicked, I clutch at it.
He gives me an odd look. Then softens. “Tessa, put it down just for a minute. I have something else to show you.”
And, somehow, I let Jack take the bag. He sets it, the drugs inside, against the leg of an old desk. Then he heads toward an unmarked gray doorâmetal and much thicker than the one to this room. “Over here, Mo.” He motions him over and holds up a key.
“All right,” he says to him. “This is Break-In 101. Ready?”
“Wait. What?” I say.
Jack ignores me, pushes the key into the crack between the door frame and the door. He pulls the handle until the door opens a millimeter, shimmies the key down, then shuts the door again. He lets go of the key sitting in the crack. “Now you try,” he says to Mo, pointing at it.
“Are you serious?” I ask.
Without hesitation, Mo steps to the door.
Jack smiles proudly at him. “This is an important skill to learn.”
I shake my head. “For a convict, maybe. But he's probably destined to cure cancer or something.”
Mo's bent over the lock and door handle, his thick glasses falling to the end of his nose. He's completely focused on moving the key down a quarter of a millimeter at a time.
“Seriously,” I say. “I'm sure breaking and entering is not a skill he needs. Which reminds me, what the hell was that whole thing with the cop today at lunch?”
“Yeah, that was a misunderstanding.” Jack shrugs. “Happens all the time.”
“A misunderstanding? You're such a bullshitter.”
He gives a thoughtful expression. “I just appreciate a clever spin on the truth.”
“Oh, please. There's no difference between that and bullshit.”
“Wrong,” he says. “One is funnier.”
My expression turns serious. “Not everything in life is funny, Jack.”
His face becomes just as serious. “Funny makes all the fucked-up stuff easier to deal with.”
My mouth falls open. I never considered that Jack might have anything in his life other than spoiled rich kid problems.
“Ahh,” Mo says, grinning. A shaft of light pours in from outside. Jack steps into it, patting Mo's back.
“One hell of a break-in job, Mo,” he says.
Beyond the door is the school roof with a ladder running up a wall to an even higher roofline. The blue sky dotted with fall clouds hangs above the roofs.
“Or should I say one hell of a breakout.” Jack winks.
“Great,” I mutter, trying to ignore how the sunlight makes Jack's eyes translucent blue and his dark brown hair shine. “So you've prepped our newest international student for a prison escape.”
“Well, school is a lot like prison, don't you think?”
I think of how I was excited every day of my sophomore and junior years to walk into the art room. I loved the indie music Mrs.
Gretta always had playing. All the bright pieces hanging and drying. The smell of oil-paint fumes and the rich earthiness of clay. But that's gone for me now.
“I used to love school,” I tell Jack. “But this year I feel like I can't live up to what everyone wants me to be. And I'm so freaking afraid I won't do well enough or screw up somehow and piss people off. Even this little adventure increases my stress level by five hundred percent. So, yeah, school
like prison.” The words tumble out before I realize they are way too personal.
Mo's expression is sympathetic. Like he understood everything. And Jack stares at me like he's collecting every word for future use. My cheeks burn. I curse myself for being too open.
But Jack's hand reaches out, locks with mine again, gently tugs me toward the roof outside. “C'mon, Tessa Leighton,” he says. “Let's go get a better perspective on the world.”
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The school grounds sprawl for hundreds of yards until they hit a border of trees turned bright yellow, orange, and red by fall. Everything is calm with classes done for the day, nobody practicing on the football or baseball fields, the flags in front flapping with a light
“It's so pretty,” I say, understating what I really think. It's stunning. Like a painting come to life. The colors are so vibrant, I wish I could bottle them, use them for other art pieces. And I have to admit, seeing orange from this viewpoint makes me hate it a little less.
“So, so nice.” Mo swivels around to take it all in.
“It gets better.” Jack leads us up the ladder against the wall. We crawl out onto the next slightly angled roofline and sit down on what looks like an industrial patchwork of metal and opaque glass
panels. Through the fuzzy glass, bodies move back and forth. I realize we're sitting above the gym while people play basketball below us.
Mo pulls out his cell and snaps photos. He starts rambling, English words and phrases like
, smattered in between Korean. He points to the trees, the expanse of sky.
Jack nods. “I know, Mo.”
A flock of geese flies past. Mo moves quickly to get a picture.
“For sure. It's good to be high,” Jack says, “while the rest of the school is low, Mo.”
“Will you stop that?” I bark.
“Stop what?” Jack's expression is smug.
“That whole rhyming-with-Mo thing. It's offensive.”
“How? I'm just conversing with him.”
I jab a finger into his chest, pretend I don't notice it's muscle-hard. “He can't help it if he's still learning English. It's like you're making fun of him.”
Jack, surprisingly, jabs me back. In the chest.
“I only make fun of people who deserve it because, well, they deserve it. But I think Mo is a great guy.” Jack puts his arm around him and gives him a smile. Mo smiles back. “Seriously. He's smart. He's adventurous. And he's got a good heart. Can't you tell?”
His words stop me, make me really look at Mo, who holds up his phone for us to see.
“Pretty America photo for my family,” he says, making me smile. Mo
a good guy. It's weird and cool Jack pegged that so quickly.
Mo glances at his watch and startles. “Time,” he says. “I go now.”
Jack looks genuinely disappointed. “Is that so, Mo?”
I sigh, annoyed.
Mo stands. “I go.” He extends a hand to Jack. “Thank you, Jack.”
“No problem.” Jack shakes his hand firmly. “Anytime.”
Mo bows at me. “Thank you, Tessa Leighton.”
“You're welcome,” I say, feeling strangely honored to have shown him around. Even though Jack has hijacked the tour.
“Now go, Mo.” Jack points toward the open storage room door.
Mo scrambles down the ladder, and his footsteps thud in the storage room. Then there's silence except for the
of the flag, Jack's light breathing next to me, and my suddenly pounding heart.
This whole situation is awkward and kind of awesome. Here I am on the school roof with the class criminal, and I wish he would grab my hand or put his arm around me. Part of me actually loves how, right now, the two of us are so high while the rest of the world is low.
I clear my throat, then ask, “So, like, where are you going to college?”
Jack shakes his head, his jaw tensing. “I'm not.”
I'm genuinely surprised. He must be able to afford it. He's obviously wickedly smart. “Why not?”
He shrugs. “I guess it's not my time.”
I look at him, confused, can't imagine he wants to hang out in Pineville for the rest of his life. “When is your time?” I ask.
“I don't know.” He stares at the trees and the neighborhoods beyond them filled with identical mansions. I wonder if he lives in one of them. If he's staring at his house right now.
“So what are you going to do when you graduate?” I ask.
He opens his mouth. Closes it again. It almost looks like
after-graduation is something he never even thought of or maybe doesn't want to think about. He turns to me. “I owe you an apology.”
He's changing the subject. A hard one-eighty. He must really hate this line of questioning, so I let him off the hook. From my jacket pocket, I pull out the IOU he gave me after plowing me over in the hallway. I kept it. For some reason, it seemed valuable. “Yep. One apology according to this.” I hold up the sticky note.
He shakes his head. “Not just for that. I mean, I know you didn't want to come up here, and then after what you said back in the storage room about how you're afraid of screwing up and making people mad, I just stressed you out more by dragging you here. So I owe you an apology for making things harder for you. That's not what I was trying to do.”
My cheeks burn again. “Well, really, I chose to follow you up here. You didn't drag me. And I'm sorry that I shared all my baggage. This year is just not at all what I'd thought it was going to be. I thought my senior year would be amazing. But it's like there are so many people I have to please, and none of them is me.” I give him a sideways glance. “Does that make any sense?”
He shrugs, half smiling. “I'm a selfish bastard, so I always please myself.” He brushes his shoulder against mine. “It's why I persuaded you to come up here. With me.” He gives me a smoldering look that flips my stomach in a roller coaster kind of way.
I bite at my lower lip, try not to blush. But fail. “So, do you bring lots of girls up here?”
“No. Not at all.” His expression turns gentle. “It's just that you seem so sad and angry and upset a lot of the time, Tessa. So I wanted to show you”âhe throws his hands out in front of himâ
“you know, all
. It's like when you get out of your usual place and you see how much is actually around you, it sort of makes you feel like your problems are smaller than you thought.”
I get the sense he's up here as much for himself as for me. But I'm so moved by Jack's sweetness. And so grateful. I touch his arm. The burn of him in my fingers, in every nerve, is instant. His smoldering look returns.
“Thanks.” I give him a smile.
“You're welcome,” he says.
“I did sort of need this break. Even if I'm still a little freaked about getting caught.” I glance at the open door. “But what I don't understand is why? I mean, I've known you for a week and I've watched you trash all over the Pineville High Student Code of Conduct on three separate occasions. So, Jack S. Dalton, please enlighten me. What's the point of all the crap you pull?”
He turns to look out at the school grounds, raises his chin, like he's trying to stay proud, stand behind his pranks. I watch his profile, the solid lines of his face etched against the trees and sky behind him. The long fringes of hair above his eyebrows, at his temples, flutter spastically with the wind. When he speaks, his tone is more deflated. “I guess I'm just trying to make it easier for myself.”
I shake my head. “I don't see how getting the cops and the principal on your butt makes anything easier.”
“It justÂ .Â .Â . lightens things up.” He sighs, then turns to stare at me, piercing me like he really hopes I understand. “You know, Tessa, I don't ever do things that will hurt people. Whatever you think of me, know I'm not a dickhead. I just groove on inconveniencing the higher-ups who think they're almighty and powerful. They deserve a little inconvenience. And I sort of like the challenge.”
“You want a challenge? Play chess.”
“Chess isn't as fun. And it's way too easy.” He winks. “Besides, maybe you shouldn't be so afraid to break the rules every once in a while.”
I think about how pathetically I break the rules. When no one's looking. When I'm feeling the darkest. I think of the random boys. And the drugs. And leaving Emma Hadley like a sitting duck in the darkness.
I find myself leaning away from Jack, like an inch or two might keep him from sensing my foulness. Because, truthfully, he's a decent guy. Maybe rich and spoiled. But he's warm and thoughtful, and he means well. And I have to admit, I like Jack S. Dalton. A lot.
I flush with the thought, point to the neighborhoods in the distance. “So which house is yours?”
“You can't see it from here.”
“Mine either.” I scan the vast, colorful horizon. The whole world spread out in front of me. I couldn't photograph it, draw it, or color it any better than this.
A whistle blows in the gym below us. And as much as I like sitting this close to Tessa and I dig that she seems more into me, her questions are poking at parts of my life I seriously don't want to discuss. So I say, “We should get off this roof before everyone hauls ass out of the gym and sees us up here.”
“Worried about getting caught?” She eyes me, amused.
I lean in, close enough to see how her blue eyes have these amazing green speckles in them and how her eyelashes are three or four shades darker than her blond hair. “Listen, pretty girl, it's not me I'm worried about. I told you I'd keep you out of trouble, and I don't break promises.”
“Oh.” She looks surprised at first, and then her full lips perk up. “Thanks.”
“You're welcome.” I give her a wink, loving the tiny dimple on her left cheek that appears when she actually smiles. The past couple of nights, I've heard her dad yelling next door. He stumbled around his backyard just before dusk with a beer in his hand, and then he was yelling her name, calling her stupid, and dropping
F-bombs. That's got to suck for her. Along with how she feels she has to please everyone but herself.
But the girl has strength. I mean, she stood up to me that first night in the bleachers. And she's totally not afraid to tell me off when she disagrees. Tessa can be fierce. It makes me want to kiss her so hard and long that she can't help but think someone knows she's more than the names she's called. It doesn't help that she's now sitting slightly slumped forward so I can see her cleavage in the dip of her V-neck sweater.
I clear my throat and stick my wad of gum to the metal panel behind me. Then I stand and hold my hand out to help her up. But she doesn't move. Her eyes flit to the gum, then to me.
“Planning for a future crime on the roof?” she asks.
I half shrug. “Consider that just a marker. It's important to always know where you've been.”
She bites her lower lip, then reaches to grab my hand. Her sleeve slips up, exposing an ink-drawn camera on her pale forearm. Curved around the image is the word
. She quickly pulls her sleeve down. I don't ask her what it means.
Her cold hand grips my outstretched one. Instinctively, I fold her fingers into mine and guide her off the roof. She disappears into the storage room as I close and lock the door.
When I turn around, she's hovering over the table I use to study and get the hell away from things when I can. Tessa thinks I'm breaking in here, but truthfully, the janitor, Bud Trimmel, knows I come up here. “I trust you won't bust anything, Jack,” he'd said. “Just don't get me involved if you get caught,
?” So I'm careful. And aside from Porter Cemetery in Hallend, this is my safe place. Seeing Tessa in it is sort of strange. But also pretty cool.
She fingers the tips of the pencils I stuck in a chipped mug. “You study here,” she says.
“I do.” I walk closer to her.
She plucks out a graphite drawing pencil I'd found in the desk and folds it in her fingers in a weird, longing way. “And you draw here?”
I shake my head. “I doodle sometimes. That's all.”
Then she eyes something and reaches down to pick up my favorite jean jacket that I shoved onto the floor last time I was here. She examines the back, where I'd traced the Beatles'
album cover, then colored it in.
“And you like the Beatles.”
I pretend to be looking for cameras buried in the walls. “Am I on some reality show called
Things I Know About Jack
Her expression turns serious. Her forehead and blond eyebrows crinkle as she stares at me in the dimly lit storage room. “I think I sort of misjudged you.” She gently drapes my jacket over the banged-up desk chair. “You aren't as bad as I first thought, Jack.”
“Told you.” I wink at her and feel a weird flood of relief.
She walks to me and lifts her chin, looking bossy. “I still think you act like a jerk sometimes.” I have the serious urge to slide my hands into her hair, cup the heart shape of her face, and pull her to me. Honestly, I don't think any girl has ever turned me on as much as she does. She pokes a finger into my chest, and even the tip of her finger jabbing against me makes me want her. “So don't think we're like best friends or anything now,” she says.
I cock my head to match hers. Lean in until I'm as close as I can get without my nose or lips or anything else touching her. “Let's get something very clear, Tessa.” My voice is soft and low. “I never said I wanted to be your friend.”
She blinks, her breathing turned ragged. “Okay. SoÂ .Â .Â . IÂ .Â .Â . well. I should go.” She pulls out her cell to check the time. “Shit! I've got to go.” She hustles past me toward the stairwell leading to the hallway. “I should have been in Hallend a while ago.”
I remember I left my car there. Sam has been taking me back and forth to school and I've been using Mom's car to get to work. But, until now, I hadn't figured out how to get my Dart. “Can I go with you?”
Horror sweeps across her face. “Nâ uh, no!”
I try not to laugh at how startled she is. “I don't mean like I want to follow you around or anything. I just need a ride into town because I left my car there over the weekend. You can drop me anywhere in Hallend. I'll just walk to where I left it.”
She nibbles at her bottom lip, her forehead crinkled with worry, making me wonder what the hell she has going on in Hallend.
“All right,” she finally says, her tone tight. “Okay,” she says again, like she's trying to convince herself.
“Okay.” I grab my jean jacket from the chair. “And how about we stop for a burger and a latte on the way?”
She shakes her head, her lips pursing.
“Kidding,” I say, then trail her down the stairwell to the hallway. Her whole body is super-tense, which tells me that sneaking onto the Pineville High roof is not the biggest challenge Tessa Leighton is going to face today.
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Just before we hit the school's main entrance, a jingling sound and the clicking of shoes in a connecting hall make Tessa stop. She watches the corner, looking so terrified, I almost feel like I should go all Superman on her and scoop her out of the way to protect her from whatever's approaching. But instead, I wait beside her.
I'm almost let down when interplanetary super-villains don't appear, but instead, Principal Levy shows, accompanied by a short, older woman with startlingly tall white-blond hair and eyeglasses that cover most of her gaunt face. The whole ninety-five, maybe one hundred pounds of her balances on snakeskin high heels, and she's weighed down by so many large pieces of jewelry, I'm sure she's going to be sucked into the center of the earth any second by increased gravitational pull.
“And there she is,” Principal Levy says as he and the woman tap and jangle toward Tessa, who is plaster-stiff and pale next to me. She looks like she might teeter over and crack into a trillion pieces.
“Grandma Leighton.” Tessa's voice is a whisper.
I try not to look stunned. I mean, this woman looks like she's just stepped out of
Rich People's Weekly
. But I know where Tessa lives, and it's not in a palace.
Tessa clears her throat. “What are youÂ .Â .Â . I meanÂ .Â .Â . Why are you at my school?”
Principal Levy pipes up. “Your grandmother came in to discuss your college plans, Tessa, and since the Leighton family has been a generous supporter of this district and our goals for years, I am happy to take the time to talk with her.”
Tessa nods, her breath escaping from her open mouth like the slow leak of a balloon.
“That's right.” Ms. Leighton's voice is nasally and high. Her thin lips, covered in slick red, ease into a smile. “So, I thought I'd check with SamsonâI mean, Principal Levyâand make sure you are doing everything you can this school year to get into the University of Michigan.”
I cast a look at Tessa. Her cheeks are bright pink.
Levy nods, his chunky jowls swaying. “I've let her know we have you on a strong business track. How is that speech class going for you?”
“Fine,” Tessa squeaks.
“Good. So the best choices have been made.” Ms. Leighton nods, her jewelry clanking. “Speaking of best choices, where is that handsome boyfriend of yours?” Her eyes, like BBs, dart from me to Tessa.
I stand up straighter, used to holding my own during bullshit like this, but Tessa seems to be folding in on herself. I have to stop myself from gripping her shoulders to prop her up.
“Seth's at football practice,” Tessa says.
“And who is this?” Ms. Leighton tips her head, looking at me like I'm a piece of ocean trash that just washed up in front of her. Her gaze trails from my long bangs to my lip ring and lands like a hot poker on my neck tattoo.
I step forward, hold out my hand. “Jack S. Dalton, ma'am.”
She stares at my hand but doesn't touch it.
“I joined the student council.” Tessa somehow finds her voice. It sounds an octave too high. “I was giving Jack a tour of the school. He's new here.”
“I see,” her grandmother says, every face wrinkle lifting with delight. “That's fabulous initiative. That's what makes an exceptional leaderâfinding a need and filling it.”
But Tessa is not puffing up with pride or glowing with joy from her grandmother's compliment. In fact, every taut muscle in her body tells me I should get her away from here, stat.
“Well, Tessa was an
tour guide,” I say. “She was also kindly giving me a ride to my car.”
“Is that so?” Ms. Leighton says.
“Iâhe justâ” Tessa stutters.
“She found out I was stranded at school today,” I explain, “and I have to be at work very shortly, so she didn't hesitate a second to offer her assistance. Your granddaughter is chock-f of some serious goodwill.”
“Well.” Her grandmother smiles widely. I catch a smear of lipstick on her bleach-white teeth. “She is a Leighton, and I don't want to keep her from her good deeds. So I'll get going. Samson”âher spiky fingernails shoot out to Principal Levy. He rushes to grip her handâ“I'll take your suggestion regarding the University of Michigan under advisement.” Then she leans into Tessa, pressing a wrinkled cheek to Tessa's smooth one and air kissing. “I'd like you and your handsome boyfriend to come to my house for dinner in the next couple of weeks, dear.”
“Okay,” Tessa practically whispers.
“Very good. I'll see you soon.”
And with that, Tessa's grandmother clicks and clanks out of Pineville High.
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Tessa's fingers are as tight as cable ties around her steering wheel as we drive the twenty minutes from Pineville to Hallend.
“Your grandmother seems like a really nice lady, Tessa.” I'm testing the waters, seeing what she'll say since that whole scene back at school was whacked-out weird.
“She's the head of Leighton Custom Homes. The CEO.”
“That's cool.” I still can't get over how Tessa is the complete opposite of her grandmother. It's not as if Tessa looks homeless or whatever. She dresses like most girls, with sweaters and jeans. Her hair is always brushed and curled. Her face has hints of makeup.
But she's not overly done up, and never acts conceited or anything. And aside from her annoying penchant for her jock-head boyfriend, she doesn't seem to be jet-setting with the super-popular, superficial crowd.
“What did she mean by âI'll take your suggestion regarding the University of Michigan under advisement'?” Tessa says.
I know she doesn't expect me to answer. So I don't.
“And what was she doing at my school anyway? Why can't she just believe that I'm doing whatever I can to get into U of M? Why do I have to be some kind of sick project for her?”
Again, I say nothing.
Several silent minutes pass. Tessa shakes her head over and over. I decide to change the subject.
“Hey, did you hear about the girl who was hit by a car right around here?”
Tessa's grip on the steering wheel tightens, if that's possible. She nods stiffly. So I try again.
“How about that last Detroit Lions game?”
She looks at me, confused. “What?”
“You're really tense, Tessa.”
“Oh.” She drags her shoulders away from her ears, loosening her grip on the steering wheel. “Sorry.”
“Why don't we play a game?”
“I don't like games.”
“Listen, it'll be fun. It's called âWhat if?'”
“What if.” She's parroting. Not really focusing. Her mind is back at the school and on whatever she's headed toward.
“I'll go first. What if you didn't have to live in Pineville? Where would you live?”
“Anywhere else.” Her answer is immediate.
“You really hate Pineville that much?”
“I don't hate Pineville. I hate my life in Pineville.” She blinks hard, wincing.
“Okay. Well, it's your turn to ask me something.”
She barely thinks about it. “If the world ended tomorrow, what would you do?”
“If the world were ending tomorrow, I guess I'd have to kiss you today. Before it's too late.”
She scowls at me. “Stop.”
“Sorry,” I tell her. “This game is all about honesty.”
She shakes her head, setting her eyes on the road again.
“My turn,” I say, smiling now.
“Wait,” she says. “Let me ask another question. I didn't like that last one.”
“All right. Go ahead.” I nod, glad she's getting into the game.
“What do you think about when you're doing something wrong?” she asks.
I stare at her profile, not surprised by the question since she's clearly tense about this trip. But I don't like that she's asking me like I'm a criminal. “That's not a âwhat-if' question.”