Main The Upside of Falling
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Cute and fluffy, perfect for relaxing.
09 February 2021 (03:03)
This book was pretty good. It's a cute chick flick book perfect for relaxing. However, a lot of it was cliche, and it was sometimes boring. I've read many other chick flicks similar to this, so that's probably why I felt this way. Overall, it's a good book if you just want to chill for a bit and read.
29 May 2021 (23:45)
Kinda reminded me of interner fiction stories hehe turned out it was from wattpad
01 July 2021 (12:25)
it's amazing, I really loved it!!!
08 July 2021 (12:41)
Reading it and found it a lil boring from the halfway only not good but no too bad also though we can read it for chilling. Hoping to complete it soon ...
29 July 2021 (10:39)
its a cute story...i Liked it
03 August 2021 (14:40)
Y'all I read this book on wattpad and it was honestly the cutest! I can't believe that it's now an actual novel!!! Yay!!!
22 August 2021 (19:11)
It's good. That's all I have to say, usually, I'd have a lot more than this to type but because although I'm done with the book I still can't decipher whether it should be among the interesting books in my mental list, the ones who just lag there or the boring books... Perhaps the only thing I loved about the book was the totally relatable (but annoyingly weak) female lead character.
25 August 2021 (03:40)
This was cute and simple. I read this in wattpad last year when it was to be published.
26 August 2021 (05:34)
read this on wattpad so it was great
04 September 2021 (06:36)
It's so cute...the storyline and everything is cute...
15 September 2021 (15:06)
This book is legit like my favourite book! I just love it so much! If you have not read this book, you definitely need to because it’s worth it! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️
23 September 2021 (16:24)
what r u waiting for bitches??????????
what r u waiting for bitches??????????
01 October 2021 (14:18)
this is from wattpad... right?!?
26 October 2021 (22:54)
all i can say is, cute a little cliche at times, for those who are stuck in a reading slump, you can literally finish it in under 6 hours(at least i did), super likeable main characters, the plot...meh but a chill read(can't lie, even tho i loved this book for some reason, i was bored af during the latter half of the book.) give it a try mate, you can always drop it if you don't like it.
29 October 2021 (18:31)
CUTE ??. Loved it.
Finding for more like this.
Finding for more like this.
11 November 2021 (10:02)
it may be cliché but well? im all for it
16 November 2021 (15:36)
Yaaaaah! One of the best books I've ever read.
28 November 2021 (11:34)
Isn't this a Wattpad book? ?
01 December 2021 (04:21)
I think this is a good book. I understand that it had been edited before getting printed. But the Wattpad version is the version I like more than the book one. It has more chapters. It has more character. (my opinion)
02 December 2021 (17:33)
is this novel worth reading??
10 December 2021 (10:56)
@Taedee. Yes it was very good.
11 December 2021 (07:02)
Can’t stop loving this book
12 December 2021 (01:25)
T'was fine... didn't love it but good for boredom
23 December 2021 (22:34)
honestly i wasn’t expecting to love it as much as i did!! it was so cuteee i need a brett in my life
30 December 2021 (03:39)
I have read this book on wattpad and I loved it . We all need this book in our shelf
17 February 2022 (13:33)
OMG this was such a cute book. I liked it. It was a fast read - 3.5/5
13 April 2022 (03:10)
someone recommended this from booktok saying it's a cute story with the popular guy and quiet girl trope.
i don't really like that kind of trope as most, if not all, of the popular people i know whether in fiction or real life are bunch of bullies, assholes, and just psychos.
anyway, i'm still gonna give it a try since most of the reviews are good. hope it turns out as what y'all say ~
i don't really like that kind of trope as most, if not all, of the popular people i know whether in fiction or real life are bunch of bullies, assholes, and just psychos.
anyway, i'm still gonna give it a try since most of the reviews are good. hope it turns out as what y'all say ~
19 April 2022 (16:00)
I remember this from wattpad I think. Not the best book but it's a cute, fluffy quick read. It has likeable characters.
25 April 2022 (19:48)
This book is boring, I did not enjoy it at all. It was more focused on characters parents about divorce and separation etc…and not much about falling in love between them (Brett and Becca)
15 May 2022 (08:21)
this book is quite what you expect from wattpad stories… the plot is cliché and the pace was just out of place. It’s not something that would happen 100% personally (like how they got together and how she magically tranformed from introvert to extrovert) which is I do not like in YA contemporary romance. They are fake dating trope tho so ig that’s cute
16 May 2022 (19:35)
Super cute. Not as deep as other books, but still pretty good.
22 May 2022 (02:57)
i'll give this book like 3.5 cuz the story's good but the characters aren't that good I mean they have a story a background but its just hard to connect with them and also it was quite detailed as u would've liked cuz it didn't quite show like the moment the characters started falling for each other and when they realised it and also it kinda felt like I was watching a film or something.
03 June 2022 (10:31)
I feel like the wattpad version is better. it has more chapters, more storylines.
05 June 2022 (01:06)
it wasn't as cliche as i expected it to be! it's cute. worth reading since it doesn't just evolve around becca and brett :>
28 June 2022 (15:11)
first review i wrote and i have to say this book was AMAZING i can read it over and over and never get tierd of it i love the relationship between brett and becca
14 July 2022 (16:02)
I just didn’t feel any chemistry between the two, unfortunately.
24 August 2022 (13:50)
Lil bit cliche but really enjoyed reading it :)
08 September 2022 (18:10)
Dedication To my ten-year-old self, whose dream was to publish a book. Contents Cover Title Page Dedication Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Brett Becca Acknowledgments About the Author Books by Alex Light Back Ad Copyright About the Publisher Becca THERE WERE CERTAIN DAYS I could remember like they were yesterday. The summer morning when my mom finally learned how to bake, which, coincidentally, was also the day our apartment stopped smelling like a smokehouse. Or when I was ten and learned how to ride my bike without training wheels. But remembering wasn’t always a good thing. There were days I would give anything to forget. Like the day my dad left. Or the first time I flunked a math test. Then there were the days that made up most of my life, the ones that were completely unnoteworthy, blending into one another. I had gotten into the habit of ending every day with the same question: Was it worth remembering or forgetting? Today was on a one-way ticket to being forgotten. And first period hadn’t even begun yet. I was sitting with my back against the last standing oak tree at Eastwood High, a book resting on my knees. It was my favorite reading spot on campus. Tucked away behind the football field, it was far enough away for privacy, but not totally isolated. I could still see morning practice and the members of the football team who were running around with their shirts off. That was enough to indicate that fall was nowhere to be found here in sunny Georgia. Although I’m certain they’d still be shirtless even if the weather dropped below zero. Apparently showing off one’s abs trumped potential frostbite. Peering up from my book, I quickly snuck a glance at the team. It was nothing more than a little peek, but it was enough to notice the groups of students that were lined up on the sides of the field. They were mostly girls. I had to give it to them. Getting out of bed early j; ust to watch football practice? It took dedication. Plus, it wasn’t any stranger than getting up early to read in peace. I’d thought my love for romance novels would have died with my parents’ divorce. Instead, it made me crave them more. I was going through two books a week. I could not get enough. It was like, if love couldn’t exist in reality, at least it was alive in fiction. Between the pages it was safe. The heartbreak was contained. There was no aftermath, no shock waves. I mean, there’s a reason all books end right after the couple gets together. No one wants to keep reading long enough to see the happily ever after turn into an unhappily ever after. Right? I jumped when the bell rang. The book fell off my leg and I picked it up quickly before the grass stained the pages green. I shoved my things into my school bag before trudging down the hill, across the field, and into the blue-lockered halls that were now alive with students rushing to make it to first period on time. It was kind of fun to watch. The freshmen ran like their lives literally depended on it. Meanwhile the seniors rested lazily against lockers, like the laws of time didn’t apply to them. I pushed past all of them, winding my way to English class. I didn’t like to be late. Not because I was a Goody Two-shoes or anything. I just despised the way people stared, like arriving after the bell rings makes it open season for dirty looks or something. “Morning, Miss Copper,” I called when I got to class, throwing my teacher a friendly wave. She grunted, turning her eyes back to her computer screen. I smiled to myself. Some things never changed. I could always count on her early morning hostility. When I was at my desk in the back row, I returned to my book. The characters were kissing now. Could love really make the world stop? Why did it make every female character feel alive? Wasn’t she alive before she met him? Or was she in some zombie-like, comatose state? How did love change that, and more importantly, why couldn’t I seem to get enough of this unrealistic crap? My thoughts were interrupted when the two girls in front of me caught my attention. One was pointing to the door, the other was straightening the collar of her shirt while fluffing out her hair. That could only mean one thing . . . Brett Wells walked into class the same way the sun pours in through a window, slow and captivating. Time seemed to stop as he smiled at the teacher and made his way to the desk in front of mine. I glanced at the clock to make sure it hadn’t. Just in case. I had to give it to the guy. I think he may be the one person who could blur the lines between reality and fiction. With that head of hair that was a little more gold than brown, effortless smile, and altogether unwavering perfection, it was easy to lose yourself in his bright blue eyes. He could have walked out of the pages of a book and materialized in front of me. It was no wonder half the student body was in love with him. Even the teachers weren’t immune. I think Miss Copper was blushing. Yuck. Adding to his mystique was the fact that his parents were considered some of the most generous in our entire school. Before junior year ended, rumors started circulating that his family was going to donate thousands of dollars to redo the football field. They were really well off. Why? I didn’t have a clue. But when the school term started a few weeks ago, the goalposts were sparkling, the paint on the field was still fresh, and the bleachers were no longer covered in rust and multicolored gum. The Wellses came through. Now I was eyeing the navy-blue varsity jacket hanging off the back of his chair. It was like a flag, announcing who he was: Brett Wells, captain of the football team. Not that I knew anything about him other than the whispers I heard or the checks his parents liked to write. But part of me wondered if he was as nice as everyone said. Or if his relationship history really was nonexistent. I mean, with a face like that? Doubtful. “Becca Hart?” Miss Copper asked, pulling me out of my thoughts. “Care to answer my question once you’re done with your daydream?” I felt my neck warm first, then my cheeks. A second later it reached my toes. “What was the question?” I managed to choke out. “I asked you to define the concept of star-crossed lovers.” I flipped through the pages of my notebook to yesterday’s lesson. “Star-crossed lovers are two people whose love is doomed,” I read aloud. “There are so many forces working against them that not even the stars can keep them together.” Satisfied, Miss Copper wrote my answer on the blackboard, the scratchy noise of chalk filling the silence that settled over the classroom. When she finally turned back around, my heart rate had returned to normal. Until she said, “And do you think it was worth it? For Romeo and Juliet to fight for each other knowing their love was doomed?” I usually preferred not to speak out in class. But when the topic was about love in literature, I had a bad habit of going off on cynical mini rants. I shook my head. “No, it wasn’t worth it. Falling in love destroyed both of their lives. What is the point of loving someone when you’re certain you can’t be together?” I tapped my pencil against my desk, ignoring the students who turned to stare at me. I knew the expressions on their faces all too well. I was used to it by now. They were the same raised eyebrows my mom and best friend gave me. Only I didn’t want their pity or reassurance because my mind was made up. No room for negotiation here! Love was destructive, dangerous. It was safer on pages, and these books were enough of an experience for me. I mean, look at Romeo and Juliet. Was the play tragic? Sure. But did I have to worry about a century-long feud coming between me and the nonexistent man I loved? Definitely not. When Brett turned to glance at me over his shoulder, those thick eyebrows drawn together, I looked down at my notebook. Numbers filled the back cover, scrawled down in yellow highlighter, blue pen, pencil—whatever I had on hand. It was a countdown until graduation, when I could leave this school and its thousands of unfamiliar faces behind. One more year, I told myself as another hand shot into the air. “I disagree with that,” Jenny McHenry said. The color of her cheerleading uniform matched Brett’s varsity jacket. “Love’s still worth the risk, even if it can lead to heartbreak.” Students were nodding. Miss Copper was too. “It wasn’t just heartbreak,” I added. “Romeo and Juliet died.” “They died for each other,” another student chimed in. “And if they didn’t, the book still would have ended before showing them grow apart. Love is temporary. It’s not some magical cure. That’s what Shakespeare was trying to show. That’s why they died, because they were naïve enough to think their love could end a war.” “It’s easy for you to say that,” Jenny said. The class fell silent. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Love. It’s easy to ridicule it when you’ve never felt it.” Her words kind of hit me like a punch to the throat. I knew she probably didn’t mean anything by them. But the thing was, Jenny and I used to be best friends back in freshman year, when we were both inexperienced fourteen-year-old girls going through the motions. Until summer flew by, sophomore year started, and Jenny got her braces off, grew a few inches (so did other parts of her body), and had no interest in being friends. All of a sudden she was popular. She joined the cheerleading squad and racked up a trail of heartbreaks. After that she started acting all self-righteous, giving out love advice and acting completely condescending that I was single. Like we hadn’t been in the same boat a few months ago. Like having a boyfriend made her an expert in all things romance. Puh-lease. It was bearable at first but now, two years later? It was annoying. Beyond annoying. Anyway, Jenny didn’t know the details of my parents’ divorce. She knew my dad wasn’t around—that much was easy to figure out after spending time at my house. But I never talked to her about it. And she never asked. So her words weren’t some well-planned insult that knew exactly how low to strike. They were a coincidence. A coincidence that still hurt. I raised my hand again. “You don’t have to be in love to understand it.” “I think you do.” Jenny glanced over her shoulder, pointing at the book on my desk. “Books are one thing. But real feelings are different. It’s not the same.” I covered the book quickly with my notepad. Miss Copper cleared her throat, said, “That’s enough, Jennifer,” and passed around a handout, announcing that the rest of the period would be for silent work. She shot me a look when she said “silent” that had me sinking down in my chair. For the rest of the class, I scribbled down halfhearted answers, all the while replaying what Jenny said in my mind. She was wrong. I knew a lot about love. I knew there were two kinds: 1) real love and 2) fictional love. The real kind was what I thought my parents had, pre-divorce. The fictional kind was what I’d preferred since. I shook my head, imagining the negative thoughts tumbling out of my ears, and focused on the worksheet. I glanced up once before the period ended and found Brett looking at me. He had this look on his face like he could read my mind. Or worse, my heart. There was something about it that had me breathing a sigh of relief when the bell rang. Like I said, this day was heading down a one-way street to being forgotten . . . Until it wasn’t. It happened when I was standing at my locker, grabbing my biology textbook. That was when a shadow loomed over me. “Two years later and you’re still obsessed with these books.” Jenny grabbed If I’m Yours from my arms. She looked at the cover and snorted. “Why is he shirtless? And why are her boobs bigger than her head?” I grabbed the book and tucked it back under my arm protectively. “Don’t you find these romance books unrealistic?” she continued. I pretended to be looking for something in my locker. “It’s part of what makes them enjoyable.” “No wonder you were being so pessimistic back in class. If this is what you read, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.” A few boyfriends later and she thought she was a love guru, bestowing her knowledge on inexperienced mortals such as me. How gracious. I wondered if she’d still be saying this if she knew about the divorce. If she knew I had a reason for being a pessimistic downer. If she knew what it felt like to love someone and have them walk out on you. “I have to get to class, Jen. Can you save the unwanted therapy session for tomorrow?” Jenny, not listening, tucked her curls behind her ears and said, “Don’t your parents ever ask you about it?” I froze. It was that word. Parents. The plural. The assumption that there were two of them. “Ask me about what?” “Relationships. I remember your mom used to always talk to us about love back in freshman year. Remember? She always had hearts in her eyes, waiting for one of us to have a crush or something. I wish she could see me now. Huh?” And, oh my gosh, it was just so annoying. Like what was wrong with being single? What was wrong with not having someone’s hand to hold and whatever else couples do? Why couldn’t a seventeen-year-old just be on her own and everyone be okay with that? Without expecting her to fall in love at any given moment? I don’t know what had these next words spilling from my lips so effortlessly. Maybe it was the hurt I still felt over Jenny choosing popularity over me. Maybe it was the years of her snarky comments relating to my lack of relationships. Or maybe it was to protect these books I clung to like a lifeline, the only reminder that some sort of love could exist. Whichever it was, I found myself saying, “My mom doesn’t have to pester me about being in a relationship because I’m in one.” I waited for the ground to begin to shake. For the walls to cave and the ceiling to follow until we were standing in a pile of rubble and LIAR was burned into my forehead. I waited for my former best friend to point out that I was lying. Instead her mouth fell open a little, and I realized how different she looked from the fifteen-year-old girl I used to know. “Who is it?” she asked, seeming genuinely interested. My brain scrambled for something to say. A name. A person. Anything. My palms were sweating and every fictional character I’d read about seemed to vanish from my thoughts. Right when I was about to give up, I felt an arm wrap around my waist. Felt fingers loop through mine. I looked up to find Brett’s eyes. He was smiling. “Hey, you,” he said, staring right at me. I felt like I had just woken up from a nap and missed the past few minutes of my life. “Hi,” I said slowly, staring at his hand in mine. How did that get there? Brett was giving me this look, like c’mon, Becca, get with it. Jenny was glancing between the two of us, looking as confused as I felt. Her eyes zeroed in on Brett’s arm on my waist and she said, “You guys are dating?” Right when I was about to say no, we were not, because that would be completely ridiculous, Brett said, and quite effortlessly, may I add, “Just for a few months now. Since summer break. Right?” He looked down at me, waiting. At this point I was yelling at my brain to send those signals to my mouth that made me, you know, speak. I managed a weak nod. “We wanted to keep it private,” Brett continued, smiling like he was auditioning for a role in a Hollywood film. Jenny stared. My hands shook. And Brett just stood there, looking as calm as water while my insides were a complete tsunami. “There’s no way you two are dating.” The way she said it was so confident, so cruel. And that hurt the most. Because why was that unbelievable? Then all I could remember was how it felt the first day of sophomore year when I saw Jenny in the halls. When I walked to her locker, excited to tell her about summer break, and she looked at me and laughed. “Do I know you?” she had said before turning back to her new friends. Was that what it was? The difference in social groups? Brett couldn’t be interested in a girl who sits against trees and reads. No. He had to date someone of equal social status. Right? Someone popular. Someone like Jenny. Brett shrugged, seeming unfazed by the entire situation, as if this was a part of his regular daily routine. Like if you snuck a glance at his agenda it’d say “pretend to date Becca Hart at ten before heading over to second period.” Easy-peasy. “Is this, like, some act for drama class?” Jenny continued. “It’s not an act,” I said, holding his hand tighter because, why not? Which may have backfired a little because Jenny said, “Prove it.” Then Brett stepped in front of me. His back was to Jenny and his hands were on my cheeks. “Kiss me back,” he whispered when his face was an inch from mine. And then it felt like my heart was tumbling down, down, down. All the way until it hit the center of the earth. And, wow, maybe those books were kind of onto something about this whole kissing-making-time-stop thing because with Brett’s lips on mine, it kind of felt that way. Brett MY FIRST THOUGHT WAS THAT I probably shouldn’t have done that. Becca’s arms were still around my neck, and she was staring up at me with these wide, alert eyes. From this close, I could see the freckles on her nose, and her hair looked like a massive blur, pushed behind her ears like tangles of sunshine. I never go around kissing strangers. I didn’t really go around kissing anyone. I could feel Jenny watching us the entire time but when I turned around, she was gone, halfway down the hallway. I turned back to Becca. “So,” I began. “You okay?” She coughed. Her eyes seemed to land on every spot in the hallway except for my face. “Yeah,” she said. I leaned against the locker, trying to not laugh. “You know, that kiss wasn’t half bad.” At that, her eyes finally landed on mine. Her cheeks turned red. The color was swallowing up her freckles. She picked up her bag off the floor, holding a book in the crook of her arm. “I need to get to third period,” she said. “It’s second period.” “That’s what I said.” She took off down the hall. If she walked any faster, she’d be sprinting. Not the best reaction to a first kiss, for the girl to run away from you. The sun was still high in the sky when school let out. I met Jeff, my closest friend on the team, at my car and we drove back to my house. My parents weren’t home. My dad had taken the day off work to go to some event with my mom. They were always going to events, waving checks around and making a name for themselves in our small town. My dad’s money was part of the reason our football team was the best in the state. It bought us new gear every few months and kept the field in perfect shape. My dad was proud of our team. More proud of me. He played football in high school too. Team captain. His talent earned him a full scholarship to Ohio State, but then my mom got pregnant with me during senior year. My dad gave up football to stay home with her and raise me. That’s why this team meant so much to him, and to me. I was continuing the dream he never had the chance to live out. My mom loved all the perks marriage gave her. The social standing. The money. The clothes her friends envied and the celebrity status her last name carried. My parents never thought they’d be so wealthy after getting pregnant at eighteen. But my dad went back to college after I was born and got a degree in finance. Now he’s the CFO of United Suites, a hotel chain throughout the country. He travels a lot for work. My mom doesn’t like it, but she doesn’t complain. The money’s enough to keep everyone happy, even when he’s gone for weeks. He always comes back for my football games, though. He’s never missed one. Jeff and I were in the backyard, throwing the football back and forth. “There’s no off time if you want to be the best” was what my dad always said. It replayed in my head like a mantra every day, reminding me not to let him down. I was repeating it when Jeff threw the football. I jumped for it and missed. “You’ve had a girlfriend for a day and it’s already ruining your game!” he called. Looked like the news traveled fast around school. I picked up the ball and threw it back. A perfect spiral. “Still better than yours!” It slammed into his chest and he fell backward on the grass, laughing. I jogged over and tossed him a water bottle. “When did that start?” he asked. “What?” “Your”—he waved his hand around—“relationship.” “Oh. End of summer.” The words came out quickly. I hadn’t even decided if I was going to go along with this relationship yet. Girlfriends weren’t my thing. Neither was high school drama. “And you didn’t think to tell me or the team?” I shrugged. “You know how people talk at school. I don’t want my relationship being gossiped about.” “Everyone is already talking about you,” he pointed out. “Yeah, for carrying the team to finals,” I teased, slapping his shoulder. “Not for who I date.” Truth was, I’d never dated in high school. There were girls, crushes here and there, but it never turned into anything more. I was always so focused on football, keeping my head in the game to make my parents proud, that I never had time for dating. I wasn’t into the whole one-night thing like the other guys on the team. I wanted the kind of love my parents had—real love—but I wasn’t in any rush to find it. The gate opened then and my parents walked into the backyard, hand in hand, looking way too dressed up to be standing beside Jeff and me, drenched in sweat. My mom’s heels were sinking into the grass with every step. “Dad!” I grabbed the football and jumped up. “We were just taking a quick break. Wanna join?” He slapped my shoulder. My mom was smiling, gazing between the two of us. “Next time,” he said. “Your dad has to pack, Brett. He’s leaving tonight for New York,” said Mom. “But the first game of the season is on Friday. You can’t miss it.” I hated sounding like a whiny five-year-old, but my dad never missed a game. “My flight lands Friday morning. I’ll be there.” I smiled, breathing again, and watched them walk back inside. I never cared for the money or the status. I loved my parents and our family. The rest was a bonus. Jeff was looking up at me oddly. “What?” I asked. He shook his head. “Nothing. I should go. My mom needs me home to babysit before she leaves for the night shift.” I nodded, throwing him the keys to my car. “Take it.” “Brett—” “Take it,” I insisted. “I’ll pick it up tomorrow before school.” He smiled, spinning the keys around his finger. “Thanks, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I headed back inside. My mom was in the kitchen, cutting up carrots and something green and leafy. She tossed it all in the blender, poured it into a cup, and slid it across the counter. “Thanks.” I drank all of it, trying not to breathe in the smell. “You look different.” She fluffed out her hair. “I dyed it a shade darker this morning. Your father thought it would look nice.” I nodded, unquestioning. “We’re leaving for the airport in an hour if you want to come.” I did . . . but I needed some time to think over what happened today in the hall. I shook my head. “Tell me when you’re leaving so I can say bye to Dad.” My mom nodded, then walked around the counter and wrapped me in her arms. She was tiny, barely five feet tall. My dad always said her personality was bigger than her. I never really understood that, though. She wasn’t very talkative, unless they were around other people. My mom was quiet. Even her smiles seemed to hide secrets. “Everything okay, Mom?” “Everything is great. Go study.” I headed upstairs, grabbed my laptop, and searched for Becca’s online profile. It came up instantly and I sent her a friend request. She had under one hundred friends. Okaaaay. All her interests were book-related—bookstores, authors, fan accounts. Her display picture was her and a girl with brown hair smiling together in a kitchen. They were baking, with flour and frosting on their faces. I kept scrolling. Senior at Eastwood High School, Crestmont, Georgia, USA. I scrolled some more; there were hardly any posts. There! Four months ago, someone asked for her cell number for a group project. I typed it into my phone and hit save. I told myself it wasn’t really creepy, since we’d already kissed. Right? I was staring at my phone, contemplating calling her, when my bedroom door opened and my dad walked in. “We’re about to leave,” he said, walking to the edge of my bed. “Are you talking to a girl?” I put my phone down. “No. No girl.” “You know,” he said, sitting down, “your mother and I met when we were your age. Everyone told us we wouldn’t beat the odds, getting married so young, but look at us. We’re here. We’ve got you, a great life, and enough money to give you a good future.” I smiled. “I know, Dad.” He always went off like this, talking about the past. If there was one thing my parents were proud of aside from me, it was their money. Their well-earned lifestyle, as they liked to call it. “Playing college ball is going to be your priority once you graduate, Brett. Right now, in high school? This is your prime. You need to get out there. I love your mom, but I think we both have regrets about high school and what we missed out on.” I was confused and a little uncomfortable. “What are you saying?” “I’m saying, you’ll have the time to settle down when you’re older. You should be dating now, playing ball. You’ve never brought a girl home. . . .” My father’s voice trailed off, waiting for me to correct him. He was right. I never had. “Are you dating anyone right now?” he continued. “Any girl you’re interested in?” The problem with having a dad you idolized was that you never wanted to let him down. Every test I aced, touchdown I scored—my dad bragged about all of them. My accomplishments were his accomplishments. What he couldn’t do in high school was what he expected me to do in high school. So when he asked if there was a girl, saying yes technically wouldn’t be a lie. . . . I grabbed my phone and pulled up Becca’s profile again. “Her name’s Becca,” I said, showing him the screen. He took his glasses off and squinted his eyes against the light. He slapped my shoulder. “When do we get to meet her?” “When you get back from your trip,” I said. My dad said he was proud of me before he left, rolling his suitcase behind him. I fell back on my bed and groaned. Within a five-minute conversation I’d manage to dig this shallow, fake-girlfriend-sized hole into a full-out grave. There was only one thing to do now: fully commit. I grabbed my phone and texted Becca’s number. Hey, it’s your boyfriend, I typed. Need a ride to school tomorrow? For fake-dating purposes, I added last minute. Then a plain smiley face. No wink. Too creepy. She responded instantly. Brett? she wrote back. How many fake boyfriends do you have? I typed back, laughing. Very funny. I asked about the ride again, then for her address. She agreed, writing back the address for an apartment building and to meet her on the street. I told her I’d see her tomorrow, and that we’d work out the details of . . . whatever this was. An hour later, my mom was back from the airport. She stopped by my room to say good night, then headed to bed. I heard the sound of the television playing and the water running. Weird. I listened closer, called her name a few times. She didn’t answer. When the water stopped some time later, I went to check on her. She was lying in bed sleeping, dozens of tissues bunched up on the empty side of the bed. My dad’s side. She cried sometimes when he left. I figured it was because she missed him while he was gone. The next morning, she was always better. I grabbed a garbage can from the bathroom, cleaned up the tissues, turned off the TV, then headed back to bed. I needed to get some sleep. Something told me tomorrow would be crazy. Becca I STAYED UP LATE WRITING in my notebook. It was 1:00 a.m.; my eyes were strained and I couldn’t stop yawning. My mom had fallen asleep hours ago. I could hear her snoring through the wall. The reason for my sudden lack of sleep was a full-page pro-con list for continuing on with this fake relationship. “When in doubt, list it out” was my go-to motto. At least in my head. PROS: Brett’s cute (obvious? Yes. Superficial? Very), Mom will finally lay off about me being single, Jenny’s snarky comments cease (sounds better than saying it’s a revenge scheme), will gain secondhand popularity! (just kidding), maybe finally attend a football game? CONS: Brett’s cute, like, too cute (what do I say to him? What do we have in common?), Mom will also be waaaaay too invested in this relationship (note: keep this a secret from Mom), Jenny is scary, popularity means being social, I know nothing about football. Clearly, I was tied between the two. When the clock showed it was nearly two, I decided to sleep on it. I’d see how I was feeling the next morning, talk it over with Brett, and we could decide together. I mean, he was as much a part of this as I was. I already had no idea why he kissed me today; I ran away too quickly to ask. What did he plan on getting out of this relationship anyway? I wished I could shut my brain off. I shut my eyes instead. This could be tomorrow’s problem. The next morning my stomach was in knots. And those knots were tied into another set of knots. Now that my frenzied excitement from that kiss had faded, I was stuck staring straight into reality: that I had gotten myself into a fake relationship with Brett Wells. No pro-con list could save me now. I texted my best friend, Cassie, an SOS, then got ready for school. One look in the mirror told me staying up late had not been a good idea (hello, eye bags), and my hair was sticking up in every direction, like a flock of birds had built a nest in there while I slept. Overall, not a good start to my day. The morning got slightly better when I walked into a kitchen covered in cupcakes. The counter, the table, and even the stovetop—all cupcakes. The frosting dripped off the edges, leaving sugary globs everywhere. There was a pink note with my name scrawled on it in the middle of the table. I plucked it up and licked the frosting off my finger. A cupcake for my cupcake. Have a great day at school. Love, Mom. I smiled at the note my mom left. It was how every morning started since my father left. There had been hundreds of these notes now. At first, my mother’s baking was horrible. Like, inedible levels of horror. She made frosting from salt instead of sugar. Her pancakes could dent a wall if you threw one hard enough. But she didn’t stop. I think baking was her therapy. It was all she did after he left. Like she had to be strong for me, so she bottled up all the pain, and the only way she could release it was by mixing flour and eggs into a bowl and whisking all her sadness away. That first summer, she’d drive us to the bookstore and fill her bag with books about cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and everything sweet. Once she got home, she’d flip to a page at random and spend the rest of the night baking. Eventually her skills improved. She became good enough to open her own bakery in town. Her friend and business partner, Cara, handled the business and my mom handled the baking. Her sadness was baked into cupcakes and served in pink-and-silver wrappers. The front door slammed open and Cassie whipped into the kitchen like a hurricane, wearing her pastel-pink Hart’s Cupcakes uniform polo. Surprisingly, Cara agreed to use our last name for the business. The first person employed was Cassie, her daughter. I helped out during the summer when school was out. Being a year older and having already graduated, Cassie was working full-time. She was in it more for the free dessert than the money. “Cupcakes this morning!” she yelled, grabbing one in each hand and taking a bite. “Can you believe it’s been two years and I’m not sick of these yet? “So,” she said, licking frosting off her finger, “you sent an SOS. What happened?” I explained the whole Brett situation. I told her about English class, Jenny, the kiss, and my hasty getaway. By the time I finished, Cassie was speechless. In two years of being friends, I’d never seen her speechless. “Wow,” she finally said. “You need to tell your mom. She’s going to freak.” “My mom doesn’t need to know her daughter’s first boyfriend is fake,” I said. It was a bit embarrassing. “Then leave out the whole fake part. It’ll be nice to have someone, don’t you think? Like, to be with at school? You’ve been a hermit ever since I graduated last year.” “Not a hermit,” I added. “A hermit,” she repeated. “The only person you hang out with is me and those books.” “Then doesn’t that make you a hermit too?” Cassie shrugged, unwrapping her second cupcake. “You may have a point. You’re a hermit by choice, though. It’s different. You choose to isolate yourself from other people. I, on the other hand, don’t choose to. People, for some reason, don’t like me.” “Maybe it’s because you barge into their apartment and eat all their food.” When she smiled, there was chocolate stuck between her front teeth. “Definitely not that.” Cassie stood up, washed her hands, then followed me into the hallway. “Maybe it was the speech you gave at graduation?” I asked, watching the smile stretch across her face. “You mean when I told my entire class I hated them?” “That’s the one.” “My dad always said to go out with a bang.” We both laughed. It was too ridiculous not to. Our moms always said we were an odd pairing. I tried hard to go unnoticed while Cassie went out of her way to stand out. But when we met two years ago when the bakery opened, we clicked. “Today’s going to be weird. Read any books on fake dating?” she asked. I shook my head. “I wish.” My phone buzzed. Cassie squealed. Goodbye, three years of living life under the high school radar. I had mastered the art in sophomore year: eat lunch alone, always have headphones or a book on hand, don’t make eye contact longer than one second, place your bag on empty chairs to avoid people sitting beside you—the list went on. I was a pro. And all that ended today. Now there were butterflies living on the knots in my stomach. “Is it him?” Cassie yelled, staring at my phone. It was. The message said: Here. The butterflies multiplied. “He’s here,” I repeated. Cassie’s hands were on my back, pushing me out the door and into the hall. “Have fun,” she said. “Text me hourly updates and the names of any student that gives you a hard time.” “Why? So you can fight them with your noodle arms?” “Violence is not my weapon of choice, dear Becca. Cupcakes are.” I raised an eyebrow. “Sometimes students stop by Hart’s Cupcakes after class. I’ll admit, it’s another reason I don’t enjoy working there, but now it’ll prove useful. So send me some names and I’ll spit in their frosting.” “You’re disgusting.” Cassie blew me a kiss, yelled, “Have fun with your boyfriend!” then shut the door to my apartment in my own face. I made a mental note to tell my mom to change the locks—or ask her why Cassie even had a key—and stepped into the elevator. My heart lurched into my throat. Not so much from the elevator ride, but rather because of the boy waiting for me downstairs, whose hand I’d have to hold and face I’d have to kiss to sell some lie I never should have even told. God. What had I done? And what was Brett possibly getting out of this arrangement? It wasn’t like his popularity status needed a boost. Come to think of it, it would probably take a steep hit. By the time I was standing outside, I was sweating. Partly from the sun, which, of course, was placed strategically behind Brett’s car, making him glow. And of course he drove a freaking convertible. And of course he was leaning against it with his arms crossed, like some magazine ad come to life. Why couldn’t he drive something normal? Less cool? Like a minivan? The ones with the trunk that opens when you kick it? Our eyes met and he grinned. “Morning, girlfriend,” he said. When he leaned in to kiss my cheek, I mentally reminded my brain to tell my heart to continue beating. “I brought you something,” I said, reaching into my bag. His grin grew until it took up his entire face. “You did?” I handed him the cupcake I’d snuck when Cassie wasn’t looking. “My mom baked it,” I explained. His gaze traveled from the cupcake to my eyes, then back again. He was looking at me like I’d just handed him a million dollars instead of a half-squished cupcake. “Thanks, Becca.” He then proceeded to shove the entire thing into his mouth in that way guys do. “This is really good,” he said, crumbs falling onto his shirt. I got into the car, shrieked when my legs touched the burning hot leather seat, then silently reprimanded myself when Brett started laughing. We were driving through the streets, and I was racking my brain for something to say, when Brett asked, “Your mom bakes a lot?” I’d thought we’d dive right into the so-what-the-hell-is-going-on-with-us conversation and skip the small talk, but guess not. “Yeah. Every morning I wake up and my kitchen is covered in cupcakes, pancakes—pretty much any type of cake. She’s obsessed.” He nodded. “That’s really cool. My mom never bakes. She’s more of the wine-and-cheese-tray type.” I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that so I just nodded. We reached a red light. Brett turned in his seat to face me. “As your boyfriend, do I get a cupcake every morning?” I must’ve looked surprised, because he said, “What?” “I wasn’t sure if you wanted to . . . continue this.” The light turned green. “Do you?” he asked. “I’m not completely against it.” Brett laughed. It was contagious. It felt good to laugh with him, like some of the awkwardness had lifted. “First you run away when I kiss you. Now you want to break up with me when we haven’t even been dating for a day. Way to break a guy’s heart, Hart.” He poked my leg. “See what I did there?” I was beginning to understand why so many people wanted to be around him. Maybe the rumors were true: Brett really was just a nice guy. Was that why he’d helped me yesterday? “So you want to go through with this?” I asked. “Pretend to be dating? Fool everyone at school?” “If I get more cupcakes out of it, sure.” He winked at me. His eyes were clear in the sunlight. I wanted to ask what else he was getting out of this relationship. I mean, my mom’s cupcakes were good. But they weren’t that good to warrant this entire mess. But then we pulled into the school parking lot, and the butterflies in my stomach I momentarily forgot about were back. Trillions now. I gulped. Opened the window. Closed the window. Breathe, lungs. Breathe. “Um,” I said, completely stalling. “We should, like, figure out the rules to all of this.” “Can we do that later? I don’t think you want to be late to first period.” I glanced at the time. Class started in five minutes and I still had to stop at my locker. Just picturing Miss Copper’s glare had me hopping out of the car at full speed. Brett ran around to my side, grabbed my shoulder. I think he could see how panicked I felt. “It’ll be okay,” he said. “Miss Copper scares me,” I said. “I don’t want to be late.” “Right. That’s why you’re freaking out.” I sighed. From the way Brett was standing and how close he was, the parking lot was entirely blocked from my view. If people were staring, I couldn’t see them. But I knew they could see me. See us. What would they say? What would they think? Would they even believe that Brett Wells would date me? I was completely overwhelmed. It took every ounce of determination to throw my backpack over my shoulders and take a step toward the door. “I know you might be used to all this attention, Brett. But I’m not. This is new for me, and it’s terrifying. I just . . . need a minute.” “That’s cool. We can wait. Miss C doesn’t scare me,” he added. I breathed through my nose, then through my mouth. I counted to ten, closed my eyes, and focused on my feet planted on the ground. When I opened them, Brett was watching me. He didn’t look annoyed, though. He was just standing there, waiting, that hopeful look on his face. “Ready?” he asked, holding out his hand. “No,” I said, taking it anyway. Then he was tugging me to the front door. “I don’t really like the attention either,” he said while we walked, probably trying to distract me from the students. I stared directly in front of me, not letting my eyes wander. “That was the one reason I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with this. I don’t like people talking about my dating life. It’s none of their business.” “Yeah,” I said, half paying attention. “That makes sense.” He was chuckling, literally dragging me through the hall. The first person I saw was Jenny, standing beside the office with her cheerleading squad. I quickly looked away, following the first rule in how-to-live-life-under-the-radar. Brett was oblivious, towing me behind him as he moved through the halls. A personal human shield. It took me a minute to stop staring at my feet and realize we were standing in front of my locker. I grabbed my books in record speed and made a dash for English class. At this point, Brett probably thought I was insane, which, for the record, may be partially true. Class wasn’t as bad as I expected. We made it in time, so no glaring today. Brett tried to sit at the empty desk beside mine, but it turns out not even his charms were exempt from the horror of assigned seating. Brett lasted a whole two minutes before Miss Copper yelled for him to return to his seat. The class laughed, and it felt a little easier to breathe after that. Aside from Jenny turning to stare at me every once in a while, there were no disturbances. No one commented on yesterday’s conversation. No one grilled me about Brett. It was just another day in English class. Talk about anticlimactic. The first half of the day was smooth sailing, until lunch came around. I used to sit in the cafeteria with Jenny, just the two of us. We’d each buy something different to eat and share it. For sophomore and junior year, I ate with Cassie. After she graduated, I started eating outside alone. There were a few dozen picnic tables scattered across the yard. You had to get there pretty early to grab a good spot, which was why I opted to bring a lunch instead of waiting in the cafeteria line. There was one table hidden under a tree that was my favorite. I was planning on eating there today until Brett texted, saying he saved me a spot inside. I mean, my expectations weren’t even that high. I figured he saved the two of us a table, probably in the corner so we could talk this all over without someone hearing. Instead, I walked into the cafeteria to find him sitting smack in the center. It was the jock table, lined with every member of the football team. The cheerleading squad sat at the next table over. Jenny et al. I lasted all of one second before dashing toward the exit doors. I mean, come on! Did Brett really expect me to sit with his teammates, listen to them debate football game plays and talk about how we supposedly started dating in the summer? Maintaining the facade of our relationship was not worth that level of torture. I took a seat at my usual table, pulled out my sandwich and book, and started to read. I wasn’t even through the first page when Brett texted. Where are you? it read. Outside, I typed back. . . . Why? I shut my phone off and returned to my book. A minute later, a shadow loomed over me. “You stood me up,” Brett said, stealing one of my grapes. “I don’t like eating inside.” I placed the bookmark on the page and looked up. “And I really don’t want to eat at the jock table, Brett.” “Oh.” His eyebrows drew together. “I didn’t even think of that. Give me a second.” Before I could ask why, he was running away, back through the cafeteria doors. A moment later he burst through them, holding a tray of food in one hand and his backpack in the other, this huge smile on his face. “I’m not letting you eat out here alone,” he said, taking a seat. “We have an image to uphold, sweetie.” I wrinkled my nose. “Sweetie?” “No? You don’t like it? What about babe? Baby?” I laughed, swatting his hand away when he reached for another grape. “First rule is nicknames are not allowed.” Brett nodded. “Becca it is. What are the other rules?” “No PDA,” I said. He pouted. “Was the kiss really that bad?” “I don’t like the staring.” “We’ll come back to that,” he said. “You need to come to my football games every Friday.” “Every Friday? What about every other Friday?” “Every Friday,” he repeated. “Nonnegotiable. And I want you in the stands screaming my name. Remind me to give you my spare jersey.” “Then I’m not eating lunch inside the cafeteria.” “Oh, I already knew that much,” he said, taking a bite of his hamburger. “I agree to relocate to this table. What about some kissing? Hand holding? No one’s gonna believe we’re dating if there’s three feet of space between us at all times.” I tried to play it cool. My face was saying, “Yeah, I kiss boys for fun all the time. Done it loads. Experienced kisser? That’s me, nice to meet you,” while my insides were that black-and-white static sound televisions make when the channel doesn’t work. “Fine. Lessen the space and minimal touching. Got it.” Brett grinned. “The best part.” I rolled my eyes. “We need to have the same story about how this started,” I said. “We probably should have discussed this yesterday.” “I was too busy running away from you,” I half joked. Brett laughed. “Back to this story; what are you thinking?” It took a second for my brain to sift through every romance book I’ve read and piece together a situation that could work. “We met at the beginning of summer break,” I said. “I was in the park reading and you were playing football.” “And I was obviously shirtless,” he added. “Obviously.” “Then you fell madly in love with me—” he said, ducking when I threw a grape at his head. Then I froze because I had just thrown a grape at Brett’s head. But he was grinning, so I don’t think he felt weird about it. “Nice throw. So, one glance at you with your nose buried in a book and my heart was a goner? And we kept our relationship a secret because you didn’t want all the attention once school started?” I nodded, absent-mindedly toying with the pages of my book. “Then I guess that’s how our love story began,” I said. “Now we just need to see how it ends.” I only then noticed how long Brett’s eyelashes were. They grazed his cheeks every time he blinked, long enough to cause a windstorm of their own. Blink. Blink. Blink. They kept batting as we stared at each other. He had this goofy cartoon smile on his face. The sun disappeared after that, hiding behind a cloud. He looked different out of the sunlight. It felt like the perfect time to ask the question that had been weighing on me all day. “Why are you doing this?” I finally asked. “You know most girls and plenty of guys in this school would date you. Like, real dating. So why me? Why fake it?” “I could ask you the same thing,” he said, resting his elbows on the table and planting his chin on top, “but I think your answer has something to do with what you said in English class yesterday, about how dangerous love is.” I shrugged. “My parents had a weird divorce. What’s your excuse?” “The opposite. My parents have this perfect marriage—” “So it seems.” “See? Everyone knows about it. It’s like some citywide Cinderella story or something. My dad always gives me these talks on how I should date in high school, play the field like he never could.” “Why couldn’t he?” “My mom got pregnant with me when she was a senior. My dad gave up football, his scholarship—everything for her. For me. It’s like he wants me to continue living from where he left off. You know?” I nodded, thinking about my mom’s persistence that I date and find the love she lost. “Yeah,” I said. “I really do.” “But I’m not interested in dating in high school,” Brett continued. “I’ve got good grades and a good thing going with football. I have my parents and that’s enough for me. I always wanted to leave settling down for after college. But my dad doesn’t see it like that.” “So a fake girlfriend is just what you need. Keeps your dad happy and takes the pressure off you.” “Kind of makes me sound like a dick,” he said. “I don’t think so,” I said. “In a way, it’s like we’re mutually using each other. And we can just be friends along the way.” Brett pointed at my sandwich. “You gonna finish that?” I pushed the tray across the table to him. “Thanks. So what’s up with you and Jenny? That argument was intense.” I explained the odd, unspoken tension we’d had since freshman year. Then Brett said, “That kiss must’ve really pissed her off.” “I think so.” Brett finished the sandwich, brushed his hands on his T-shirt, then reached across the table. “So we’ll pretend to be dating for a few months, then have a mutual breakup, and part as friends. Deal?” he asked. For once, I tried not to overthink this. I shook his hand. “Deal.” Brett grinned. “Great,” he said, then pointed back to the book between us. “So, if this were one of your books, who would we be?” “That depends,” I said. “What kind of book is it? A romance? Mystery? Fairy tale?” “Fairy tale,” Brett said very seriously. “I’m guessing you want to be the prince?” “Only if you’re the princess.” I left school that day with a smile on my face. I wasn’t the best actress—I nearly failed sophomore drama class—but, together, we could pull this off. Brett seemed to be nailing the fake-boyfriend role already. I was starting to think he’s one of those people who’s naturally good at everything. After last period, Brett met me at my locker and offered to drive me home. I refused, saying I wanted to walk. My mind was nearly reaching overdrive, and I needed a few minutes to be alone and think the day over. This was only day one and I was overwhelmed. Why couldn’t I just stick to reading romance books? Why did my life have to become one? Luckily, like my romance novels, this was all fake. And there was no danger in that. It was kind of like getting the best of both worlds: a relationship without the risk of heartbreak. Lost in thought, I didn’t even think about where my feet were taking me until I was passing the park that connected to the street my father lived on. Part of me was ashamed to know the directions to his house by heart. I saw the address once on a letter that came in the mail addressed to my mom. I think it was a check he sent for child support. I scribbled the address down, then pretended I never saw it. I was thirteen the first time I walked here. The house was empty. There were no cars in the driveway. I felt so guilty that I didn’t return for another year. It was like a betrayal to my mom to be here, chasing after him when he left us. The next time, he was sitting on his porch. I had to hide behind a tree so my dad wouldn’t see me. I started visiting once a month after that. Eventually there was another woman. She’d open the door when his car pulled into the driveway and kiss him hello. She had long, curly black hair. Nothing like my mom’s short blonde bob. I never told her he was dating someone. I wasn’t sure if she wanted to know. Or if she even cared anymore. Now I was standing at the end of the street, six houses down, behind a bush that came halfway up my knees. His house was on the corner, with a wraparound porch and a two-car garage that was painted the color of the sky. I never got close enough that my father could look out a window and spot me. I didn’t want to risk him seeing me. Ever. I wasn’t entirely sure my dad would even recognize me now. I had changed a lot in five years. At least on the outside. It still hurt to think about how he left. How he never looked back. My mom got full custody of me too. They never even went to court. He just agreed. They signed the papers and then it was done. I didn’t really understand it when I was twelve. I thought I’d spend weekends with my dad and weekdays with my mom like I’d seen in movies. But then months passed by and he never picked me up. Whenever I asked my mom, she said he was busy. I later learned my dad wanted what was considered a “fresh start.” And you couldn’t have that with a twelve-year-old, a walking reminder of your past. The hardest part was that it was so unexpected. My parents never fought. There weren’t any signs. Then again, I was a kid and probably would have missed them anyway. But there was nothing that stood out in my mind. I remembered my mom leaving for work in the morning—back when she was a nurse—and my dad kissing her goodbye. He was home during the day and worked night shifts at a warehouse in town. He picked me up from school. He bought me ice cream in the summer and hot chocolate in the winter. There were no bad memories. No moment that I can pinpoint and say yeah, that’s where everything went wrong. I never bothered to ask my mom either. We never talked about it. I was too scared to hurt her. So we dodged the subject by baking and reading and I was left always wondering why he left. Maybe that’s why I still came here, for answers. I waited twenty minutes (it was always twenty minutes) for his car to pull into the driveway. He stepped out wearing a gray suit, glasses low on his nose, and was barely up the driveway before the front door was pulled open and the woman walked out. I still didn’t know her name. I wondered if he knew her before the divorce, or if they met after. Maybe she was the reason he left in the first place. My dad smiled as he kissed her, then both their hands went to her pregnant belly that had grown a little since I was last here. I watched as he got onto his knees and kissed her stomach. I wondered if a day would come when he’d abandon that child too. I really hoped it didn’t. I hoped he’d choose to stick around so that little baby would never have to go through what I did. I hoped they’d never have to hide behind a bush and watch their father love his new family the way he couldn’t love his old one. It was only when the door shut and they went inside that I began to walk home. That night, when my mother asked me where I’d gone after school, I lied. Brett EVERY THURSDAY ENDED THE SAME at Eastwood High, with a pep rally after last period. All students filed into the bleachers after the bell rang. The rally would open with the cheerleaders doing a routine and the football team sitting in the front row. There was always some sort of announcement Principal Marcus had to make. Last week, it was that our vice principal was retiring. It would have been sad if the cheerleaders hadn’t done a routine directly after. Today I was running late. Becca agreed we’d go together but she still hadn’t shown up at her locker, where we agreed to meet. Where are you? I texted, bouncing on the balls of my feet impatiently. Library, she sent back, almost done. I could hear the band begin to play as I ran down the hall, toward the stairs that led to the library. I found her sitting in the back corner against a shelf with her legs crossed and a book on her ankles. Lost in whatever she was reading, she didn’t notice me standing there until my shoes were touching hers. “Hey,” I said. She jumped and shut the book quickly. “Hi. Sorry. I was trying to finish this.” I sat beside her and picked up the book in her lap. “Romeo and Juliet? You’re still reading this?” “What do you mean still?” She grabbed it from my hands and tucked it under her arm. “We have a test on it next week.” I nodded, pretending like I knew that. “Did you want to leave?” “The band just started. We still have a few minutes,” I said. “Keep reading.” “Okay.” Becca held that book more carefully than I’ve seen people hold babies. I couldn’t understand why—it was already ripped and frayed at the edges. She read with her finger tracing each line as she went. I had a strange urge to ask her to read out loud, but I was sure that violated the library’s number one rule: being quiet. “I can’t read when you’re staring at me,” she said. “I’m not staring at you.” She looked up quickly and caught me. “I was staring at the book. It looks like it’s been through a lot.” “When was the last time you were in here?” she asked. I thought about it for a second. “Freshman year.” She rolled her eyes. “Wow. Wow.” “Is that the kind of girlfriend you want to be?” I joked. “A judgmental one?” “You’re just . . . such a jock,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll have you know I’ve read all the Harry Potters.” She did not look impressed. At all. “That doesn’t count. Everyone’s read Harry Potter. It’s practically a childhood rite of passage.” She had a point. Becca reached for her backpack and our knees bumped against each other’s. I stared at her socks sticking out from her sneakers as she packed up her things. They were white, with cat ears on the top. I was laughing when she said, “You know, no one else is in here.” “So?” “So we don’t have to pretend to be dating when no one’s around to see us.” Another solid point. Becca gathered her things and we headed out into the hall. I was leading her toward the door to the field when she tugged on my arm, stopping me. “What?” I asked, a little annoyed. I wanted to be at the pep rally with my team. “Is it cool if I head home and skip the rally?” She was chewing on her lip like she was afraid to ask me. “I have a calculus test on Monday and I want to start studying.” “Becca, today’s Thursday.” She crossed her arms, eyes narrowing. “Exactly. I should’ve started studying a week ago.” I couldn’t decide if she was being sarcastic. There were hundreds of students in the bleachers already. I doubted anyone would notice if she wasn’t there. . . . “Okay,” I agreed. “You’re still coming to my game tomorrow?” “Of course.” I smiled and took a step backward. “Have fun studying, then.” Becca waved and headed down the hall, that book still in her hand. I ran onto the field a few minutes late. The principal was talking and Jeff was waving me down, an empty spot beside him. I snuck in as incognito as possible. “Hey,” I whispered. “You’re late,” he whispered back. “Was with Becca.” Jeff gave me a look, then turned his attention back to the principal. He probably took that as meaning we were hiding somewhere making out, not sitting in the back of a library. I didn’t correct him. At least it added some credibility to this. The rally ended in an hour, and I was halfway back to my car when my phone rang. It was my mom. I answered on the second ring. “Hey, Mom. What’s up?” “Everything okay?” she asked. “You’re usually home by now.” I didn’t miss the change in her voice. It happened whenever my dad was gone. She sounded kind of lonely. Maybe a little sad. I reminded her about the pep rally and promised I’d be home soon. I was driving through town when I spotted a bakery and impulsively pulled over. Maybe some desserts would cheer my mom up. A bell rang when I opened the door and the smell of vanilla hit me. There were tables lining the wall and a huge glass dessert display. The place was empty. I walked to the counter and rang the bell. An older woman with short blonde hair came out from the back, smiling. “What can I get you, hon?” I wasn’t sure what my mom liked since she never really ate dessert, so I got her an assortment. Some cupcakes, some fruit tarts. A few croissants and these white balls with jam in the middle. “Those are my daughter’s favorite,” the woman said when I pointed at them. “Then I’ll take three,” I said. “Do you have any cannoli?” I think I may have seen my mom eat those once at a wedding. “We’re making a fresh batch now. They should be ready.” She turned around and called, “Bells, bring me out some cannoli!” I smiled and handed her a few bills. “Thank you.” The woman, whose name tag read AMY, was dropping the change into my hand when someone walked out of the back. I looked up and froze. It was Becca. She had flour all over her face and was wearing a pink Hart’s Cupcakes T-shirt. “Becca?” I said slowly. She dropped the entire tray of cannoli on the floor. The woman, who could only be her mother based on how similar they looked, spun around and shrieked, clamping her hand over her mouth. “Becca!” she yelled. “What happened?” “I—” Her cheeks were bright red. My hand was still outstretched over the counter, money in my palm. “Just clean this up. I’ll go get more.” Then her mom turned to face me and said, “I’m so sorry, hon. Give me a minute.” As soon as she disappeared into the back, Becca ran to the counter. “What are you doing here?” she whisper-yelled, leaning across and pointing her finger at me. I held my hands up. “I came to buy some stuff for my mom. I didn’t know you worked here . . . Bells.” “It’s a nickname,” she hissed, “and my mom owns this bakery!” She kept glancing frantically behind her shoulder. “Hart’s Cupcakes? Becca Hart? You didn’t piece the two together?” Oh. “I thought you were studying for calculus,” I pointed out. She ducked behind the counter and began picking up the broken cannoli shells. “Need some help?” “No,” she snapped, then sighed. “Sorry. I was studying, but my mom called me and asked me to come in and help her. There’s a big last-minute catering order for tomorrow morning.” At that, her mom came back in, holding another tray of cannoli. She took three and placed them in a box. “On the house, hon. Sorry about that.” She looked between us then, like she’d just realized we’d been talking. “Do you two know each other?” she asked, her face lighting up. I held out my hand. “Yeah, we do. I’m Brett. Her boy—” Becca jumped up from the floor and screamed, “Friend! He’s Brett. My friend, Mom.” Before I even had a chance to be offended, the door to the back opened and a girl with brown hair stepped out—the girl from Becca’s profile picture. She took one look at me, then Becca, then her mom. She grinned, leaning against the wall to watch. The whole situation was weird, and I was happy when Becca’s mom handed me the box of pastries and said, “Nice to meet you, Brett. Enjoy, and sorry again.” I walked out of the bakery in a daze. Becca never mentioned she wanted to keep us a secret from her mother. But that was clear now. Crystal clear. And her mom owned a bakery? I really knew nothing about the girl I was supposed to be dating. That had to change. No one was going to believe this otherwise. Then I remembered my game tomorrow night and how my parents were going to be there. With Becca. I crossed my fingers and hoped that would go well. And that Becca wouldn’t back out last minute. Becca FOUR HOURS HAD PASSED SINCE the whole Brett bakery fiasco and my mom still hadn’t stopped talking about it. Not because she was mad I dropped an entire tray of cannoli, made from her grandmother’s secret recipe. I would have preferred that. Instead she’d been talking about Brett, all googly-eyed and weird. We were closing up the bakery, just the two of us. Cassie had already left after wishing me luck. She was right. I needed it. My mom’s brain had entered that obsessive love zone and there was no escaping until she got it out of her system. “How do you know each other again?” she asked while sweeping the floor. “English class,” I said for the third time. “He’s your age?” “Yes, Mom.” “Does he have a girlfriend?” “Mom!” I threw the wet rag at her. “Can you stop? Please?” “All I’m saying,” she continued, not listening, “is that it sounded like he started to say something before you yelled about you two being friends.” She eyed me suspiciously over the broom. “I don’t know. I’m not a mind reader,” I mumbled. She laughed. “Right, Bells.” I’d be lying if I said part of me wasn’t considering telling her Brett and I were dating (leaving out the fake part, duh). Mom will finally lay off about me being single was one of the reasons I’d listed in the PRO section of my pro-con list. The happiness she’d feel knowing Brett was my (fake) boyfriend would be enough to last her a lifetime. She’d give me one of her squeeze-the-life-out-of-you hugs and it could potentially be a nice moment. . . . “He’s very cute,” she continued. And then she said things like that and ruined it. She got into these obsessive moods that weirded me out. I mean, she was practically ready to plan our wedding after selling him some pastries. “I hadn’t noticed.” I was lying. My mom knew it. I knew it. Everyone on Earth knew it. I felt like taping a sign to my head that said “Yes I Am Aware Brett Is Cute and No I Do Not Like Him Like That” and calling it a day. “Becca.” Her voice was all serious now, and she was walking toward me. I kept my eyes on the counter. “You know I want you to be happy,” she said, placing her hand over mine. “I know, Mom.” And I did know. She told me all the time. “And that just because your father and I weren’t a match, it doesn’t mean you won’t find yours.” “Yes, Mom.” “And,” she continued, lifting my chin and forcing me to look her in the eyes, “I want you to find someone you love. Someone that’s deserving of you.” Urgh. It was so difficult for me to understand how my dad could have left my mother in moments like this. She was caring, kind. She was beautiful too. Like, really beautiful. How could someone not love her? My mother was the greatest person in the world. “You know divorces aren’t—” “Divorces aren’t genetic,” I finished. “I knoooow.” She smiled, satisfied. We cleaned in silence for a little. I couldn’t stop thinking about my dad. There were a million questions I wanted to ask about him. Normally they were strictly off-limits. From past experiences, my mom would either 1) cry or 2) become very quiet and retreat to her bedroom. But now she was smiling while she swept, and she kept giving me these hopeful glances. So I took a deep breath and said, “Hey, Mom? When was the last time you spoke to Dad?” I didn’t think she heard me. She kept sweeping, never breaking rhythm. I bit my tongue, figuring it was for the best. But then she said, “When the bakery opened.” I immediately stopped cleaning. “He came by the second or third day,” she continued. “He couldn’t believe I learned how to bake. You remember how I always messed up our birthday cakes? He was shocked. You should have seen his face.” She was smiling to herself now, lost in thought. “He bought some cannoli—you know how much he loved your grandmother’s recipe—and then he left. I haven’t heard from him since.” I didn’t know what to say. “The store’s clean. Let’s lock up, Bells.” I took the broom and the rag and placed them in the closet. We grabbed our jackets, then I followed my mom outside and watched as she locked the doors. Then we headed home. I didn’t ask any more questions. She didn’t give any more answers. There were cupcakes in the kitchen the next morning. Meaning my mom wasn’t upset about our conversation the night before. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d imagined it, her actually talking about my dad. All night I kept hearing the sound of the bell chiming as the bakery door opened and imagining my dad standing there and what it must have felt like for my mom. Did it hurt? Or was it nice to see him? Did he ask about me? What else did they talk about other than pastries? My head was spinning. The worst part was knowing I’d never have the answers. My mom even telling me she saw him was a miracle. A one-time miracle. I was still obsessing over it by the time I got to school. Which was why I didn’t notice the package at the bottom of my locker until it fell out and landed on my shoe. I picked it up quickly and looked around the hallway. No one was watching me. Inside was a navy-blue football jersey with WELLS stitched into the back in gold thread. There was a note that read Wear this tonight, girlfriend. I rolled my eyes. It was ridiculous that my first high school football game was all an act. But the jersey was really soft, and it smelled good, kind of like Brett (why did I know what Brett smelled like?), so I’d wear it. I called Cassie during lunch. Since tonight was the first game of the season, the football team was meeting with the coach during lunch to discuss the game plan. Which meant no Brett and a whole lot of privacy. I told Cassie about the jersey, and asked her to come to the game with me tonight. She said she wanted to, but had a closing shift at the bakery. I offered to ask my mom to find someone to cover it, but no luck. I was going alone. Maybe the jersey would be big enough for me to hide a book in. If I sat at the back of the bleachers, no one would notice. Right? Turns out I was right. I tried the jersey on when I got home, and the thing nearly reached my knees. It was five sizes too big, and I almost didn’t wear it. But then I remembered how I blew Brett off yesterday with the school rally. . . . Wearing it was the least I could do to pull my weight here. He didn’t respond when I texted that I was on my way. He was probably busy getting ready for the game. When I got to Eastwood High, the bleachers were completely full. I finally found a spot wedged between two people and sank down. I contemplated reading but there was too much noise to concentrate, so I focused on the crowd instead. The cheerleaders were dancing on the field until, finally, the Bears ran out from the side. Everyone stood up and started screaming. I did the same, remembering this was a part of the deal Brett and I made. Cheering girlfriend in the stands? Check. Wearing Brett’s jersey? Check. A shoo-in for Fake Girlfriend of the Year? Check. I watched the game and pretended to understand what was happening. I should have done research beforehand to at least learn the basics of football. I just stood when everyone else did, screamed when they screamed, and clapped when they clapped. I even made sure to yell extra loud when Brett had the ball—which was for most of the game, really. After about an hour, I was actually enjoying myself. Maybe this football thing wasn’t too bad. It was easy to lose myself in the excitement, and I was beginning to understand why so many people spent their Friday nights sitting out here with blue paint on their cheeks and gold ribbons in their hair. It made you feel like you were a part of something bigger than yourself. When Brett scored the winning touchdown, the crowd erupted like a volcano. I actually had to cover my ears to prevent permanent damage. I could see the smile on his face as his teammates lifted him above their heads, chanting his name and carrying him around like a trophy. It was kind of cool to be dating him, even if it was fake. I followed as the crowd trickled from the bleachers and over to the locker room doors, waiting for the players. The night was cool, with stars covering the entire sky like a blanket. I tugged Brett’s jersey around me a little tighter to get rid of the goose bumps running along my arms. I was bouncing on my heels, rubbing my hands together to stay warm, when the door finally opened and Brett walked out. Our eyes locked and I expected him to be smiling, not looking sad. His eyes were searching the crowd as he walked toward me. “You were great,” I said lamely when he was in front of me. It was like the words weren’t even registering in his brain. “Have you seen my parents?” he asked, frantically searching the crowd. He didn’t even look at the jersey I was wearing or comment on my cheering. “No.” I began looking around, as if I’d even recognize them. “My dad said he’d be here tonight. I haven’t seen him. Or my mom.” He was mumbling to himself at this point, eyes still scanning. “I’m sure they’re here somewhere, Brett. Text them?” “Right.” He nodded and pulled out his phone. A minute later his face fell. “What is it?” “She said my dad had to stay in New York longer. He won’t be home till Monday.” His fist clenched when he said this, and I didn’t miss the way he shoved his phone into his pocket like he was mad at it. I couldn’t understand why he was so angry. His dad missed one game. So what? My dad had missed half my life and I wasn’t snapping at people because of it. This didn’t seem like a good time to say that, though. “He’ll be at your next one,” I offered. “I guess. Do you need a ride home?” He looked at me then for the first time, his eyes going down to the jersey. “You wore it.” Smallest of smiles. “It looks good on you.” I pulled at the hem self-consciously. “Yeah. Thanks.” “For the ride or the compliment?” “Both?” Brett grabbed my hand then and led me through the crowd. We were making our way toward the parking lot; I could see his car parked in the corner. He didn’t make small talk this time, and I had a feeling he was still upset about his dad. When we arrived at his car and were sitting inside, I tried again. “About your dad,” I began, “he’s really never missed a game?” Brett began to drive, a little faster than normal. “Never.” “What about your mom? Do they come together?” “Yeah. She said she didn’t want to come alone tonight.” “So what would have happened if they came?” He glanced at me quickly, then back to the road. “What do you mean?” “Like . . . Would you have introduced me to them as your girlfriend or something?” I asked, trying to keep his mind off his dad’s absence. Brett laughed, reaching over to flick my knee. “Probably, yeah. I already told my dad about you, remember? He would have wanted to meet you.” For the record, he had not told me that. “You’ve really never had a girlfriend before?” “Never.” “That’s weird,” I whispered so he wouldn’t hear. We drove past two traffic lights before Brett spoke again. “I know what you’re trying to do, Becca. It’s not working.” I rolled down the window, letting in the air. “And what’s that?” “Trying to make me forget about the bakery yesterday. And how you stood me up during the rally.” I felt my face heat up just thinking about it. “For the second time, I didn’t stand you up! I was going to study before my mom called. And believe me, the interrogation I went through that night was punishment enough.” “Interrogation?” “My mom may be your new number one fan.” “Your mom doesn’t even know me,” he said. “Isn’t that how it works? Everyone knows bits and pieces about you and loves you anyway?” Now Brett gave me this funny look, his eyebrows drawn together. “What? You’re an enigma.” “A what?” “An enigma,” I repeated. “Do you even pay attention in English class? It means a puzzle, a mystery. Whatever.” He was smiling when we pulled into my apartment building. “I’m not a mystery,” he said, “people just make assumptions and no one bothers to find out the truth. That’s it.” With the moonlight slanting across Brett’s face, this entire conversation had taken a sad turn. Uncomfortable and never being very good with talking about deep stuff, I opened the door and began to get out of the car. Brett’s hand wrapped around mine, stopping me. “Your bag,” he said, reaching across the car and picking it up. “Why is this so heavy?” When his hand began to reach inside, I shrieked and tried to pull it away. Too late. Brett was holding my book. I coughed. Pretended to look confused. “Wow. How did that get in there?” “You brought a book to my football game,” he said, all serious and offended. I looked over my shoulder, pretending someone was calling me. “I did not.” I was telling so many lies lately I could barely keep track. Brett placed it back in my bag and handed it to me. At this point I was half in and half out of the car. My back was beginning to hurt. “Was being at the game that bad?” he asked. This time, I was honest. “Not at all. I kind of liked it.” “So no book next time?” He was giving me puppy eyes. I caved. “No book next time.” I waved goodbye and was halfway to the doors when Brett called my name. The window was rolled down, his head sticking out of the car like a dog. “What are you doing tomorrow?” he yelled. I had this irrational fear my mother would hear this conversation from eleven floors up and come barging outside like a shark smelling blood. I shushed him and quickly ran to the car. “Nothing. Study—” “Studying for calculus. I know. What else?” I blew out a breath, thinking. “That’s it.” Pause. “I have a very intense social life.” Brett laughed, and it was like whatever heaviness weighing him down earlier was entirely gone. “Do you want to hang out tomorrow? There’s something I want to show you.” I felt my face scrunch up. “Is this, like, a date? For show or something?” I didn’t want this relationship to start taking up my weekends too. A five-day school commitment was enough. Plus my Friday nights! He shook his head. “Not this time. Just two friends, together. You said I was a mystery. Right?” I nodded. “Then let me show you I’m not. It doesn’t make much sense if my own girlfriend doesn’t know anything about me.” He made a good point. “I know you like football.” “I like other things too.” “Like what?” “Come with me tomorrow and find out,” he said, grinning. The guy was good. I’ll give him that. “Pick me up at two,” I said. Then I ran inside before my mom could look out the window and spot us together. Brett I WAS TEN MINUTES LATE to Becca’s apartment. I was still obsessing over my dad and spent almost an hour trying to call him. Where was he? Even my mother said she hadn’t heard from him since yesterday. What was he doing that was so important he couldn’t text either of us back? I told myself he was busy, probably in another meeting—or maybe he got an early flight to come home tonight. It would justify why he wouldn’t call, and it was easier to think of than him simply forgetting. But my dad didn’t forget. So there had to be an explanation for all of this. I ended up going to the gym in the morning with Jeff just to get my mind off it. He wasn’t any help. When I told him about my dad, he blew up, said it wasn’t a good idea to idolize people because they can never live up to your expectations. But this wasn’t a celebrity or some random person in a magazine. This was my dad, and there had to be a reason why he didn’t show up. I only hoped everything was okay. Either way, I was pretty sure Jeff was pissed at me. Which wasn’t unusual. He had a rough time at home, watching his sister while his parents worked around the clock, so sometimes his frustration boiled up and I happened to be in the line of fire. I wasn’t mad. He’d apologize on Monday and we’d be cool again, back to talking about football. Now I was waiting in my car for Becca to come outside, preferably with something for me to eat from her mom’s bakery. When she finally walked out a minute later, a brown paper bag in hand, I wasn’t disappointed. She was smiling when she opened the door, and I realized that this—the two of us hanging out—could be a new kind of normal. “Afternoon,” she said, waving the bag in front of me. “I brought you a surprise.” I was already feeling better. “Cupcakes?” I asked, sniffing. “No. It’s better than that.” I reached for the bag and she pulled it away, stuffing it into the side of the door before I could reach it. “It’s for later,” she explained. “If I like what we do today, you can eat it.” “And if you don’t like it?” She smiled. Maybe the biggest one yet. “Then you can watch me eat it.” I started driving through town with purpose then. The good thing about living in Crestmont, a town with under ten thousand people, was that it’s so small you could drive through the entire thing in less than ten minutes. We had one high school, one church, one gym, one theater—pretty much one of everything. There were a few run-down hotels and diners lining the interstate for travelers stopping for the night. And it was always one night. People passed through Crestmont like a revolving door. No one wanted to stay. Unless you were born here and had no other choice. I planned on leaving after high school. Getting a football scholarship in another city with hundreds of thousands of people, where there were more streets than you could count on one hand. Coach said scouts would start coming to our football games now, to scope out the talent. And I wanted the talent to be me. I needed a one-way ticket out of here. More important, I wanted my dad to be at my games and witness it—witness me living out his dream like he intended. Like she could sense my thoughts, Becca said, “Have you heard from your dad yet?” I liked the way she asked that. There was no judgment. Unlike Jeff. “Not yet,” I said, turning off Main Street and onto a side road. The ground was gravel and we were bumping along. Becca opened her window and the humidity crept in, making my T-shirt stick to my skin. She didn’t say anything else about the situation, which was for the best. I was over thinking about it. I made a sharp left and pulled into a parking lot. There was a pharmacy, a convenience store, a post office, and— “The old arcade?” Becca asked, leaning forward to look out the windshield. The sun was right above the building and we were both squinting. “The old arcade,” I said. A few of the neon letters had burned out, so the sign read ARC. From the outside, it looked run-down. There was no open sign or cars in the parking lot. Someone driving through town would think this place was a dive, that it had closed a decade ago. But they’d be wrong. And that was the cool thing about Crestmont. That it had all this secret charm that was known only to the people who grew up here. Like if you scraped off enough of the dirt, there’d be a shiny diamond waiting underneath. “I haven’t been here since I was a kid,” Becca was saying to herself while we walked to the door. The town was so quiet today—there was no wind, no cars driving by. All I could hear was the crunch of gravel beneath our feet and the rustle of the paper bag Becca had gripped between her fingers. I held the door open, we stepped inside, and the air-conditioning blasted us. It was one of the greatest feelings. We both stood there for a second, cooling down. Then I grabbed Becca’s hand and pulled her through the second set of automatic doors and into the arcade. I didn’t grab her hand for show either. There was no one here to lie to. I was starting to do it out of habit. The arcade was exactly like I remembered it. Dimly lit, with rows and rows of games. There was the counter to our left, with a wall of prizes to trade tickets for. There were stuffed animals and plastic jewelry on display, and the air smelled like grease, popcorn, and a little like pot. I heard Becca gasp. Her eyes were wide open. “I thought this place closed down years ago,” she said, scanning the room. “I had my birthday party here when I was seven. I hit the jackpot on that Wheel of Fortune game.” Samson stood up from behind the counter then, eyes half-closed and red. Well, that explained the smell. “Wells?” he called, staring at the two of us. “Hey, Sam.” I walked to the counter and shook his hand. He looked older than he had last time I was here, more gray hair and wrinkles around his eyes. He was diagnosed with cancer a few years back and the arcade had closed while he was undergoing treatment. It reopened last summer when he was cancer free. I’d come in from time to time to check on it while he was in the hospital, make sure no kids were breaking in and playing without paying. I stopped coming by since the reopening. Until today. “Feels like I ’aven’t seen ya in years,” he said, thick accent replacing all the h’s. Then his attention shifted over to Becca. “And ’o’s this?” She held out her hand. “Becca. It’s nice to see you again. I had no idea this place was still open.” Samson nodded, pulling out two bags of tokens from under the counter and handing one to each of us. “It would ’ave closed if it weren’t for this man right ’ere,” he said, smiling at me. “You two ’ave the entire place to ya’selves. Enjoy.” I paid for the tokens, thanked him, and followed Becca. “What did he mean that this place would have closed without you?” Becca whispered when we were out of earshot. I briefly explained Samson’s illness, but didn’t really want to get into how I watched the place. Becca gave me this confused look, like she was trying to decipher a code or something, then walked right up to the racing game. There were two seats, red and blue, with matching steering wheels. She was eyeing the blue one. “Let’s play,” I said, taking a seat on the red one. She sat down on the blue, slowly. “Something wrong?” “I don’t know how to drive.” I immediately started to laugh until I was doubled over, resting my head on the steering wheel. When I saw that she was being completely serious, glaring at me, I cleared my throat and straightened up. “Oh. You’re being serious?” She nodded. “This isn’t like real driving, Becca. You’ll be fine. Look.” I grabbed her hands and placed them at ten and two on the wheel. “Spin it like this to turn right, then left. Yeah, just like that. The brake is the big one. Got it?” She was concentrating so seriously. It was kind of cute. “Brake is the big one,” she repeated. “Got it. Put some tokens in. And Brett?” I dropped in two tokens and hit the start button. “Yeah?” “Don’t let me win,” she said, pointing a finger at my chest. “I mean it. Don’t be all chivalrous. It’s rude.” I tried to make sense of that. “You’re saying being respectful is rude?” She was staring at the screen, hands on the wheel. “In this situation, yes.” “Got it, ma’am.” The game started. Becca was horrible. She spent half of the first lap driving backward. When she managed to turn the car around, she was driving on the grass and running into buildings. She may have hit a person or two. Definitely a few mailboxes. It was physically painful for me to win each lap and not at least try to help her out but, like she said, chivalry is dead when it comes to gaming. So I finished that third lap with a smile on my face. I threw my fist in the air too. Just to show her how respectful and aware I was of her lack of talent. “Jeez. You can tone it down a little,” she grumbled, staring at the screen showing the match replay. It was footage of her hitting a tree. We moved on to the next game. It was a huge wheel divided into different sections, each with a prize amount. The jackpot was one thousand tickets and the smallest was five. I spun it first—I was shocked the wheel didn’t break because of how old it looked—and landed on one hundred. Becca went next. The arrow landed on five hundred. She pulled the tickets out happily, eyeing me the entire time with this smirk on her face, like she was making up for sucking at the racing game. I stuffed our tickets into my pocket and we moved on to the next game. This time, it was Skee-Ball. It was a large table with a ramp and holes in the upper half. Each had a different ticket amount. The point was to grab a ball, roll it across the table, and have it bounce into one of the different holes. The smaller the hole, the greater the prize. “Let’s make this interesting,” I said, handing Becca the first ball. “If you get a ball in, you get to ask the other person a question. You said you wanted to get to know me better, right? Here’s your chance.” “So this is like the Skee-Ball version of twenty questions?” “Something like that, yeah.” Becca nodded, squaring her shoulders and cracking her neck. “Let’s do this.” She rolled the first ball and into the hole it went. The smallest one too, right in the middle. I whistled, watching her grin spread. “Impressive. Ask away.” She sat on the edge of the ramp, glancing up at me. “What’s your connection with this place? You seem really close with Samson,” she said, nodding toward the counter. “I worked here when I was fifteen, just for the summer,” I explained. “But I thought your family . . .” Was rich, was what she meant but didn’t say. She looked uncomfortable, chewing on her lip. I shrugged, gesturing for her to stand so I could take my turn. “My family is well off, sure. But this was my favorite place as a kid. It was the only real time my dad and I spent together that didn’t involve a football. So when I saw that Sam needed the help, I volunteered. He couldn’t pay me for most weeks so I just played the games for free and ate loads of popcorn. It was pretty sweet.” I rolled the ball, missed, and handed the next one to Becca. She was giving me that confused, who-are-you face again. “Your turn.” She blinked, said, “Right,” and took the ball. When she rolled it, she missed. My ball landed in the five-hundred-point hole next. “Favorite color?” I asked. She thought about it for a second. “All of them. Undecided.” She rolled and scored. “Favorite food?” “Burgers,” I said. “And fries.” I rolled. Missed. Becca rolled. Scored. “How old were you when you had your first kiss?” she asked. “Thirteen. It was during recess and we both had braces.” I rolled again and scored this time. “Are you and your mom close?” She smiled, bending to grab another ball. “Yeah. She’s my best friend.” Becca rolled and missed, passing me the next ball. I scored. “What were you thinking before when I said I used to work here?” I asked. “You had this funny look on your face.” Becca grabbed a ball and tossed it between two hands, her eyes following it. “Nothing. Just that, I don’t know, you’re different than I thought you’d be.” “How so?” “Like, you’re easy to talk to,” she began, “and attractive people are never easy to talk to. That’s a scientific fact.” “You think I’m—” “And you’re really nice,” she continued, ignoring me. “Working here and checking in on the place when Samson was sick. I mean, I kind of knew that already. Everyone at Eastwood always goes on about how nice you are and stuff. But it’s different, to see it firsthand. Am I rambling? I feel like I’m rambling.” I was smiling by the time she finished talking. “Not rambling,” I lied. “Good.” She said it like she knew I was lying and picked up the next ball. She scored again. One hundred points. “Do you regret this?” she asked. “Our fake relationship.” I didn’t even have to think about it. “No,” I said. “Not at all.” It was starting to feel normal, being around Becca. Was it rude for me to be surprised by how much I was enjoying her company? Because I was enjoying it. I felt comfortable around her in this way I never had before. It was like we had skipped the beginning awkward phase when you first meet someone and aren’t entirely sure if you can act like yourself around them. I guess jumping straight into dating could do that to two people. With Becca, I felt like I could be myself. There was this kindness about her and this intelligence too, like she understood more than she let on. It was nice. “Me either.” She said it shyly. It reminded me of how she looked that day in the hall after I kissed her. I picked up the last ball and missed. It sucked too, because I had the perfect question. I’d save it for later. It took us an hour to go through all our tokens. When we had, I bought more. We stayed in the arcade until we couldn’t hold any more tickets in our pockets or hands. I started looping mine through my belt and they trailed behind when I walked. Becca found this hilarious, picking off a few when she thought I wasn’t looking and adding them to her own stash. When we were done, we combined our tickets for a total of two thousand and traded them in for three prizes: a red plastic ring with a rose on it, a pack of sour gummy worms, and a stuffed blue whale. Becca took the ring, we shared the worms, and the whale was undecided. We were sitting outside on the parking lot’s curb, knee to knee, under the sun. It was cooler now, and the leaves on the trees were blowing in the breeze. Becca’s hair was whipping around her face, constantly going into my eyes. After I ate the last gummy worm, she hauled out the brown paper bag—where had she kept it this entire time?—and placed it on my knee. “What’s the verdict?” I asked, eyeing the bag. “Did you have fun today? Am I allowed to finally eat whatever that is?” She laughed, pulled her knees to her chest, and said, “You can eat them.” I grabbed the bag, stood up, did a little victory dance, then sat back down and ripped the bag open. There were four little balls inside, all covered in white sugar. They were the same ones I had bought for my mom and, holy shit, they smelled incredible. I reached in and grabbed one. By some miracle, it was still warm. How was that possible? “My mom calls them jelly bells,” she explained, grabbing one for herself. “It’s fried dough stuffed with strawberry jelly and covered in sugar. It was the first recipe she really perfected when she started baking. They were originally called jelly balls but, since they’re my favorite and my mom calls me Bells, she renamed them.” I was listening, I really was, but I was also starving and these things smelled like literal heaven and I really thought I’d drop dead if I didn’t eat one in the next second. When Becca took a bite, I shoved the whole thing in my mouth. I may have moaned because this was definitely one of the best things I’d ever eaten. “Remember when you asked what my favorite food was?” I asked, a cloud of white powder spewing from my mouth. Becca nodded. There was sugar all over her mouth. “I change my answer to these.” We sat there while the sun began to set, eating the rest. When we were both covered in powder, we dusted ourselves off and I drove Becca home. She was talking about the games, replaying which were her favorite and why. She kept toying with the rose ring on her finger. The blue whale was sitting on the dashboard. When I pulled into her apartment building, she sat there for a minute in silence, staring at the sky. I wanted to ask what she was thinking, but I kept quiet. After a moment, she turned to me and said, “You’re lucky, Brett, to have a family like yours. Not because of the money. Just having two parents that are there for you and are these role models of what love should look like. And I don’t want to overstep, but I don’t think you should be upset at your dad for missing your football game. It was just one game. Try to think of the hundreds of games he’s been to, all right? All those times he put in the effort to support you—that’s what matters, not the one time he failed.” Then she got out of the car, waved goodbye, and left. I sat there for a while thinking about how I had lucked out on choosing a pretty great fake girlfriend. Becca MY MOM WAS SITTING AT the kitchen table when I walked inside. The oven was on, she had an apron tied around her neck, and our apartment smelled like vanilla—the three signs that she was beginning a new recipe. “How was your day?” she asked, glancing over her shoulder and smiling at me. “Good.” I grabbed a water bottle from the fridge and leaned against the counter. “What did you and Cassandra do?” I felt a little twinge of guilt for telling my mom I was spending the day at Cassie’s house, helping her fill out college applications. Some lies were for the greater good, though. Like escaping another Brett fiasco. “Nothing. Just college stuff,” I answered, looking anywhere but her eyes. My mom (all moms?) had this talent of knowing exactly when I was lying. It’s like she could see it on my face or something. The trick was to say as little as possible and make a hasty exit. I was nearly out of the kitchen, almost to safety, when she called my name. “I was talking to Cara on the phone before you walked in!” I froze, slowly turned around, and saw That Look on her face. Nothing good could come out of her talking to Cassie’s mom. “She invited us over for dinner tonight. I told her that was so funny, because you were already at her house. And you know what she said?” I shook my head. Braced for impact. “Cara said,” she continued, “that you weren’t there.” I choked out a laugh. “That is very funny, Mom. You know how bad her eyesight is. Come to think of it, I don’t think she was wearing her glasses at all today. And Cassie and I spent the entire day in her bedroom, so it’s possible she didn’t even see—” “Becca.” I unraveled like a spool of string. “Fine! I wasn’t with Cassie.” I sank down in the chair across from her, defeated, and let the truth spill out. “I was with Brett,” I mumbled under my breath. I didn’t know it was physically possible for my mother’s face to go from upset to unbelievably happy in under one second. Now she was beaming. She was even sitting up straighter, leaning across the table. “The boy from the bakery?” She whispered it like Brett was in the other room eavesdropping. “Yes.” “What did you two do?” She said it calmly. Casually. I appreciated that she was at least trying to restrain herself. I told her about the arcade (she was equally surprised it was still open), and about the jelly bells, which, yes, Mom, Brett loved. Duh. And no, Mom, I do not like him like that. We are friends. At that point I could see her about to bubble over—she was bouncing in her seat—so I needed to leave the room ASAP. “Can we postpone the interrogation till tomorrow? I need to study for my calculus test.” The timer on the stove went off and she slipped on a pair of oven mitts. And, oh my god, it smelled amazing. I almost decided to continue the interrogation right then just to eat whatever was creating that heavenly smell. “Speaking of tomorrow,” my mom said, placing a toothpick into a muffin and nodding when it came out dry, “I need you to pick up a shift in the morning. Don’t give me that face, Becca. It’s just an hour or two to help open the store, then you can come home and study.” “Mooooooom,” I groaned. “I’ll make you fresh jelly bells for school on Monday morning. Feel free to share them with whoever you choose,” she added, winking. No doubt a not-so-subtle reference to Brett. I caved anyway. It was the power of the jelly bells. “Fine. But two hours and then I’m out of there. Promise?” “Promise.” I retreated to my room, snuck back into the kitchen ten minutes later and stole a muffin, which, honestly, changed my life, then actually began studying like I should have done two days ago. Having a fake boyfriend may have been a little exciting, but I wasn’t about to stop being a straight-A student, especially with college applications coming up. I still had no idea what I even wanted to do. The only thing I really liked was reading. Maybe I’d study English literature. Or creative writing. Half the time I told myself I’d take a year off like Cassie, stay home and help my mom out with the bakery, and then figure out this whole college thing later. If I didn’t score a scholarship to help my mom with tuition, I wasn’t sure I’d even be able to go to college at all. But as long as I was out of high school, that was what mattered. It wasn’t even like I really hated high school or anything. I mean, I disliked it the average teenage amount, but it just felt like Crestmont was this little part of the world and there was so much more out there to be seen. And I wanted to explore more than just the blue lockers of Eastwood High. When I was in my pajamas, lying in bed with the lights off, my phone rang. I glanced at the screen, lowered the brightness after it burned my eyes, and saw a text from Brett. It was a selfie of him lying in bed with his eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Another text came right after. Dreaming of jelly bells, it read. I smiled, placed the rose ring on my nightstand, and went to sleep. My mom and I had a routine for opening up the bakery. She handled the kitchen—warming up the ovens, making the cupcake batter, unfreezing the cannoli shells—while I set up the rest of the place. I unstacked the chairs, wiped down the tables and counters, did another quick sweep of the floors, made sure the register had change, and, when it was eight o’clock, flipped over the open sign and unlocked the door. This morning there were two women waiting outside right on the hour. They each had an order waiting for pickup. I called out to let Mom know. Sunday was the busiest day at the bakery. Mom said it was because of Sunday dinners and how families all got together, had a huge meal, and ordered pastries for dessert. I was kind of jealous that people did that. Both my parents were only children, so I had no cousins, no aunts or uncles—nothing. My mom’s parents both died when I was a kid. I could remember attending each of their funerals and my parents not letting me see the bodies. I was too young, was what they said. My dad’s parents were still alive, but they retired and moved down to Florida years ago. Not that it matters. I doubt they’d want to see me either. My mom came out with the women’s orders and they were on their way. She was also holding a stack of pink papers in her hand. I took a closer look when she placed them on the counter, in front of the cash register. They were flyers for the bakery. Promotional flyers. “Mom,” I said slowly, lifting one of them up. “What’s this for?” “Business has been a little quiet lately, Bells. Try to hand those out to customers, will you? Get the word out around town.” Under the Hart’s Cupcakes logo, in small black text, it said, “Try a Free Cannoli with Any Purchase.” “We’re handing out free stuff now?” My mom wasn’t listening. She was bustling around, wiping nonexistent crumbs off the counter. “Mom.” I grabbed her hand, looked her in the eye. “What is it with these flyers? Is business okay? Is there something you’re not telling me?” “Becca,” she said, reaching out and adjusting my apron. She was smiling that don’t-worry-about-it, everything-is-going-to-be-okay smile. “I’m simply trying out a new strategy to bring in business. That’s it, hon. Don’t worry yourself. We’re fine. Will you try to hand a few of them out? Place them in the bags with the customers’ orders.” I let